You’ve heard the old adage, you know the one, about how a guy can’t be considered a top fighter until he’s in the UFC. Sure, it applies most of the time, but other times, you just get the feeling that a guy is made for this. That it’s only a matter of time before everyone believes the hype.
One of these men is Cathal Pendred. He’s the Cage Warriors welterweight champion, he’s the top dog in SBG Ireland alongside fellow Dubliner Conor McGregor, and he’s ready now more so than ever to make the breakthrough into the UFC’s deep waters.
Cathal wasn’t born in Dublin however. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the very town where his teammate McGregor fights this weekend.
“I was born in ’87, and lived there [in Boston] until I was five,” Cathal said. “And then I came home here [to Dublin] and grew up in Drumcondra.”
Early memories of his transition from Boston to Dublin were understandably accent-related.
“A lot of memories from back then,” he pondered. “I remember being pretty upset when my mom decided to go back to Ireland. I know I was only five but my life was in Boston. I had a bit of a funky accent when I got back [to Dublin] too.”
As per the norm as a kid, Cathal tried his hand at most sports he could find.
“When I was a kid I did absolutely everything,” revealed an epically-bearded Pendred. “Never really stuck at anything. I played soccer, Gaelic football, I did athletics. I never fully committed to anything though, never excelled. That was until secondary school [high school], when I took up rugby and wanted to be good at it so I gave everything to it … I played it [rugby] for six years. I didn’t really play much in the first year, just going through the motions. But the next five years I gave it everything, and played one more year after leaving school. Then I gave it up.”
Cathal went to Belvedere College in Dublin, one which has great rugby traditions and instilled in him a work ethic that would serve him well later in MMA. It was while he was still in school that he first discovered mixed martial arts.
“It used to be shown on a TV channel called Bravo. I had an interest in martial arts from doing taekwondo and judo and from watching movies,” Cathal explained. “So when I saw UFC on TV, I first thought it was just two guys thrown in there with no technique just to swing and take the head off each other.”
He went on to explain the importance of educating one’s self when it comes to this sport, something he stressed on national television in Ireland with Conor McGregor on The Late Late Show.
“The more I watched it and listened to the commentators like Joe Rogan talking about what was going on I realized ‘this was really technical stuff’,” he admitted. “From then on I was hooked on it.”
The problem for someone so taken with the sport at this time in Ireland however, was that MMA gyms were few and far between. So much so that Cathal ended up getting his first taste of the sport when he returned to the States with some friends.
“This was when I was still in school and still playing rugby so I couldn’t train MMA, because it was kind of a new thing too so I thought this wouldn’t be around Ireland yet, and that stage it wasn’t really. But when I left school and went over to America and came across MMA I had to try it.”
This first taste was in a gym in San Diego, the place that arguably that lit the fire in Cathal as regards wanting to make a go of this MMA thing.
“I first started in San Diego, in a gym I think called City Boxing,” he went on. “Diego Sanchez had trained there before. I didn’t really have the money; I was living on the bread line, just living in San Diego with a few friends. But when I came home, just from the little training I did, I knew, I had never been more interested in any sport I’d ever done in my life.”
The journey began in earnest then as Cathal discovered a gym not too far from where he lived in Drumcondra.
“I went down and started training there and within my first few months I had my first semi-pro fight. I had a few more semi-pro fights and knew it was for me and decided then I wanted to turn pro. But the gym I was in was a bit small, amateur level so I knew I had to move if I was to turn pro. So I looked into it and looked at all the gyms and decided the man to go to was John Kavanagh and the gym to go to was SBG (Straight Blast Gym Ireland). And that was probably the best decision I ever made.”
Cathal’s first professional fight came in 2009 in the north of Ireland in a place called Strabane in County Tyrone. It was his first fight with John Kavanagh, and he knew even in the warm up that this man meant business.
“I remember my first pro fight, my first under John,” Cathal reminisced. “I remember the warm up he had me doing; it was about an hour long and I was knackered [tired] and thought ‘I’m not gonna be able to fight now’. It was perfect thought and I went in there and finished the guy in like thirty seconds. I loved it.”
One thing that comes across when you meet and talk with Cathal Pendred is a supreme confidence and certainty that he’s going to make it to the very top. It is a rare thing. Sometimes an athlete will proclaim he is the best but you don’t believe they truly believe it themselves. This is not the case with Pendred. He knows he’s ready for his ascent to the summit of mixed martial arts.
“Before even my first pro fight I knew I wanted to be a UFC champion,” he declared. “I’m doing this because I want to be a champion. I wasn’t just training for the sake of it. I would tell people I wanted to be a UFC champion, and this was when the people didn’t even know what it was and people laughed at me. People laughed at me when I said I wanted to turn pro, even my own friends. Even my family were like ‘what the?’. But I was just convinced from my experience with rugby that if you put everything into it and focus on something you can achieve great things with it and I found something that I’d loved more than any sport I’d ever come across. I wanted to learn as much as I could from it.”
His enthusiasm is contagious. It’s a self belief that motivates you just by talking to him. Cathal is also a self-proclaimed “perfectionist”, and someone who learns from every win or loss. Asked if he’d ever come out of a fight he’d won convincingly and still not been happy he said:
“Yeah 100%. I’m a perfectionist and I’m always trying to get the best out of myself and there’s been a good few fights where I was pissed off that I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do. But that’s the game, sometimes you have it set in your head what you wanna do but the guy [the opponent] is experienced and knows how to disrupt what you’re doing.”
One of these fights was actually his five round decision win over Gael Grimaud back in March at Cage Warriors 52, where he won the CWFC welterweight title. His next fight however was a different story, the biggest win of his career against a UFC veteran.
“My Che Mills fight went down to a tee what we’d strategized,” he mused. “The only thing that pissed me off was I’d planned I’d get the finish in the second round, and I would have done if we’d had ten more seconds … But he was done after that round. He didn’t want to be in there and was even fighting with his corner about coming back out [for the final round].”
Winning a championship in a major organization brings with it acclaim and recognition from not only your peers, but the public at large, and Cathal noticed a change in perspective towards MMA in Ireland from then on in.
“I don’t know if it was winning the belt but I would say in the last six months MMA has taken off big time [in Ireland]. I always knew it was gonna happen but in conjunction with Conor [McGregor] getting signed by the UFC it all kinda spiralled,” he went on to contextualize what a difference a few months make. “Before in 2012 you would rarely see anything in newspapers, unless it was negative about ‘cage fighting’ (a term Cathal resents), and now there’s stuff all the time.”
“People didn’t know who I was in 2012 and now I get recognized on the street and it’s cool,” he continued. “My life hasn’t changed anywhere near as drastically as Conor’s. The thing is to just stay grounded and Conor’s done great with it. Me and him were at the same level and my popularity rose but his sky-rocketed. Stick to your roots and your gym and keep the same friends.”
Conor has iterated previously that he has no plans to ever leave John Kavanagh and SBG, and Cathal is no different. There is a fierce loyalty here. A bond forged in blood, sweat and tears.
“My MMA career will finish with John as my coach,” he proclaimed. “I one hundred per cent want to travel now and again. I think that’s one of the great things about martial arts that you can go to different gyms to train and pick up different thing.”
“That’s one of the best things about John’s coaching is he’s very open-minded in what he does … He wants to learn everything just like the rest of us so he can teach it. We just want all different information from everywhere.”
Cathal used an interesting analogy to explain Kavanagh’s renowned coaching style, citing how different every SBG fighter is from the next.
“We go to SBG and we’re like a blank canvas, and John just throws out all these different paints and everyone just uses it whatever way you want it. When you look at us we’re all completely different styles. That’s why it’s one of the best places for sparring.”
Even after his title win there was a clamour by Irish fans for Cathal to be signed up to the UFC alongside Conor McGregor. So much so that it got to the point where Cathal was told that he was in the door by beating Che Mills.
“Yeah I was told that if I took Che Mills out I was in [the UFC],” he then went on to reveal why exactly this fell through. “Basically I was told there were too many in my weight class. If you look at the [UFC’s] Wikipedia page you get a breakdown of the UFC roster … in my weight there’s like eighty guys. So because welterweight is nearly double some of the divisions they’re really trying to cut down at the moment … and they said I’m the next one in.”
This competition might scare off certain fighters, but not Pendred. He loves the idea that his weight is the most stacked in the sport.
“I look at that class and I honestly think I would talk in there and beat seventy of them,” he confidently professed. “And the top ten guys I could beat in the next year. I feel I could beat the champion in two years. I just need to get my foot in the door and start running through these guys. They wanna cut these guys then I’m happy to do that. I’ll cut all the dead weight.”
A clearly frustrated Pendred has the air of someone who is just tired of waiting anymore. He wants in, and he believes he deserves to be there more than a lot of the guys there already.
“There’s guys there that don’t deserve to be in there. Guys with less than ten fights and they’re brutal and I’d kick their asses and take sixty grand from them,” he boldly stated. “I think my last three or four fights have been against guys that are better than half the guys that are in there already. I have been fighting UFC caliber fighters.”
With no sign of a UFC deal in his immediate future, Cathal turned his sights to Paul Daley as someone he could beat, and a victory the UFC could not ignore. Unfortunately the fight never materialized and as we know now, Daley recently signed an exclusive deal with BAMMA.
But what about the story of Ray Sefo’s World Series of Fighting offering him a deal? And did he turn it down or was he simply blocked from accepting it?
“I wasn’t allowed to accept it and probably could have fought more for it,” he said. “But Cage Warriors were making it difficult for me to accept it. I honestly didn’t think it would be a problem because the money I’m on in Cage Warriors is a very small amount, I won’t even say how small. I got offered this contract [WSOF] and it was worth a LOT of money. Money where I wouldn’t have to worry about making a living and I thought it wouldn’t be an issue; Cage Warriors would be delighted to see me off. And we went to see them and they basically said ‘no’ for various reasons. I could have fought but thought I’d just see out my contract with them and not bother getting into all these legal issues.”
For now, rumours have persisted that Cathal may be called up to make an appearance on the UFC’s upcoming Manchester card in October and he believes that more than anyone else, his coach John Kavanagh deserves to have his fighters on the same card.
“I haven’t heard anything but I’m keeping an eye to see whether people are getting cut and I could get in but I’ve heard nothing really,” he admitted. “[It’s an] ideal situation for me as it’s only an hour flight away and I think Conor would be on the card too. I think John more than anyone deserves it for what he’s done for the UFC. Bringing in two of the biggest prospects currently in the UFC in Conor and Gunni [Gunnar Nelson] both of whom are John’s guys. I know they don’t owe me anything but they might owe John to get another one of his guys on the card.”
In the immediate pipeline however, Cathal has revealed that he will be flying over to Indianapolis to try out for the 19th season of The Ultimate Fighter, hoping to contest as a middleweight. It’s an out of the blue move but at the same time not surprising for a man who is tired of waiting and wants to take his destiny into his own hands now.