It's of little surprise that Ireland has taken to Mixed Martial Arts so quickly. The ideals of fighting are ingrained in our nation's identity, a sentiment which manifests itself so readily into a litany of Irish sportspeople. For decades now, whether on the grass of Croke Park or Lansdowne Road, inside a ring at the National Stadium or on the mats of a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym, Irish athletes have punched above their weight on an international level across various sporting disciplines. Be it Willie John McBride and his record-breaking five Lions tours, Barry McGuigan becoming world featherweight champion or Roy Keane dominating European football our top sports stars have always been notable in their single-mindedness and their never-ending obsession with attaining sporting perfection.
It will come as little surprise, then, to learn that Ireland is at the absolute forefront of the European Mixed Martial Arts movement. Since debuting in the UFC in April of 2013, Dublin's Conor McGregor has become one of the most talked-about athletes in what is fast becoming a global sport and is looking every inch a future world champion. McGregor, though, isn't the only one. While he was the first high profile Irish success story in the UFC door, many an Irish fighter have been firmly rapping their knuckles on the door of world's most famous fighting promotion for some time now and perhaps none more so than Cathal Pendred.
The 26-year-old Pendred is the welterweight champion of Cage Warriors, the largest MMA promotion in Europe. He owns dominant wins over UFC veterans David Bielkheden and, most recently, Che Mills and he is frequently cited as being among the top prospects currently not signed to the UFC. That could all be about to change, though. With the UFC being tipped to put on a huge show in Dublin's The O2 in September we could be just months away from the biggest night in Irish MMA history and the big coming out party for several major new Irish sports stars.
Ahead of what will likely be the biggest year to date in his fighting career, Cathal Pendred spoke to John Balfe about his career and future plans for fighting in this exclusive interview.
Words: John Balfe
John Balfe: What was your first exposure into MMA and when did you begin to think, 'hang on, I might be able to do this'?
Cathal Pendred: I first started to watch it when I was about 16. I thought what most people thought, that it was just two tough f*ckers going into a cage and having a go at each other. The more I watched it the more I realised it was actually martial arts and these guys are highly skilled and highly trained, they're not just pulled in off the street.
The Ultimate Fighter started then in 2005 and that showed me more of the training and diet and weight-cutting aspect and that's when I really got captured into it.
You came from a rugby background. How far did you go in that sport?
I went up to Senior Cup level and then the year after I left school I moved over to America for about six months and that's when I first took up MMA. I came back the next year and I played a bit of Under-20's for Clontarf. I had started training in MMA and it came to a point where I was doing both and had to choose one. I was drawn more to the MMA.
I interviewed UFC welterweight John Hathaway a few months ago. He played semi-pro rugby until deciding to focus purely on MMA and when I was chatting to him I was curious to learn if there are any elements of rugby that you can take with you to MMA. What are your thoughts?
My grappling, and wrestling in particular, is at a very high level for a European guy. I've trained with guys who are very high level in the States and I'm able to hang with them, no problem at all. I definitely attribute me picking up wrestling very well due to the fact that I played rugby and I think John (Hathaway) is the same. I've trained with him a good bit and he's a very similar level to me and I think that comes from the tackle, which is quite like wrestling, to the scrum, the rucks and mauls - it's all the same physiology that's involved in wrestling.
I suppose you'd learn about distribution of weight and body movement...?
Exactly. It's not like in rugby you're particularly being taught about those things but you do pick them up and realise that, 'if I push someone this way they're going to fall over'. When you go to train MMA and to train wrestling it's something that's in-built in you - you don't realise you've actually learnt these things but you know it anyway.
You're very well known for your ground game, and particularly your top control, but one of the criticisms put forth towards European MMA is that we're well behind the United States when it comes to wrestling because we don't teach it at a scholastic level. How pronounced is that disadvantage and are we getting better at it?
I think when MMA first started coming to the forefront in Europe and European guys first started competing with Americans there was a slight gap there. That was highlighted at a very early stage but if you look at the top European guys who are competing at the highest level in the UFC and that gap just isn't there. Obviously someone who is coming up against a Johny Hendricks or a Josh Koscheck, who is a national collegiate champion, they're not going to have the same level of grappling but that's not the case with 90% of the guys in the UFC.
The only worry I would have is that some guys, perhaps at a smaller level, would take this perceived disadvantage into their head and having an inferiority complex when it comes to fighting American guys that doesn't really need to be there.
I think that's definitely the case. One of the reasons I started travelling to America was because we constantly hear that the wrestling standard isn't as high here. I was known for having a good wrestling standard here but I was thinking in my head that this was only because the wrestling standard isn't great here and that I was going to get crushed. When I got over I realised that this wasn't the case, so travelling to America to train was very beneficial mentally for just that reason. You don't want to be going into fights thinking, 'if he tries to wrestle me now I'm screwed'.
I understand you've got a saying which you live by: 'Obtaining inner peace through fighting'. A lot of people who don't understand the sport might think that this is a bit of a contradictory statement, but what do you take from it?
You know when you're growing up and going through school but you're not quite sure what you want to be when you're older and you don't know what direction you're going in life? When I found MMA I instantly knew that I'd found my passion, something I absolutely love, and a direction to go. Just realising that felt like an inner peace, knowing where your life is going. Having that sense of direction and having something that I'm so passionate about just gave me that sort of inner peace. I came up with that one and thought it was kind of funny because it does sound contradictory, especially to someone who doesn't really know the sport.
Among Conor McGregor's many interesting quotes over the past twelve months or so is his mantra of "stay ready so you don't have to get ready". Is that a sentiment you subscribe to also?
Definitely. In our gym it's not thought of to just train hard for a fight, we're always training to better ourselves. That's the mentality that's within SBG and it stems from John Kavanagh, our coach. It also gives the fighters in our gyms the ability to take fights on short notice.
So there's really not a lot of difference between fight camp and regular training?
I'm not fighting until July and that's strange for me because I usually have a fight coming up every three months or so I would be pushing myself very hard. At the moment, because I'm so far out, I don't want to push myself too hard and burn myself out. I'm listening to my body a little bit more than I usually would.
(L-R) Che Mills, Cathal Pendred
We haven't seen you in the cage since the Che Mills fight on June 1st. After the win there a lot of people - me included - figured you'd be getting a phone call from the UFC. Did any discussions take place?
I was told before the Che Mills fight that a win over him and I was signed up to the UFC. A lot of people ask me if that put a lot more pressure on me but it actually didn't because the last couple of fights before that I had it in my head that if I won those I'd get [a contract] anyway, so it was really no different.
I went in, did my usual thing and beat Che and I was expecting a phone call within the next day. Every time I saw John Kavanagh's name come up on my phone I was thinking, 'right, this is it' but it never came. It was actually Gunnar Nelson's dad who got in contact with Joe Silva (UFC matchmaker) and told him that I stopped Che. Joe Silva basically said that the Welterweight division was so stacked at the moment. If you look at heavyweight there's only 30 guys but there was 80 in the welterweight. They said they were trying to trim it down and not sign guys at the moment.
That was quite annoying because I was 100% sure I was in. It also led to the next problem, which was who I was to fight next because I'd literally taken out all the best the guys at my weight in Europe.
I didn't like it and felt in limbo so that's when I thought about going over [to America] to the trials for The Ultimate Fighter. Like I said to you already, when I first started watching the UFC it was through The Ultimate Fighter and saw it as a great challenge and something I would like to do back then but I got to a point where I felt I belonged in the UFC and I didn't really need to do it but John [Kavanagh] convinced me to go over for the trials.
...and we'll find out what happens at some point in the future!
(Laughs) Yeah, exactly!
Just going back to the Che Mills fight for a moment, what goes through your head when your opponent fails to make weight like he did?
I'm a big believer in just focusing on the things that I can control and positive thinking. Initially when he first missed weight I thought, 'well, it's nothing to do with me'. It's his job to make weight and I just didn't care about it. Afterwards, when I went home and I was refuelling after the weight cut I was thinking about the positives of it. One, he gets fined and I get a percentage of his purse which means more money for me. Two, it means he probably didn't take the preparation as seriously as he should have. The other factor was that, because he already fought in the UFC, he might have thought that he didn't need to do as much because he was stepping down a level.
He only missed weight by a fraction so I wasn't worried about him be bigger than me or stronger than me. I never am.
In a situation like that, does he come up to you either before or after the fight and explain the reasons for missing weight? Or do you keep well away from each other?
To be honest, if I was in that situation I would have went up and apologised. It's a lack of professionalism and it's a lack of respect to your opponent, the organisation, the fans and to the title which he was fighting for. I would have apologised but he didn't do it but I don't hold any grudge whatsoever towards him.
The UFC are going to have card in The O2 in Dublin this year, likely September, which we'd expect to see you on. Conor McGregor will likely be on the card too, but who else in the Irish scene would you like to see compete?
There's a whole bunch of guys that are ready to make the step up now. I think the Irish fighters have been ignored over the last couple of years. Lots of UK guys are getting in but the Irish guys are going over the UK all the time fighting these guys and winning, so it's a little annoying that there's only one Irish guy in there at the moment.
It's a great thing that the UFC are coming back and they'll definitely get a few more Irish guys in there. I think myself, Chris Fields would be in there as well as the likes of Paddy Holohan, Philip Mulpeter, Aisling Daly - there's a whole host of other Irish fighters but they're the names that pop up in my mind straight away. Artem Lobov as well if he can get another couple of wins.
Throw Gunnar Nelson on the card and it'll be a great night for Irish MMA and its extended family. You mentioned that you're heading off to Iceland to help train Gunni ahead of his upcoming fight. What will that be like?
I always love going over there. Gunni brings me over there before all of his fights. I love it. Sometimes it gets a bit monotonous training in the same place with the same people, so it's a nice change of scene. Iceland is just a beautiful place as well. The people are really nice; eating healthy and living clean is just second nature over there and it's so easy to do because it can be a bit of a chore over here!
Video: Bloodstream MMA
Photos: Cathal Pendred Facebook