It was just another day in Dublin’s Straight Blast Gym, circa 2014, complete with camera crews and reporters lurking around the facility seeking a glimpse into the world of coach John Kavanagh’s two star pupils, UFC featherweight Conor McGregor and The Ultimate Fighter season 19 middleweight Cathal Pendred.
“Remember when no one gave a s**t about us,” Pendred asked McGregor. “No one cared what we were doing.”
It seems like only yesterday when the two Irish standouts were scraping for whatever money they could pick up in the fight game, all the while honing their craft in relative obscurity on the Emerald Isle that still hadn’t come around to the MMA explosion that hit the United States in 2005.
“2009, 2010, and even into 2011, myself and Conor - who would be seen as the two biggest names in Irish MMA now - were getting no recognition,” recalls Pendred. “We were beating all these top guys around Europe, and no one really gave us any attention or knew who we were. We could barely get an inch in a tabloid paper, let alone a broadsheet paper or a magazine. And we weren’t making any money because any money we were making as fighters was basically going back into our training. We trained three, four months for a fight, earning a couple hundred quid, and it would barely cover your cost of travel going to and from the gym.”
One member of their squad had made it to the big show – Thomas Egan – but after only four fights, he wasn’t ready for the bright lights and everything that came along with them, getting stopped by John Hathaway in the first round of the UFC’s first visit to Dublin in 2009. It was a lesson to both Pendred and McGregor that getting to the UFC is one thing; staying there is another.
“If there’s anything I took from that fight, it was that I knew that I wanted to go into the UFC ready to compete,” said Pendred. “A lot of young guys get a decent record and they’ll do anything to get into the UFC. Even when I had ten pro fights, I still didn’t feel like I was quite ready to go into the UFC. It was only after about 12 or 13 fights that I knew I was ready, and that’s when I wanted to go. I can thank Tom’s experience for that, and Conor was the same.”
With a spot in the semifinals of TUF 19 against Eddie Gordon (a bout which airs tonight), and knowing that a win will put him one step away from a UFC contract, the 26-year-old Pendred can say all that now, but when he was battling it out on the local circuit and trying to make a name for himself, it wasn’t easy, and patience was in short supply, especially when it appears as if you’re working for nothing but a dream. But continuing to dream is what separated Pendred and McGregor from the rest.
“We were struggling and it was tough, but the reason we didn’t give up is because we had the belief,” he said. “We knew that if we kept training the way we were going and if we kept fighting the way we were and kept winning, we would eventually get to the point where we were in the UFC, where we would have the opportunity to make a lot of money and have the opportunity to compete with the best in the world and prove that we were the best in the world. That’s the key factor why we are successful; it was because we believed we could do it. There had been other guys, and I know two guys who had the same skills as us at that point, and they could have gotten here, but it was tough at that time and we weren’t making the money and weren’t getting the recognition and they just didn’t see it being worthwhile, whereas myself and Conor had that belief in ourselves, and we kept going. It’s a big testament to us and people ask us why we’re confident in our abilities and why we’ve got that similarity. We’re the ones that believed we could do it. That’s why we survived. The rest stopped because they didn’t think they would get there.”
McGregor would get the call first, compiling a 12-2 record that brought him into the Octagon to face Marcus Brimage in April of 2013. After blasting through Brimage in 67 seconds and decisioning Max Holloway, he’s headlining the UFC’s Dublin event in July against Diego Brandao.
Pendred’s road has been longer. Finding a similar string of success on the European circuit, “The Punisher” thought of making a run at The Ultimate Fighter, but opted to finish his studies at University and pick up his degree. When he was done, he had already defeated future or past UFC vets Nico Musoke and David Bielkheden and drew with Danny Mitchell, and he expected that a call from the promotion was next.
“By the time I finished my degree, I was at a point in my career where I was knocking at the door of the UFC anyway, so I thought I didn’t necessarily have to go the TUF route,” he said. “I was just waiting for the phone call. I kept fighting away and I kept doing well, and the phone call just didn’t seem to be coming. I know my manager had been in contact with the UFC and the UFC had been in contact with my manager and they said they were looking at me and thought very highly of me, but they just didn’t have the vacancy for me there in the welterweight division being so stacked. So I was beginning to become a little bit frustrated. I always liked my career to be moving forward and it just stagnated a little bit.”
Even a TKO win over Che Mills in June of 2013 didn’t do the trick, and it was around then that the internet got involved, with an enthusiastic Twitter campaign trying to convince the UFC to sign him. But when that didn’t work, Pendred turned his eyes back to The Ultimate Fighter.
“I had beaten everyone around Europe that was kind of a big deal or a big name, and I didn’t see any other fights around outside the UFC that would further progress my career,” he said. “So the opportunity of TUF came up and I decided what the hell. No one’s handing me my UFC contract, so I’ll go in there and physically get it myself.”
After making it into the TUF 19 house due to a bye after his opponent couldn’t make weight, Team Penn’s Pendred defeated Hector Urbina to earn his semifinal bout against Gordon. That UFC contract is growing nearer, and those same fans that made their voices known before TUF couldn’t be happier. Pendred vows not to disappoint them, but to go further than any of them ever expected him to.
“It makes me feel good that people see my potential and that I’m capable of fighting in the UFC,” he said. “The support I’ve had, not just from the Irish fans but from people all over the world has been amazing and it spurs me on. But I’m not just happy with that; I want to go right to the top. Recently, people were campaigning for me to get into the UFC, and further on down the line I want them campaigning to get me a title shot, and then supporting me being the best champion. So it’s great to have people on my side and to get the recognition that people appreciate my skills. It feels good.”
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