There’s having connections to a city, and then there’s what Molly McCann has with Liverpool.
If you walk through the city with her, you’ll hear someone in the distance yell, “Go on, Meatball!” A few moments later, she might spot a familiar face down the road and shout her own greeting. Uber drivers are familiar with her address. Politicians and bar managers alike know her. She is as quick to flash her smile to a stranger as she is a close friend, and it lights up the most overcast of days in England. Her fellow Scousers picked her up after she dropped her UFC debut in 2018, and she does her best to do the same when hard times befall her neighbors. McCann’s heartbeat is in sync with the port city, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Walking around Liverpool City Center sporting a grey sweatshirt with “Eat The Rich” in bold red lettering, McCann is waxing poetic about Merseyside with the comfort of a tour guide, telling UFC.com about everything from the history of the “bombed-out church” to hazy memories of late nights spent on the famed Bold Street. Every 20 feet or so, she spots someone she knows, or someone spots her and asks to take a picture. Occasionally, she has to remind a fan to say, “Please,” but she takes it all in stride before continuing with her history lesson.
Eventually, we reach Block-E, where a Labour Conference rally is being held. McCann, who is tapped into a handful of community efforts herself, is attending to show her support after a day that included three different training sessions. Liverpool MP Ian Byrne had asked McCann to give a speech at the rally, but she politely declined. As she waits in line for the doors to open, a young man strikes up a conversation with her about the city and different political happenings of the last few months. It’s clear he isn’t familiar with who McCann is (she tells him she just works at a gym), and she lets him remain naïve even when he brings up watching Leon Edwards’ title-winning head kick at UFC 278.
A group of teenagers come up to McCann and do the usual song-and-dance of selfies, compliments and smiles, and the light of recognition flicked on in the young man’s eyes. Unbeknownst to him, he had just spent the last 10 minutes speaking with one of the top UFC flyweights in the world.
“Oh my God, sorry, I’ve just realized who you are,” he says. “What are you doing here?”
“You’re all right, lad,” McCann replies. “I’m just here for the city like everyone else.”
To watch McCann move through Liverpool is to understand it, its people and the double-edged sword that falls upon its local heroes. From afar, McCann is larger than life. The way she bears her heart for all to see endears her to fans across the globe. Whether she is fighting in London, Boston or Greenville, South Carolina, she often sways the crowd to her corner while still repping her own people with pride (she quite literally wears Liverpool on her body via an ankle tattoo of the city’s skyline). Listen to one pre-fight interview of hers, and you’ll find yourself ready to run through a wall for the woman they call “Meatball.”
She is the life of the party in celebration, too. When her “little big brother” Paddy Pimblett competes on the same night, you can usually her spot cageside with a half-empty bottle of Howler Head in her hand. If you catch her on Liverpool’s famed Bold Street after a fight, good luck turning her down when she offers you a drink, and when she isn’t in camp and it’s an Everton FC matchday, you can bet on seeing her in the thick of the supporters’ section cheering on her beloved Toffees.
About 10 years into her mixed martial arts career and four-and-a-half years into her UFC journey, she is now basking in the brightest spotlight of her life. That’s what two stunning knockouts and a handful of memorable post-fight interviews will do, but those moments were the culmination of a lifetime’s work.
In her own words, it took “20 years to arrive overnight.”
And while to the victor goes the many, many spoils – performance bonuses, a Barstool sponsorship, a chat with basketball legend Candace Parker to name a few – McCann found her public privacy evaporating.
Although she embraces and leans into her identity as a “working class hero,” she laments the fact that she can no longer bring a couple of visitors for a casual stroll around the Royal Albert Docks because of the sort of frenzy that ensues when she is recognized.
She says this while also understanding the life she has built for herself and the resources it provides her to give back to the city. McCann understands that if nobody cared, she wouldn’t have the same platform to provide for the place she loves wholly, but the weight of a city isn’t a light one to bear, particularly when that is Liverpool. As she looks to move up the flyweight ladder, she also has to navigate the chaos that is her public profile.
“There’s Molly McCann, and then there’s Meatball Molly,” she told UFC.com. “(I’m) like, ‘How do you tap into both?’”
McCann found herself at a particularly low point after losing to Lara Procopio in February 2021. The defeat was her second in a row after she dropped a decision to Taila Santos on Fight Island. Although she displayed much improved jiu jitsu against Procopio, McCann just couldn’t really get going.
To make the result all the more crushing, the fight carried extra weight as it took place on her late father’s birthday.
She raised a few eyebrows when she left her gloves in the Octagon, and although the thought of quitting did cross her mind, she later explained on social media that the gesture was in honor of her dad. McCann capped the post saying, “There’s still fight in this old dog yet,” alleviating any retirement rumors.
With some hindsight, McCann believes the crowdless environments of those two fights on Fight Island and inside the UFC APEX impacted her performance negatively. She is quick to clarify that is no excuse because everyone was forced to adapt to unique circumstances throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. That said, for someone who so deeply feeds off any energy in the crowd, falling flat in lieu of that seems valid.
Regardless, McCann knew she was up against it whenever her next fight came. It would be the last on her contract at the time, and she couldn’t help but let her mind wander toward the worst if she happened to lose a third bout in a row. After licking her wounds for a bit, McCann got back to work at Next Generation MMA in Liverpool under the direction of longtime coach Paul Rimmer. Together, they began making sure McCann would solidify her place in the promotion, whether she was on rocky ground or not.
“I think the biggest thing for Molly is she always needs to believe in herself,” Rimmer said. “Like a lot the losses that she had were from just like a little bit of self-doubt that she had in her mind. She was kind of like, ‘I'm just a boxer. Do I deserve to be here? Have I got the experience to get to where I want to get to?’
“I think that's been the biggest change in Molly's career. Her mindset is (now) like, ‘I'm going to go for you and I'm going to give it to you.’ That was something that we had spoken a lot about.”
Rimmer admitted they were all “a bit naïve” when McCann first reached the promotion in terms of her skill set due to her performance against high-level women in the area. However, in the year following her debut, they committed themselves to the grind and helped shape McCann into a proper mixed martial artist.
If she is generally proud to represent Liverpool, McCann is acutely happy to represent her coaches and training partners at Next Generation MMA, whose notoriety has exploded alongside McCann and Pimblett in the last year.
“I feel like the team, as well as Paul and the gym, will have saved so many lives and given people happiness,” McCann said. “Life can be a bit s**t sometimes, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got training tonight (sigh).’ I wake up like that every day. My anxiety is sometimes up (high), and I can’t breathe, and I can’t eat. Knowing that I’m coming to this space saves me. It’s nice to know that other people will have that.”
As rumors of UFC’s return to the UK swirled around the summer of 2021, McCann’s next chance materialized in the form of Ji Yeon Kim in Las Vegas. It represented the opportunity to get back to the winner’s circle and make things right.
Now was the time to dig her heels in and get her career back on track in earnest.
UFC Fight Night: Till vs Brunson was looked at as a British Invasion of sorts, with six UK representatives competing in the UFC APEX, including McCann and Pimblett in his debut.
With much of the attention during fight week on Pimblett’s long-awaited Octagon premiere, as well as Darren Till and Tom Aspinall in the main and co-main events, McCann readied herself for Kim, who stood three inches taller and held a 10-inch reach advantage on the Scouser. In the face of those physical disadvantages, McCann saw it as par for the course.
During her fight week interview with UFC, an unfazed McCann prophetically joked: “They’re taking the heat for me, so I can come under the radar, give a Fight of the Night, and then f*** off (laughs).”
Following a proper training camp with sparring partners and strength-and-conditioning, McCann made the abbreviated walk to the cage like she was shot out of cannon, with a decent-sized crowd stationed inside the APEX. Although she started sharply, a clash of heads sat McCann on the canvas. She quickly grabbed Kim’s leg to clear the cobwebs, but after giving everything the previous two months, she found herself likely down a round.
McCann spent the next two rounds pressuring Kim, weaving through long arms and pushing past an injured left hand sustained midway through the fight. By fight’s end, it was McCann pointing to the ground a la Max Holloway and swinging to the final horn.
“She just said, ‘I'm going to do me. I want to get in there. I want to put it on her. I want to keep her backed up to the cage, and I was going to let rip,’” Rimmer said. “She did it, and she believed in herself that she was going to do that.”
The most memorable moments of the night followed McCann’s victory. First, she uttered her now-infamous “I just want a bevvy, lad” to Michael Bisping in their Octagon interview. Next came shots of McCann dancing cageside while Pimblett scored a first-round knockout. An hour or so later, she learned she indeed earned Fight of the Night, her first UFC performance bonus. Later, she signed a new contract with the UFC.
Fast forward 12 months, and UFC.com is in Liverpool visiting McCann to shoot a video with her.
As they set up their cameras inside the graffiti-lined walls of Next Generation MMA, McCann flips through her journal and lets out a stunned, “Oh my God.”
Before she started training camp, McCann put her goals in her journal, as is her tradition, and when she flipped to an entry predating the Kim fight, she recited her entry:
“I will be in the best space mentally and physically. I will compete in the USA in September. I will completely obliterate my opponent. I will hit her until she gives in and submits to my superiority. In turn, this gives me a conversation with Dana and a new deal. Minutes after the fight, I'll be celebrating with a $50,000 bonus.”
“I just want a bevvy, lad, I’m buzzin’.”
Those words kicked off a month-long celebration when McCann returned to Liverpool. The festivities included getting on stage with musician and fellow Liverpudlian Jamie Webster at a concert, cheering on Everton to a victory featuring two of the best goals of their campaign and a lot of free bevvies sent her way every time she walked into a pub.
McCann, who called the performance “two years in the making,” compared the reception she and PImblett received to Beatlemania and joked that she might have ruined her liver.
What followed, though, turned that victory from a defining moment into more of a launching pad for what was to come.
When UFC returned to London in March 2022, McCann stole the show once again with a spinning elbow that will forever feature in any knockout compilation worth its salt. Everyone remembers the glorious strike, but the fight against Luana Carolina had plenty of ebbs and flows. McCann nearly earning a first-round finish, and she controlled the second round at a more methodical pace. Carolina proved resilient, and some might say the momentum was swinging in the Brazilian’s favor. One spin, however, erased all of that doubt and earned McCann another $50k bonus.
As she recounted that night, McCann once again flipped through her journal and found her entry that preceded that fight.
“I will open the main card of UFC London. The crowd will completely lose their s**t. When the door closes, I will be calm. I will listen to instruction and stay disciplined to the task. I'll show a whole different side of me. I will finish my opponent in the last round. I will win Performance of the Night.”
“How mental is that?” she asked.
She and Pimblett were now the darlings of the sport. A Scouse duo who was the life of the party anywhere they went. The two went on a tour through America where they saw the real growth of their public profile.
When the Octagon returned to the Big Smoke, lightning struck twice. This time, McCann walked to the Octagon as calm as you like. The bigger fighter for the first time in a long time against Hannah Goldy, McCann took her time until she connected with a hook that rocked Goldy in the first frame. And then, almost inexplicably, she landed another spinning elbow.
After zero finishes through her first seven UFC fights, McCann had two in two, and yes, she did, in fact, prophesize it in her notebook:
“I will showcase every asset of my arsenal. The O2 (Arena) will erupt. And it would be yet again one of the best nights of my career. Winning this will gain me another major sponsor.”
Now on a three-fight winning streak, McCann found herself in the form of her life and with the arena in the palm of her hand. The self-belief was plainly through the roof, and Rimmer saw it, as well.
“She started to realize, ‘Hang on a sec. Not only do I belong here, but I've got a good chance of going for this title in this division,’” Rimmer said.
Pimblett scored another finish of his own and followed with a heartfelt post-fight speech about mental health. The two of them were once again the belle and beau of the ball, celebrating with British music icon Stormzy in the locker room and asking Drake for Rolex watches (which the Canadian rapper did, in fact, deliver).
After another tour through the United States, McCann set her sights on fighting in New York City at Madison Square Garden, but she found her energy was off-center.
"No one teaches you actually how to go from being a working-class person at the age of 32 to just dropped in the abyss of fame and all of that."
“I really was like, ‘Oh, I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this anymore,’ because it's gone from being performance anxiety to social anxiety,” she said. “No one teaches you actually how to go from being a working-class person at the age of 32 to just dropped in the abyss of fame and all of that.”
Being a woman of the people is an easy way to win people over, but it comes with a cost, especially when “the people” grow exponentially for both her and Pimblett.
When McCann dropped her UFC debut, she credited the people of Liverpool for picking her back up as she battled some post-fight depression. During the COVID-19 pandemic, McCann was able to get some training gear over to her home from people in the city. McCann, who has talked about the poor conditions she endured growing up in Liverpool’s suburb of Norris Green – from dipping her finger in sugar for meals when food was low to getting a job at 13 years old to help pay for gym memberships – wrestled with the desire to give back and still have energy for herself.
Life was different, and while you’ll always hear Pimblett welcoming every bit of the spotlight, McCann knew she needed to ask for help to sort through her new life. For the first time, she sought out and started speaking with someone. She also posted on Instagram asking for understanding from fans.
“It's just been a lot to learn with boundaries,” McCann said. “I'd be lying if I said it hasn't been the most testing time of my life that hasn't been from grieving a loved one dying. I feel I've been so sad at times because I'm now public property, and I've got to grieve my old life, which people (reading) this might be like, ‘What are you going on about?’ But I can't walk down the streets anymore. I can't do anything anymore without having to be polite and pleasant, which I always was. But when it's like 10 people compared to 200, it's a lot.
“Molly McCann is actually an introvert,” she continued. “Meatball is the most extroverted thing you've ever seen, so (I’m) just trying to just say, ‘No,’ with love. It’s a ‘No,’ with love, but when I can, and if I can, I will. It's such a blessing, yet a curse, because I can’t imagine that you see football stars or actors who will get approached from the people like what I do or even what Patrick does, but it's good that we have this persona where people feel that they're able to come over to me and go, ‘Can you help me with this? Can you do that?’”
McCann brings up a conversation she had in Chicago with basketball star Candace Parker following a Chicago Sky game. In the locker room, the two traded compliments before discussing the blights of fame. Parker, who has long been one of the biggest faces of women’s basketball, talked about shifting the mindset from “have to” to “get to” when it came to all the extra requests.
Easier said than done, of course, but it’s something the 32-year-old McCann is navigating gracefully.
She gives the city its credit and says they’ve done well in respecting the boundaries she set, but says they’re also good for pushing their luck a little bit when they get their chance to have some time with her.
“If you even give me this two years ago, I’d have fluffed it up myself,” she said. “I feel like the UFC has taught me a lot about myself. Fighting has taught me a lot about myself and this city and the people in it.”
If the last year was a breakthrough for McCann, her next fight represents a chance to parlay all that momentum into a real run up the flyweight ladder.
Erin Blanchfield, although just 23 years old, is a highly touted prospect who is perfect through three impressive trips to the Octagon. She is a decorated jiu jitsu player and has already earned her black belt. Through 10 professional fights, her only loss came via split decision against Tracy Cortez in 2019 under the Invicta FC banner.
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All the credentials in the world mean nothing when two people are locked in an Octagon, and while McCann is giving Blanchfield the utmost respect, she is eager to push the youngster to new places.
“I'm just so excited to fight her because she's such a high caliber opponent,” McCann said. “The people who love me for me, have my back. The people who love her for her, mostly the American people, think that she's going to do this, that and the other to me, but when we get in there, and when I show who I am and what I'm about, I'll be looking to silence a few of them.”
On paper, the matchup puts McCann on the back foot. Blanchfield’s bread-and-butter is grappling, and in McCann’s losses to Santos and Procopio, she spent a lot of her time stuck against the cage and on her back.
To her credit, McCann threatened submissions versus Procopio, a testament to the work she put in since Gillian Robertson submitted her in her debut. After a handful of fights against a trio of striking-based opponents, McCann is relishing the return to this kind of a challenge.
“I feel like this is a do over,” McCann said. “I feel like the last loss that I received is very much stylistically the same as (Blanchfield), and the difference is I wasn't present in that moment, and the difference is I will be now. I don't think she is Talia Santos. I don't think the fight will be as tough as that one was, and I think I learned so much from her and from her Brazilian counterpart in Lara Procopio. I've learnt my lessons, and it's just time to go and do me.”
If McCann does need to dig deep at any point, she is excited to get to do it in New York City. Even though she expects Blanchfield, who hails from New Jersey, to have some sort of hometown advantage, she also expects the Irish-Americans to get behind her the same way so many crowds across the world have done for her.
Perhaps more than anything, she is most excited to compete in the legendary Madison Square Garden, particularly as someone who has boxing so ingrained in their heart.
“These are the moments,” she said. “Just to watch the greats who have graced that arena have (heart) in abundance, and it was in my dream to be there, and now I am. I feel something that every single person who's had an amazing night there has is a lot of (heart).”
McCann cites the Katie Taylor-Amanda Serrano instant classic that took place in April 2022 as one of the first iconic moments that come to mind when thinking about Madison Square Garden. She also names Muhammad Ali and Miguel Cotto as two of her favorites to have competed in the Mecca. Another point of pride is becoming the third Scouser in her estimation to have fought in Madison Square Garden after Darren Till at UFC 244 and Liam Smith the same night as Taylor-Serrano.
Whereas she might have overhyped the moment for herself, McCann believes making that mistake in her past prepared her for this moment. Instead of psyching herself out and asking “what if” the worst happens, she is asking “what if” she does make the best happen. Buoyed by the security of a fresh contract, McCann’s focus is less on fighting for survival and more about pursuing UFC gold.
“I put Erin on a pedestal and make sure that I prepare in every single discipline the best way that I can and raise the game as best that I can,” McCann said. “I haven't got the pressure of being the hometown fighter this time. She has. I’m just not putting too much pressure on going to live my dream.”
A win over Blanchfield likely launches her into a Top 10 matchup in early-2023, priming her for a real ascension up the 125-pound ranks.
And if you’re wondering if “Mystic Molly” has anything written in that handy notebook of hers, you’d be right:
“For the last two years, ‘December 2023, I will become UFC flyweight champion of the world.’” McCann said. “It's always been (20)23. It will have been 10 years since the day I started. I've got it in my mind. That was my goal. That’s mad, that, isn’t it?”
As UFC.com films with McCann inside Next Generation MMA, McCann reads one more journal entry that brings her to tears:
“I want you to remember everyone back home who needs this win too.”
After a moment, she says that sentence makes her think of every person she knows in the city who is struggling at the moment, and all the people who are hoping her performance at UFC 281 will make their day just a little brighter.
That might sound like too much pressure to put on any one person, but that’s just McCann’s way. She knows her fight is going to be on all the TVs in the city’s pubs and homes, and she will walk into Madison Square Garden with all that support fueling her walkout as Jamie Webster’s “This Place” plays.
From Norris Green to New York City, Molly McCann is making all her dreams happen. The path was anything but clean and clear and, to this day, she is rolling with all the punches that come with more success than ever.
After finishing the shoot, McCann lets out a sharp exhale and smiles a smile that is borne out of remembering how far she has already come.
“What is my life?” McCann said. “I just don’t think there’s many that have to go on a journey like this.”
UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira took place live from Madison Square Garden in New York City on November 12, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards, and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!