Are combat sports in the midst of an Irish invasion?
It wouldn’t be the first time. With their own bareknuckled hands, Irish and first-generation Irish-American fighters like John L. Sullivan, Paddy Ryan and Dominick McCaffrey poured the foundation of modern boxing.
Now, a quarter-century or five later, it might be MMA’s turn. Super prospect Conor McGregor recently made a splash with his signing to the UFC and will work to become the first Irish fighter to fight more than once in the Octagon.
But that storyline has another key player. That would be 25-year-old welterweight Cathal Pendred, who is 11-2-1, rides a six-fight unbeaten streak and will make his bid Saturday to become welterweight champion of the British Cage Warriors promotion.
“I’m the best welterweight in Europe,” Pendred said recently in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “And I want to fight in the UFC. Any serious fighter wants to go into the Octagon. I’m a natural-born competitor. Within a year, I want to be there. Two years is too long.”
Pendred is widely known among fight fans on the eastern side of the Atlantic, where everyone recognizes Cage Warriors as the spawning ground of alums like Michael Bisping, Ross Pearson, Dan Hardy and Paul Daley. Pendred is a bit more anonymous, however, in the United States. But like teammate McGregor, he seems eager to change that.
Interestingly, Pendred’s place at the vanguard of this Irish invasion has some pretty deep American roots. Born in Boston, Pendred said his parents moved the family back to Ireland when Cathal was about four years old.
“I’m an American citizen,” Pendred said. “Lots of memories. I was pretty devastated when I found out we were moving. But I settled in eventually.”
A rugby pitch is probably not a bad launch pad for any activity involving physical violence, and that’s where Pendred spent his athletically formative years. At first, MMA fights served mainly as brain candy. The sport took on a life of its own for Cathal, though, during a trip to the States after high school graduation.
“I took a year off before I went to college and I lived for a year in San Diego,” Pendred said. “There were so many gyms over there, for Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA. So I checked it out and I fell in love with it.”
When he returned to Ireland, Pendred was “a man possessed.” But where to train? That answer might reveal what’s really behind the curtain of this current Irish talent swell: John Kavanagh, who runs SBG Ireland in Dublin, the home gym of Pendred, McGregor, Icelander and current UFC up-and-comer Gunnar Nelson and undefeated bantamweight prospect Patrick Holohan, among others.
“He’s a pioneer in Ireland,” Pendred said of Kavanagh. “I realized that was the guy I needed to train with. He has this phenomenal ability to break down the movements of MMA.”
Kickboxing is, of course, not at all uncommon in Europe, or in European fighters. Stylistically speaking, SBG Ireland’s difference may be its focus on grappling. Kavanagh is Ireland’s first and only Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and its first athlete to fight in a cage.
“It’s a real learning environment,” he said. “Sometimes you go to a gym and they do technique but are concentrating mainly on cardio or fitness. We do that, too, but it’s all based around your skill set. The emphasis is on learning. That’s why you might have noticed that we all improve so much between fights.”
A very large welterweight, Pendred’s bread and butter is the standup game, and he seems not at all uncomfortable in the clinch. In Frenchman Gael Grimaud (17-5), his opponent this Saturday, Pendred faces an interesting foil.
“He’s more of a veteran than I am,” Pendred said. “His main strength is his grappling. Fourteen of his wins came by submission. But at the same time, I’m training with Gunnar, who’s the best grappler in MMA. With a grappler of that stature, if I can hang with Gunni, I can hang with anyone.”
It wouldn’t be the first time he’s bested a top-flight submission artist. In October at Cage Warriors 49, Pendred gutted through a tight triangle choke and then an elbow-popping armbar to eke out a controversial-but-unanimous decision victory over fellow (and possibly better-known globally) prospect Bruno Carvalho.
“He put me into a triangle situation,” Pendred recalled. “Everyone thought it was over. But I fought my way out. I proved in that fight that I’m tough as well as skillful.”
Pendred hasn’t dropped a contest since 2010, when he suffered a first-round knockout while fighting not only for the second time in as many weeks, but with injuries sustained from submission attempts in the first contest.
“The guy had put leg locks on me, and I wasn’t used to defending those at the time,” Pendred said. “I won, but I severely damaged my knee. I wasn’t fit to fight again and I shouldn’t have done it. I was pretty much on my back foot the whole time. I got ahead of myself. It was a good lesson to learn.”
What lesson, exactly, did the then-23-year-old take from the loss, his only TKO defeat as a pro?
“I learned not to take two fights in two weeks.”
With that valuable piece of wisdom in his pocket, there’s essentially been no stopping Pendred. He has five victories (two by TKO) and one draw since the loss. All that momentum would hit a new velocity with a win Saturday night.
Would the UFC call after a win like that? Who knows? But Pendred’s phone is always on. For him, he feels, it’s time. And for his country, it’s time again.
“One thing we do have is a huge tradition of fighting. We have a fighting spirit that’s quite unmatched,” Pendred said. “In the glory days of boxing, Irish fighters had a huge following. With MMA, we’re a bit behind. But it’s just getting bigger and bigger. It’s such a great sport.
“There are exciting times ahead, and I’m very, very, very hungry.”
The Beaten Path is a new series of articles profiling MMA prospects. Read the previous installment here. Scott Harris is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. Find him on Twitter @ScottHarrisMMA. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.