The dream of competing under the UFC banner has been locked inside Cathal Pendred's mind for as long as he can remember.
The Dublin-based fighter made his professional debut back in 2009, and from the first time he stepped foot inside the cage, the idea of trading leather with the best in the world inside the Octagon shifted from fantasy to a goal to be achieved. It took only two years for the 26-year-old to become an established force on the European regional scene, where the SBG-trained fighter picked up victories in seven of his first nine showings.
Over the next two years, The Punisher would not only become the Cage Warriors welterweight champion but pick up a high-profile victory over a UFC veteran in the process. That level of success, in addition to the meteoric rise of his friend and teammate Conor McGregor, brought the attention of the MMA community directly to the talent that was beginning to emerge out of Dublin.
With Notorious already making waves in the featherweight ranks, all signs pointed to Pendred being the next fighter to break through, and he set his sights on the 19th season of The Ultimate Fighter to be the vehicle that would deliver him to the sport's biggest stage. While the stocky Irishman could have waited for an opportunity to materialize down the road, Pendred decided the reality-based fighting program was the ideal method to make an introduction to the UFC's passionate following.
"Increased exposure is one of the perks of doing TUF," Pendred told Bleacher Report. "I thought doing the show would be a better way of coming to the UFC rather than going straight in because it gives you a platform to promote yourself and your brand. I definitely took advantage of those things as much as I could.
"Getting to work with a legend like BJ Penn was not only one of my personal highlights from the show, but it is something I'll always remember for the rest of my life. It was such an honor to work with someone who was one of the biggest names in the sport when I first started watching MMA. Being able to work alongside him and learn from a legend like BJ was very special."
While being on the show was a solid career move for Pendred, the endeavor came with some unexpected twists and turns along the way.
Competing in a six-week tournament is a different type of grind, and the process of trying out for the show and then battling for the six-figure contract was a lengthy commitment. The tryouts for the 19th season were held in Indianapolis in late August of 2013, but the show did not air until April of this year...several months after the actual tournament had been completed.
The fights Pendred logged on TUF are not counted toward his professional record, and more than a year will have passed since his last bout when he steps in to face Mike King at Fight Night 46 on July 19. Yet, while it ultimately was a strange road to travel, Pendred believes the process was a worthwhile endeavor.
"To be honest, the layoff is something I found to be very difficult," Pendred said. "I always like to stay active and fight a few times a year. Not many people realize it, but this is actually the longest layoff in TUF history when looked at from the end of the tournament to the finale. It was extended because they actually filmed two versions of The Ultimate Fighter at the same time. They filmed the Canada vs. Australia season at the same time they were filming ours.
"They aired the TUF: Nations season first, so we had to wait an extra couple of months on top of what you usually have to wait for editing and other things. We had over six months to wait after the end of filming, and it was pretty tough. It was something I definitely had to adapt to, but I made the most of a bad situation.
"I had a long time where I couldn't compete, and that was something new and alien to me," he added. "It gave me a lot of extra time to work on bettering my skills. I'm always working to improve with a goal in mind, but I think we are going to see the benefits of all the work I put in next weekend."
Pendred had to sit on the sidelines and wait for the finals to play out, but that lapse will officially come to an end this Saturday night when the UFC makes its long-awaited return to Dublin for Fight Night 46. In addition to his bout against King being his first official step into UFC waters, Pendred is also proud to see the Octagon return to his home country, as Irish MMA has been experiencing a tremendous upswing over the past two years.
The John Kavanagh-trained fighter knows the atmosphere is going to be intense, but everything outside of the cage on Saturday night is of little concern to him. Pendred's focus is locked squarely on King, and everything else is simply everything else.
"I'm really excited for this fight both personally and for the fans," Pendred said. "I'm excited for the fans because they are the ones who are going to benefit from this event because it is going to be an unbelievable atmosphere. I was there back in 2009 when the UFC first came to Dublin, and the atmosphere is unmatched. I've been to UFC events all over the place, and no one brings an atmosphere like the Irish crowd. All the people going are going to have an amazing night.
"This is going to be business as usual, but I was actually kind of disappointed when the fight was first announced. Mike and I got along quite well during the show, and out of all the guys, he is probably the one I kept in touch with the most. He was a good guy and whatnot during the show, but as soon as the fight was announced, my friendship with him ceased. I have no feelings toward him in general, and I always do that with my fights. I never personalize my opponent. They are just another body in my way. I could be fighting a robot for all I know, and it just doesn't matter to me.
"I'm going to walk in there on fight night and there is going to be a guy standing across from me and standing in my way. It's business as usual for me, but I'll definitely look back and appreciate it once it's all over with."
When Pendred steps in against King under the lights of the O2 Arena on Saturday, he will be coming in as a man on a mission. The Boston-born fighter was disappointed that he came up short in his bid to earn the six-figure contract and believes he needs to prove he belongs in the UFC. The opportunity to do so will come to fruition on July 19, but it's a moment he's been working toward for the past six months.
He has spent that time forging an improved skill set and sharpening the weapons he already had in his arsenal. In his mind, all the work and sacrifice will pay off when he puts his talents on display in front of his hometown crowd and picks up his first official victory inside the Octagon.
Winning is the only thing that matters, and Pendred is ready to bring the scrap to his opponent.
"Every time I step in there I'm better than the last time I fought," Pendred said. "It will be even more so for this fight because it's been such a long time between fights. I've worked on a lot of things and I've been waiting for this for a long time. I'm going to go in there and make a statement. I was bitterly disappointed with the outcome of TUF because I went in there to win it, and I had a controversial decision loss to the fighter who ultimately won it. I've gotten over that now, but I want to show people I'm of that caliber.
"I want to show people I belong in the UFC and I'm going to be one of the greatest things to ever come out of The Ultimate Fighter. I'm going to put on a performance that shows that to everyone else and make sure the Irish fans have a great night."
While his bout at Fight Night 46 will put an official cap on his TUF 19 experience, one unique element from the show has the potential to carry on for quite some time. Since his debut showing on the program, the MMA community became fascinated with how to pronounce his first name, Cathal (ka + hal), and the promotional newcomer is determined to not only leave a lasting impression inside the cage but to make Cathal a household name stateside as well.
"It's funny because there are Americans now making videos on YouTube teaching people how to pronounce my name," Pendred explained. "That is awesome. I remember one of my first diary-type interviews on The Ultimate Fighter I said my main reason for coming to the show was to win The Ultimate Fighter, but my second reason was to teach people how to say the name Cathal.
"I think I'm getting there," he laughed. "I promise I'm going to make Cathal a household name. There are going to be families in America naming their firstborn sons Cathal because they want them to be like a Celtic warrior. I promise you that."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand, unless noted otherwise.