Cathal Pendred was 11 when his younger brother Padraig was knocked down and broke his femur. As broken bones go that was up there with the worst of them. Two months in traction in a bed at Temple Street Children’s Hospital — and during the summer holidays too.
The boys were close. Every day big bro would make the trip from the family home in the Dublin suburbs to the hospital and, hard and all as it was for Padraig, who would make a full recovery after another two months with his leg in a plaster up to his hip, they both saw just how tough some kids really had it.
“It was a pretty serious injury at the time,” Pendred explains during a break from training at the Straight Blast Gym on Dublin’s Naas Road. “But it’s not as sad a case as most people. There were terminally ill children there and, even at that young age, it was something that struck me. I said that when I was in a position to help out that cause I would.”
It took longer than he could have hoped or expected. Sixteen years, to be precise, but Pendred stuck to his word and made a significant donation to the hospital this summer in the wake of his winning Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) debut against American Mike King at the O2, for which he received a $100,000 (€79,200) bonus on top of his appearance fee.
That says a lot about Pendred. About his patience. About his unwavering belief in himself even when his family and friends felt what he was aiming for as a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter was a goal that lay somewhere between the unlikely and the impossible. And for seven years it looked like they were right.
Pendred’s background is in rugby. He won a Leinster Senior Schools Cup alongside Cian Healy with Belvedere in 2005 but his conversion to the fight game was kickstarted by a trip to the USA two years later when he wandered into a gym in San Diego that was preaching the gospel of mixed martial arts.
That was that. The only deviation he has allowed himself since has been a stint in Dublin City University, from which he graduated in 2012 with a degree in forensics, but his attention to detail has been reserved in the main for anything that could progress his dream to making the big time: the UFC.
For five years he traded his wares in the back alleys of the game. The last but one step was the Cage Warriors circuit which he dominated at two weights for money that barely paid for his training or the mountainous amounts of food he needed to fuel his work. Rent and utility bills were covered by family and friends. Board for a time was a room in John Kavanagh’s place, his coach at Straight Blast and the godfather of Irish MMA.
“I’m in the gym and I’m thinking more clearly now,” he admits during a break in training ahead of his follow-up fight tonight, against Russia’s Gasan Umalatov, in Stockholm. “I used to say before the fight that it didn’t affect me but it was. It was always on my mind. Every day I got home from training there was another bill there. Rent, electricity bills, everything.
“It was just all adding up. Then, when I am at home, it is a stressful, taxing enough job on the body when you are in the gym that it is nice to go home and relax without all that hanging over me. It is like I was being held under water for a few minutes and now I’ve been let out to breathe again. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Over three months on and he is still trying to digest that night at the O2 and the impact it has had on his life. Surreal, he calls it. He didn’t plan to go out there and take a whupping and come back like Rocky Balboa. But he did. Dana White, the bald-headed frontman and president of the UFC, jumped and screamed like a loony when they met up backstage.
White knows the value of bouts like that to a sport built on pay-per-view dollars. Lorenzo Fertitta, one of the UFC’s founders, gushed just as much. Outside, the 9,500 people packed into the arena were left crackling with an electricity that would amp up still further when Conor McGregor completed the bill with a defeat of Brazil’s Diego Brandao.
The entire night was an unqualified success. For Pendred, McGregor and the other Irish fighters, all of whom won their bouts, and for the UFC who now knew that Ireland was a viable base both for fighters and spectators. Even King had reason to celebrate after pocketing his half of the 100k for that seesaw bout with Pendred, but then came the one dark cloud.
Tests administered after the fight showed the American had taken nandrolone, a performance-enhancing drug (PED). The silver lining was that his purse was forfeited and went to Pendred, who then made his donation to Temple Street, but the positive test was a reminder of the shadow that hangs over the sport.
The UFC, like so many other professional sports that hail from North America, is not a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Authority. In terms of drugs and sport, it is a wild west where enforcement is ad hoc and at least two recent fighters have suggested that anything up to 90% of athletes in the octagon are guilty of using PEDs.
Though the UFC has long been accused of being lax, there has been an increased rate of return in positive samples of late. Among them were a number of big names such as Chael Sonnen who tested positive twice this year, was suspended for two years and dropped by Fox for whom he was an analyst.
“I haven’t witnessed it myself,” says Pendred. “You hear people say that 90% of professional athletes are on something but I have never been in the gym and seen someone take something. You have hearsay, people saying that so-and-so is taking this. It’s evidently prevalent because people are getting caught out.
“What is great to see is that the UFC have caught people taking human growth hormone and EPO, which were two things never tested for. Either they didn’t have the ability to test for it or they just didn’t and they are two of the major things that give you major advantages.
“It is great to see the UFC take a stand on it and level the playing field. It’s one thing to take it in cycling or athletics where it gives you an advantage, but it doesn’t have a direct effect on your competitor. In a combat sport it can affect the health and safety of the other guy because you are stronger, heavier and hitting harder.”
His achievement in subduing King is all the more miraculous for that and the fact their fight was at middleweight which meant the American had to drop down a class from light-heavy while Pendred shifted up from his natural habitat at welterweight where he won his world title in Cage Warriors.
It was his dominance of that division in Europe that necessitated his bump up to the heavier bracket, which saw him lose his natural size and weight advantage against an opponent pumped full of illegal juice. It’s no wonder, then, that he feels he can do great things now that he fights again at welter.
Umalatov brings a record similar to his own to the octagon in Sweden this evening and the Russ ian is more a grappler than a fighter. Submissions rather than knock-downs are his game, but Pendred speaks with the certainty of a man who has no uncertainty of being outed from the gilded cage into which he has just brokered his admittance.
“I’ve looked at a little bit of him. Not too much. I haven’t seen anything that would particularly worry me. I feel as if I am better at him in all areas, even on the ground where his biggest strength is. He comes from a sambo background. It is a good grappling art, but I still believe that my Brazilian ju-jitsu will top that.”
Belief. It has taken him this far, after all.
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