Hard-hitting: Cathal Pendred is chasing the UFC dream
Tanya Sweeney talks to the Irish MMA FIGHTER battling it out for a prized UFC contract on a US reality show about his dream to fight at the O2 in Dublin
Two years ago, Cathal Pendred sat in the Helix and, like everyone else in his Analytical Science class at DCU, took his final year exams. Yet while most of his fellow students could let their hair down and celebrate, Cathal had other things on his mind. Within a week, the then 22-year-old would be back in the Helix, taking on Ché Mills, a renowned Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) veteran in an Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC) bout.
"That was a crazy week," he laughs.
"It was a really big opportunity, taking on that fight, and I knew I'd make a huge name for myself in MMA if I took on this guy.
"On the other hand, the degree I did was very intense and difficult. There was a moment where I looked up during the exams and thought, 'wow, what's gonna happen this time next week?'"
It turned out to be quite a momentous night in the end for Cathal – and a night that effectively put paid to his burgeoning science career. He defeated Mills via a third-round TKO, thus bringing himself straight to the attention of UFC (dubbed the 'premiership of MMA') bosses.
Two years on, and Pendred's MMA career has already enjoyed quite an impressive trajectory. He has an elusive UFC contract firmly in his crosshairs this year; if he signs up, a six-figure payout – and a glittering global career in MMA – are his for the taking.
It's a dream come true for the Boston-born Dubliner who admits he was a 'mini-martial arts freak' as a youngster.
"I was never diagnosed with ADD, but I assume I had it because I was always bouncing off the walls," he recalls.
"I started MMA as a way to channel all that energy in a positive way. To be honest, I've never been more tranquil in my life.
"I find that a lot of people look at MMA from the outside and expect fighters to be hyper-aggressive guys," he adds.
"We're certainly tough people, but the more you do it, the more you realise that aggression doesn't work in the sport."
Rather, Cathal maintains that keeping calm and focused is the MMA fighter's secret weapon (he describes himself as 'attaining inner peace through fighting' on his Twitter page).
"Before a fight, I focus all my energy on being as calm as possible," he explains. "It's actually a very technical sport.
"If you're doing something technical you need to have a clear and calm mind. When your muscles are loose and relaxed, you can engage them quicker."
Like many MMA fighters, Cathal is as much a fan of the holistic side of MMA. He even has his own theory as to why MMA is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world.
"I think it has to do with the primal, competitive nature in humans," he says. "For hundreds of thousands of years we had to compete for everything – food, shelter, water, a mate. We did it through combat, and I really do believe that the more physical the sport – the more actual contact there is with an opponent – the more in tune with this sense of competition we become, and the more respect you have for your opponent."
As a student in Belvedere College, it originally looked as though Cathal might veer towards a rugby career; he tasted success in the Leinster Senior Cup, and even attended Leinster trials. Despite showing plenty of promise, it only served to galvanise his dreams of MMA success.
"It was the first sport I gave my full focus to. Rugby prepared me for this, in a way," he says.
"We were training like professional athletes in school, so I definitely attribute my success in MMA to rugby. I could have pursued (rugby) more, but I found something I loved even more.
"Besides, the parts of rugby that I loved – hitting rucks, tackling, focusing on one guy on the field – showed me that I was more interested in the physicality of the sport than taking the ball and running down the pitch. In a way, MMA is a more concentrated form of that."
Cathal's fledgling experiences under Belvedere's battalion of strength/ conditioning coaches and sports psychologists have since stood him in good stead. By now, he is more than used to a Spartan training regime. . . as well as the laser focus needed to keep his eye on the UFC prize.
"There aren't enough days in the week these days," he smiles. "There's so much to cover if you want to be elite in this sport."
He supplements his MMA training with conditioning and flexibility-based workouts at the Irish Strength Institute (www.isipersonaltraining.com), and has started dry needle therapy – a treatment not unlike acupuncture – to keep knee injuries at bay.
In tandem with this, Cathal's Paleo-based diet rarely veers off track, thanks in part to Fighter Food (www.fighterfood.ie), a home delivery service that provides clients with nutrient-rich, ready-made meals.
"The weight thing is important as I have to weigh in before fights," explains Cathal.
"It's an advantage to be as lean as possible, which is where the Paleo diet comes in.
"Basically, it's heavy in meats, vegetables and nuts – foods that were available to cavemen – while things like pasta, potatoes and bread go out the window. It's pretty difficult to eat like that in this day and age, which is where Fighter Food comes in really handy.
"The hardest part of training and dieting for most people is the preparation of meals, and the guy that started Fighter Food (Simon Higgins) clearly had a 'lightbulb' moment."
These days, Cathal is more than happy to stick rigidly to a regime, believing that nothing tastes as good as being a world champion feels.
"I'm only human like everyone else," he laughs. "I love a night out with my friends, but I can't do it as much as I'd like. After I'd have a fight, I might have a binge for a few days, but then I start to feel sluggish and want to start eating clean again."
Mercifully, Cathal's girlfriend – model/ presenter Michele McGrath – is every bit as health-conscious as he is.
"I think Michele has become even more mindful of fitness since we started going out, but when you live with someone it's really helpful to have someone who eats the same and doesn't go ordering pizza."
Having a girlfriend on the same page is one thing, but recently Cathal found himself in an entirely different domestic situation.
He took part in a reality TV show – The Ultimate Fighter – in which 32 fighters from around the world live together and battle it out for a coveted six-figure UFC contract.
Though he won't be drawn on his experiences on TUF, or indeed whether he emerged triumphant from the scrum, he did describe the experience of moving into a Las Vegas house with his opponents as a challenge.
'TUF is the toughest competition in sport," he reveals. "Basically, everyone gets put up in a house in Las Vegas for six weeks, and you're locked in the house for the whole time except for when you go training.
"It's a very difficult situation. You're in the house with people you don't know, and you're basically living with the guys you're fighting. I try not think of opponents ahead of a game, but it's hard not to when you're sharing a kitchen with them!"
Cathal's chances of TUF glory certainly seem strong from the outset. At the moment, Ireland already sits nicely at the top of the MMA pile in Europe. Two of the belts in Cage Warriors – the biggest promotion in Europe – are held by Irishmen Conor McGregor (featherweight) and Chris Fields (middleweight). "MMA is one of the fastest growing sports in the world," notes Cathal.
"When I was growing up in the '90s, the big event was always boxing, and the Irish (public) always got behind their boxers.
"But now we're at the top competing on the international stage, and the fans that would have supported boxing previously are now supporting us as well."
To the delight of its growing fan base, the UFC comes to Dublin's O2 in July.
Cathal's future fortunes still hang in the balance as of now, but he admits that he will go through hell or high water to fight there.
"The majority of the events are held in Vegas, but this Dublin event has already sold out in 20 minutes," he says.
"To say it's a dream to compete in UFC in Dublin is an understatement, but for now we can only see what happens."
The Ultimate Fighter starts on BT Sport 1 on April 16.