'I have no regrets and am proud of everything I achieved'- Cathal Pendred reflects on his time with UFC
It’s been exactly one week since Cathal Pendred announced his retirement from MMA to pursue other interests and, unlike so many of his peers, he’s walking away with no regrets and a viable plan for the future.
It is all too often the case that, at the zenith of professional mixed martial arts, fighters needlessly prolong their careers even when all the signs are there that the time is right to hang up the gloves.
The irony is that the unwavering tunnel vision required to succeed in such a singular profession can also cloud the fact that no amount of wealth, fame or the need to sate a competitive desire is worth continuing to expose yourself to the certainty of physical punishment.
This is why there’s something almost refreshing about Cathal Pendred’s decision to step away at just 28 years old and in the prime of his health.
As one of the wave of Irish fighters to have followed Conor McGregor to the UFC in 2014, the welterweight fought six times under their banner and won all but two of his bouts.
He did, however, come up short in his most recent pair of fights, including a crushing first round TKO loss at hands of Tom Breese in Dublin’s 3Arena last month. The loss consigned Pendred to successive defeats for the first time in his 22-fight career.
The showdown with Breese was the Dubliner’s fourth appearance in the octagon since January and, in its immediate aftermath, he initially decided to take a hiatus for at least a few months. Upon further reflection, though, Pendred realised he no longer had the requisite hunger to compete at the highest level.
“It definitely happened over time,” Pendred told independent.ie regarding his decision. “I wasn’t immediately thinking retirement; I initially thought I’d just take a break. I felt like I’d overdone it, but the more I thought about it the more I had time to settle on it, and I just realised the drive wasn’t there that had been in the past.
“Especially in a fighter like me, where I pretty much made a career of beating people on paper that I shouldn’t have beaten; it was just down to my drive, my will and my determination. When I lose that will a little bit, I suppose I lose one of my biggest assets so I decided it was time to move on.
“I have plenty of other things going on and they were obviously taking up the focus as well. That’s another thing about MMA; you have to be all in or not in at all, you can’t have one foot out the door. There were different things pulling me in different directions, and I just decided it was time to move on.
“I’ve talked to people since I’ve made the decision and they said they saw it in me. Obviously they didn’t want to say it because when you’re training for a fight you don’t bring up negative things that you see in people; you’re just talking positive the whole time,” he said.
For the entirety of his six-year professional career Pendred was cast as the underdog. He only tried his hand at the sport after leaving school while taking a summer away in California. This was a time when the prospect of an Irish fighter making it to the UFC wasn’t even the same vicinity as remote, though he was undeterred even then.
At Belvedere College he won a Senior Cup medal in the same pack as Cian Healy, and alongside other future stars like Ian Keatley and Eoin O’Malley.
He turned professional while studying analytical science at DCU and would have the strange experience of sitting an exam in the university’s Helix venue just a week before fighting in the same room with the Cage Warriors promotion.
In 2013, he won the Cage Warriors welterweight title and, even after he successfully defended his crown against UFC veteran Che Mills, the world’s biggest MMA organisation did not approach him, as they had his SBG teammate Conor McGregor.
He fielded offers from inferior promotions across the Atlantic, but eventually he moved up to middleweight to compete in The Ultimate Fighter reality series as a last resort to fulfil his dream. This entails six weeks isolated from the outside world and living in a house with 15 other men hell bent on beating you up.
He was eliminated at the semi-final stage but the UFC had seen enough to offer him a contract. He made his promotional debut in July 2014 at the then 02 Arena in what turned out be a watershed moment for the sport in Ireland
As was his wont, Pendred recovered after a huge beating in the first round from Mike King, and then defeated his opponent by rear-naked choke in the second.
Each fighter was awarded a $50,000 Fight of the Night bonus, and the SBG Ireland export would eventually get King’s share, after it emerged that the American had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.
It was a life-changing purse to receive, and one Pendred set aside in preparation for the long term, in the knowledge that such windfalls were all too rare for fighters in his position.
“On the whole, the business itself is a hard, tough journey just to even make a bit of a living out of it,” Pendred said. “It’s a very tough business; not just what you have to endure in the octagon, but the sacrifice, the reclusiveness of it, just to get where you want to go.
“It’s no secret that you don’t make crazy money in the UFC, especially if you’re not fighting that often. Fortunately, I fought six fights in a short space of time and I was also fortunate to get that double bonus in my first fight.
“I don’t have any complaints about my time with the UFC. I feel fortunate that I got there and made some money. I have nothing really bad to say about it.
“I always knew I had a short amount of time in the sport, I was well aware of that. Especially, how hard it was just to get to there (UFC). I never really indulged or rewarded myself. I haven’t even bought myself a car, which is the first thing most people do. I’m still driving the same car since I made my UFC debut.
“I just put all my money away and it was always my plan to invest in something. Ultimately that would be my future. Best case scenario I would only have ended up fighting to 33, 34 max, so you always had to think about your future,” he explained.
After his win over King he eked out a close split-decision victory over Gasan Umalatov, before being matched with Sean Spencer in the city of his birth, Boston last January.
That evening, as his teammates Conor McGregor and Paddy Holohan won their bouts in decisive fashion, he was awarded one of the most controversial decisions in recent memory.
Spencer had floored him and, although it was clearly shown by the statistics that Pendred bettered the American in every pertinent area, a wave of vitriol from fans and some corners of the press was sent his way.
He fought twice in five weeks during the summer, beating Augusto Monatno and narrowly losing to John Howard; at which point the countless hours of training were taking their toll.
He was paired with Breese for the Dublin event, though only agreed to accept the bout because it was on Irish soil, as he had already decided he needed to switch off for a time.
Considered one of the hottest prospects in European MMA, the hulking Breese had far too much firepower for Pendred.
“I definitely knew before that fight that I was going to be taking six months off. I had overdone it in terms of the fights I’d had in such a short space of time. Losing in your hometown is the worst case scenario for you really, and in the way I lost. I had to deal with it.
“If it had been any other fight I wouldn’t have taken it. I wasn’t going to miss out on Dublin and it was just unfortunate. The one thing that stands with me about the whole thing - and I have no regrets about my career and I’m very proud about everything I achieved - it would have been nice to go out on a nicer note.”
He’s already firmly focussed on his next challenge and has decided to invest in the healthy-eating franchise Chopped, having met his future business partners in a training session.
That said, he is a person that values and thrives in a structured lifestyle, so he’ll still be training on a near daily basis at SBG Ireland, where he hopes to impart some wisdom to those youngsters who were inspired by his success.
He’ll also be in attendance at the MGM Grand Arena, Las Vegas, in 10 days when his friend Conor McGregor seeks to unify the featherweight title by dethroning Jose Aldo at UFC 194.
“I need that regimented thing. I’m the type of person who just needs that. It affects the rest of my lifestyle. If I was to stay away from the gym for two weeks and not train, everything else in my life goes. When I have that discipline of training I’m sleeping better and my relationships with friends and family are better.
“I’m going to be out there pushing the guys day in, day out. In terms of young guys coming up through the ranks, any bit of knowledge I can give them, whether it be technical or just through my experience, I’m going to hand that down.”
He’s fortunate enough that the vast majority of his memories from the last decade are positive, though there’s one night in particular that stands out.
UFC Fight Night 46 at the 02 Arena on July 19, 2014 when, for a few brief hours, Dublin was at the centre of the MMA universe.
“In my UFC debut the stars aligned that night. Not just for me but for my whole team and for the sport as a whole in this country; it was literally the perfect night.
“It was a fairytale night for MMA. It was my debut, it was Paddy’s (Holohan) debut, Neil Seery was fighting for the first time at home with the UFC and Conor was headlining for first time and he was back after a year out, and Gunni (Gunnar Nelson) was in the co-main event.
“We all got our hands raised. I suppose the stars of the night were the fans, who were absolutely incredible. I have that event on DVD and it’ll definitely be getting pulled down from the shelf when I’m older and there are grandkids around. It sums up everything, the whole journey of it all, not just for me but my team,” he said.