IN THE WEE hours of tomorrow morning, Irish MMA fans will have their TVs trained on Boston as Dublin’s Conor McGregor introduces himself to prime-time America.
After setting the UFC abuzz with a first-minute knockout on his debut, McGregor got a golden ticket and a place on the undercard of tonight’s superstar clash between Chael Sonnen and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in TD Garden.
But while the man they call “the Notorious” is making waves at the top, friend and training partner Cathal Pendred is being forced to take the long way round to secure a dream deal and his own shot at the big time.
Later this month Pendred, 25, flies out to Indianapolis where he will tryout for the 19th series of the UFC’s reality TV ratings hit ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’
First broadcast in 2005 and credited with bringing the organisation — and mixed martial arts in general — to a mainstream audience, TUF is Big Brother with a twist. Each series so far has been a variation on the following: professional fighters are holed up together in a Las Vegas house with the cameras trained on them and only each other for company. With one prized contract up for grabs, they must compete against each other over a six-week period to win.
The series has been the platform for some of the UFC’s biggest names including Rashad Evans, Nate Diaz and Britain’s Michael Bisping. Now Pendred hopes to add his name to the list.
But it shouldn’t be this way for the man who seemed destined to make the step up following his most recent win at the start of June. Already the Cage Warriors welterweight champion, the understanding between Pendred, his management and the UFC was that beating Che Mills of England would seal the deal.
Pendred won — in impressive fashion, too — but the call never came.
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“We were just waiting for the call for about a week and nothing happened,” Pendred told TheScore.ie earlier this week. When his coach John Kavanagh enquired, the UFC said the numbers just didn’t add up.
They said that there is way too many guys in the welterweight division at the moment. It’s by far the most packed division that they have; most divisions have 40 or 50 guys but welterweight has 80 guys.
They’re trying to get rid of guys before they sign any more guys up and I’m pretty much the next welterweight in line that they want to sign. They just said keep fighting, keep winning.
The only problem is that Pendred has already beaten most of Europe’s top welterweights. He took out former champion Gael Grimaud of France to win the title in February; the only other attractive option at this level, England’s Paul Daley, has since signed with the BAMMA promotion and scuppered any chance of the two meeting.
“The guys around aren’t that high-profile and wouldn’t really be turning heads with the UFC brass.
“I always like to take a step up for my next fight; if you look down my list of fights, each guy I’ve fought has been better than the last guy.
The last four guys I’ve beaten, there’s no-one else around that level unless I start re-matching them. Everyone else is too far behind me and a win over them doesn’t really do anything for me.
And so trying out for a place in The Ultimate Fighter now appears to be the quickest route to the top. Pendred says he’s relishing the intensity of the challenge.
“It’s very tough but that’s one thing that’s always appealed to me about The Ultimate Fighter. When I was younger for years I always wanted to be a Marine because I used to watch the movies and see how tough bootcamp was. I just relish a big challenge and something that’s really tough.
Being in a house for six weeks and not being able to contact friends or family, not having TV or magazines or books to read, just being stuck in a house with guys you have to fight, it’s as big a challenge as you can get.
The TV bosses will be on the lookout for colourful and volatile personalities in the hope of scoring another hit but Pendred is treating the whole process as a means to an end and is confident that his record to date will stand out from the crowd.
And when he gets the chance to meet UFC boss Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva — two men whom Irish fans have relentlessly lobbied on Pendred’s behalf — he hopes that they will like what they see.
“You never know, I could just go over to Joe Silva and make a good case for myself. They might not even put me through the hoops, they might just give me a contract. I’ve heard that has happened before so you never know.
“There’s going to be no harm in going over anyway. Ideally I would love it if they just gave me the contract straight away instead of going through the six weeks of hell but I’m happy to do it.”