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Cathal Pendred: From flanker to grappler

15/01/2013

HIS coaches at Clontarf Rugby Club knew they’d lost him when his appearances at training started to become less frequent.

It was out of character for 20-year-old Cathal Pendred. He was one of the club’s brightest prospects, with genuine aspirations of carving out a career as a professional rugby player.

His appetite for training and hard work was irrepressible. He’d train seven days a week if he could. But eventually the promising back-row forward was hardly turning up for matches each weekend. Something wasn’t quite right.

“I was missing a lot of training sessions and they were obviously wondering what the hell was going on. When I told them why, they thought I was a bit nuts,” Pendred recalls.

Being a professional athlete had always been his ambition. Having won a prestigious Leinster Schools Senior Cup medal with Belvedere College at Lansdowne Road in 2005 alongside the likes of current Irish internationals Cian Healy and Ian Keatley, he was on the right track.

Pendred’s objective never changed, but a year in San Diego caused him to follow a very different path in trying to achieve it. Rugby lost its appeal when he stumbled upon mixed martial arts.

“I had watched a lot of MMA on TV but assumed there was nowhere you could do it in Ireland. When I went to San Diego after finishing school there were MMA gyms everywhere. I gave it a go out of curiosity and loved it straight away,” he explains.

“When I came back home I was like a man possessed, trying to find a gym. I was surprised that there were actually a few around Dublin so I started training as soon as I got back. Within four or five months I had my first amateur fight.”

It didn’t take long for Pendred’s fascination with MMA to halt his pursuit of a career in rugby. Soon he was devoting five nights a week to the combat sport. Having also just begun a four-year degree course at Dublin City University, there was little time for much else.

When he informed friends and family of the change in his sporting interests, the reaction was always the same. The raised eyebrows were to be expected and nobody was more bemused than his father and mother.

There was more than enough physicality in rugby, but cage-fighting? Pendred’s parents took some convincing. His father travelled with him to his amateur debut in Derry. A couple of fights later his mother came along.

“The first time my mam came to a fight she just hid in the corner and couldn’t watch,” Pendred recalls. “My dad was a bit worried at the start as well and it took a while to win them over. But they love it now and they’re completely behind me.

“They’re more educated about the sport and they understand that it’s not as dangerous as it might appear at first. I’ve never really had anything more than bumps and bruises. I got far more injuries playing rugby.”

CWFC welterweight title contender Cathal Pendred in action for Belvedere College in the 2005 Leinster Schools Senior Cup final at Lansdowne Road.

Since making his professional debut in 2009, Pendred’s ascent has been impressively swift. After suffering two losses early on, he has gone on to establish himself as one of the top welterweights in Europe. But what made him so adamant that rugby was no longer his calling?

Ireland prop-forward Cian Healy, one of his closest friends, is living the life that Pendred once aspired to. He still misses rugby, but not that much. There are no regrets.

“When I played rugby I always picked a guy on the opposing team – usually a guy in a similar position to me – and tried to outplay him, catch him in a tackle, get my hands on more ball than him; basically just get the better of him.

“That’s the one thing more than any other that appeals to me about MMA. It’s just one guy versus another, the ultimate form of competing and challenging yourself. MMA is very much a team sport when it comes to training in the gym, but it’s all down to yourself once you get in there.

“It’s all the parts of rugby that I loved. I do miss rugby sometimes but I’m delighted with how things have gone. I’d rather get to the top in MMA than rugby. I think I’m pretty close to that.”

The UFC remains the desired destination for every MMA fighter. Pendred is hovering just below that level at present, but he believes a call from the summit is imminent and his performances in 2012 suggest the same.

Despite going into both fights as the underdog, Pendred defeated top European-ranked opponents in the shape of Bruno Carvalho and three-time UFC veteran David Bielkheden last year.

The win over Bielkheden was in front of his friends and family at The Helix in Dublin back in June. A week earlier he was in the very same venue sitting his final university exams, from which he recently graduated with a degree in analytical science. But ideally he’ll never have to use it.

“I’m done with that!” Pendred says emphatically. “When I fully decided to go with the MMA I was already two years into the degree. It’s good to have something to fall back on if I ever get a serious injury and have to retire. I was tempted to leave it go but I don’t like quitting anything.”

Check out his fights against Carvalho and Bielkheden and you’ll see that Pendred takes a similar approach when it comes to his sport. On both occasions he displayed remarkable resilience to withstand pressure and emerge victorious.

Right now the 25-year-old is plying his trade with Cage Warriors and has finally earned the title shot he’s been dreaming of since winning his promotional debut in November 2010.

Pendred will fight defending champion Gael Grimaud in the main event at Cage Warriors 52 at London’s HMV Forum on March 9. Like the Bielkheden and Carvalho fights, it’s the biggest of his life to date, which is proof that Pendred’s career is on an upward trajectory.

“I’ve never been more confident going into a fight. That has nothing to do with my opponent, it’s just a result of my skill-set having grown to where it is now, my experience increasing, and my belief in my abilities.

“I believe I’m the best fighter in my weight class in Europe and on March 9 I’m going to win the most prestigious title available from a European promotion. That means everything to me.

“I had my first fight for Cage Warriors a little over two years ago. Since then I’ve wanted to become their welterweight champion. In that short space of time I’ve grown from a young novice professional fighter to the best in Europe, and Cage Warriors has developed into the biggest show in Europe and one of the biggest in the world.

“I’ve grown up as a fighter on Cage Warriors and after a couple of years of testing myself against some of the best around, I’m finally getting to reach the goal I set for myself way back then by becoming the Cage Warriors welterweight champion.”

Victory on March 9 would send the CWFC weltwerweight title to Dublin. That Leinster Schools rugby medal may not be the focal point of Pendred’s mantelpiece for much longer.

Interview: Paul Dollery
Lead photo: Dolly Clew

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