Peter Carroll: As UFC fighters push for rights, Cathal Pendred’s success continues outside the Octagon

The former UFC fighter speaks to Peter Carroll about his experiences out of the fight game and his latest business venture

Cathal Pendred

Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne 

Cathal Pendred is in a full-blown business discussion on his phone when I walk through the doors of his Chopped salad bar in Blanchardstown.

After muted pleasantries, he raises a single digit that tells me he will be with me shortly and points to a table at the back of the eatery, where I understand that we will conduct our interview.

The doors of Chopped never seem to close during the lunchtime rush. Punters carrying yoga mats under their arms, couples in their twilight years and smartly dressed business folk saunter in, before Pendred bundles through the door and makes a beeline for me.

There isn’t a mark on his face, despite the years he committed to the fight game. Since his retirement, he has continued to be a success in his business ventures and with his acting career, that recently saw him play a prominent role in hit US TV series Ray Donovan.

The same work ethic that allowed him to lift the Senior Cup in his rugby years, and ascend to the pinnacle of MMA with the UFC has clearly stayed with him since his retirement last year. In both rugby and MMA, Pendred didn’t let his relative inexperience hold him back, and it doesn’t appear to be something he will allow to affect his business plans.

His final outing for UFC saw him lose more emphatically than he ever had before, with a first round technical knockout at the hands of Tom Breese in front of his home crowd in Dublin. A little over a month later, Pendred underlined his evident intelligence when he hung up his gloves.

The action showcased another asset he had that all too many fighters could only dream about—he knew when to walk away.

Since then, Pendred has proven that he was always setting himself up for life after fighting, which is an all too unique situation when considering the current crop of top-flight fighters.

"This didn’t just happen for me," explains Pendred over a cup of coffee.

"This required a lot of planning. The acting was something that I always wanted to get into, and the business was something I was considering a long time before I stepped away from fighting.

"It’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s also been very exciting. I feel like this is just scratching the surface of what I want to achieve further down the line. The journey has been great so far."

There are still so many people that believe that fighters are set for life when they sign for the world’s flagship MMA promotion, UFC.

However, last week’s announcement of a new association for UFC fighters that will fight for the rights of the athletes has proven that the vast majority of the roster are far from comfortable with their situations.

Pendred sees it as a blessing that he signed such a limited deal with the UFC, ten fights on entry level wages, as it pushed him to look outside the fighting when considering his future.

"I could have fallen into that trap very easily too if hadn’t been for the Ultimate Fighter contract that I signed, which is ten fights, as opposed to the usual entry level contract that’s usually a four-fight deal.

"So usually UFC will renegotiate with you before the last fight on your contract, but it takes an incredibly long time to do that if you’re on a ten-fight deal like I was. If someone on a four-fight contract does well, they have a good chance of getting a good bit more money when they renegotiate. I was kind of stuck in that deal and that’s why I was trying to fight so much.

"Eventually I made up my mind that I would try to put away everything that I earned from UFC so I could put that into different outlets that would maintain my living costs.

"I put myself out there a lot so I would be able to do that. I was writing, presenting, doing analyst work and acting as well. Now that the fighting has finished I really don’t want to do that stuff anymore."

Cathal Pendred (right) in action against Tom Breese last year. Image: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Despite the big names that were paraded out by the new association, MMAAA, for their conference call last week—Georges St-Pierre, TJ Dillashaw, Cain Velasquez, Donald Cerrone, Tim Kennedy— Pendred is adamant his teammate, Conor McGregor, has to be involved for the association to have any success.

"It’s funny to me when I hear people talking about him being bigger than the sport after the last win because I’ve known that for nearly two years. He’s transcended the sport as we’ve seen from his different TV spots and the interest from other sports like boxing and sports entertainment companies like WWE.

"Look at the sway he has. He is making the rules now. As far as I’m concerned, Conor has to be involved for any kind of association to have success.

"That’s no disrespect to GSP or the other guys that were up there. It definitely holds some weight when you have fighters of their stature speaking out, but even collectively I don’t think they hold as much weight as Conor."

The real turning point for the fighters was UFC being sold for a record $4.4 billion early this year. Knowing how little they get paid, the value of the company has kicked the fighters into action to create a combined front that will help them negotiate better terms with the organization in the future.

Even though he has put MMA on the backburner, Pendred admits that it was frustrating to hear how little of the money is put back into the fighters, with MMAAA estimating that only 8% of the company’s profits go towards fighter pay.

"Big time, of course, it annoys me to hear how much they made from the selling the company when I think of the money I was getting," he says.

"You see, the problem for a lot of people is, they’ve put everything into getting there and then when they realize that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, they have nowhere else to go.

"It doesn’t take long to realize that you’re just another number, and you’re only really there to make the entity profit at the end of the day. All of the other popular sports in the country have unions and rightfully so.

"Without the footballers, there is no Premier League, the same as without MMA fighters, there would be no UFC."

Pendred remembers a lot of people thinking he had already made a lot of money before he even signed for the UFC, but when he received his first contract he wouldn’t show his father, a solicitor, the finer details of it as he knew he would be advised against signing it.

"Everybody thought I was loaded even before I got to the UFC," he recalls. "Even though I was just making a couple of hundred quid for a fight. Really, the only people who know how bad it is are the people who are in it.

"When I got to the UFC I wouldn’t even let me Dad see my contracts and he is a solicitor. I knew he’d tell me I was signing my life away, but I had put in so many years to get there, I was never going to not sign it. You feel like you have to sign any contract UFC give to you.

"You nearly find yourself supporting the illusion that many people have of you, everyone thinks you’re loaded so you see a lot of fighters acting like they are.

"For a long time everybody was happy to do that, but we can see the trend changing now with the likes of this association with so many big names speaking out."

Pendred believes that the stress of having no money definitely affects fighters’ performances too:

"It’s no secret that before my first UFC fight I was months behind on all of my bills and on my rent. I was training for the biggest fight of my life and I was worried that when I came home from training all of my belongings would be just outside the door or my lights wouldn’t turn on.

"That stuff definitely affects you. I was lucky enough that I didn’t have kids or anything like that, but I can imagine what kind of stress you would be under if you did. There are plenty of guys fighting for the UFC that are in that situation, so, of course, that outside stress is always going to have an impact on how you perform."

As far as the Boston-born Dubliner is concerned, the move to unionize the fighters comes from the ambiguity of the new owners compared to the Zuffa days of the past.

"I really don’t think this would have happened if the Fertittas were still there. These new owners have remained faceless, whereas before if you spoke out about the owners you knew you would be seeing Lorenzo at the next show.

"He’s a real people person. He knows everybody on a first name basis and he has time for everyone, but you just didn’t want to piss him off because you kind of felt like you knew him.

"Now it’s Conan O’Brien and Mark Wahlberg and everyone else. Let’s be honest, they don’t care about any of this stuff."

Conor McGregor spoke after his lightweight title victory over Eddie Alvarez of his desire to have "equity" in the UFC. Image: ©INPHO/Tom Hogan 

Fighters may be speaking out, but Pendred claims that the lesser-known athletes on the roster are the most vulnerable. With Donald Cerrone, one of the best-known fighters on the roster, being audibly fearful of coming forward with his complaints during last week's conference call, entry-level fighters will be even more reluctant to air their dirty laundry.

"If a company guy like Cerrone seems to be afraid of backlash, imagine what a guy just two fights into his UFC career is feeling?

"There’s no way a guy in the situation is speaking out without the backing of all the other fighters. That’s the trouble every association is going to have."

Pendred claims that he never felt he would be fighting into his late thirties, but accepted that if the company had offered benefits like pensions and insurance, then maybe he would have stayed around for a little bit longer. The real issue with Pendred was falling out of love with the sport. A year after his retirement, he still doesn’t get the itch to return to the Octagon.

"I don’t get the itch at all. That’s a relief to me because it would be annoying to have that urge constantly. I’m not saying I don’t like to compete. I love going to the gym now and training, but that gets it out of me. That’s all I want to do, I don’t have any strong feelings to take it further than that."

While he may have some outstanding issues with the sport, he still wouldn’t dissuade anyone from pursuing the sport because his whole life turned around when he gained discipline from his training.

"If I had walked up to any fighter when I was younger and told him that I wanted to be an MMA fighter, and they told me that I shouldn’t do it, there is no way that it would have stopped me from pursuing it.

"And I don’t think I would say that to a kid. There’s a lot of focus and discipline that comes along with training in martial arts that even if it fizzled out after five years I think the kid would have grown a lot by training in the sport.

"I was a bit of a wild kid. I only got focus when I started to train in rugby. I was real problem kid up until I was about 14, you wouldn’t believe how bad I was. That focus on sports really turned me onto a new path. I became better at school, better at everything really.

"So, no, I don’t think I would ever tell a kid that was genuinely interested in the sport not to pursue it."

Pendred has no interest in competing, but that doesn’t mean he still isn’t involved in MMA. Currently, the former Cage Warriors welterweight champion is helping his friend and teammate, Chris Fields, prepare for his bid at history at BAMMA 27 at the 3 Arena on December 16.

"When you see some of the guys that are getting into UFC now, I think Chris is way further up the pecking order than them. For me, it was just a couple of bad results at the wrong time that messed him up when he should have been getting a contract.

"This fight, him competing for a world title in his hometown with a chance to become the first man to win both Cage Warriors and BAMMA titles, I really feel like it’s the crowning achievement his career deserves.

"It kind of makes me feel a little bit sad as I see him peaking ahead of the fight. We used to do those things together, you know, but he looks amazing.

"I’ve seen so much improvement in him since he opened his gym in Swords. Just to take out the travel to SBG Concorde every day, that’s changed everything. He has far more time to recover.

"We’ve all been working very hard and we’ve all been researching his opponent. I feel like he’s more confident than he’s ever been too, so I’m expecting a big night for him on December 16."