Schools Rugby: Fighting comes naturally to Belvedere old boy Pendred

The former schools rugby player and four of his former team-mates later joined the ranks of professional sport

“Defeat is a state of mind; no one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as a reality.” – Bruce Lee

Cathal Pendred is a fighter, no doubt about it, but come the earliest chance to brawl, at the first lunch break on the first day of first year in the Great Denmark street schoolyard in Dublin’s north inner city, he took the sensible option.

“With a name like that, Cathal Pendred, he wouldn’t have been seen as a tough guy,” laughed Paul O’Donohoe, a former team-mate and recently retired Connacht scrumhalf.

“But he always was. To beat him you will have to leave him lame on the floor.


“He came into the yard that first day and said, ‘Right, my name’s Cazzer not Cathal and I’ll fight the biggest lad here.’”

Turns out, in this instance, Pendred was the victim of circumstance.

The crowd parted as a “baby bull elephant” accepted the challenge.

"I'll fight you," said the young Cian Healy.

As the future heavyweight Ireland prop circled the future welterweight UFC professional, a mixture of impending doom and glee gripped the other boys.

“This is going to best six years ever!” O’Donohoe remembered thinking.

Bloodshed was avoided that day as both parties eventually felt it more prudent to unite the tribes. Sure enough, six of the best years later, Belvedere College reaped the benefit as a 33-year-wait for the Leinster schools senior cup, harking back to Ollie Campbell’s team, was ended on St Patrick’s Day.

Special crop

It was going to take a special crop to halt a Blackrock side containing Luke Fitzgerald and

Ian Madigan


“Yeah, it was a phenomenal group when you think back,” said Pendred from his training camp in Boston last week. “We were all competitive guys and that rubbed off on each other. We were always competing with each other.”

Pendred, who played flanker and secondrow in school, eventually followed four others into the ranks of professional sport. Healy led the way, followed by Eoin O’Malley, O’Donohoe and, most impressively of late, Munster outhalf Ian Keatley.

“In second year me, Chub (O’Malley) and Paul used to go down to the gym every Friday. When most other kids were rushing to get out of the school we would be in the weights room seeing who could lift the most,” says Pendred.

“We took it really seriously. That competitive nature helped us all excel.

“We never invited Cian as it wouldn’t have been competitive anymore.”

Not that Pendred versus Healy would have been a foregone conclusion.

Cazza’s fights are never a foregone conclusion. Whether he’s able to turn what usually seems a crushing defeat into victory and therefore into an art form in itself remains to be seen but he’s the baby bull nowadays.

“I definitely attribute a lot of my success to what I learnt playing schools rugby. I had a great grasp of wrestling from playing rugby but much more importantly we were taught how to be professional athletes when we were just kids.

“At 17 years of age we were training every day, coming in before school at 7am to do a weights session, staying after school to do pitch sessions. We had nutritionists telling us what to eat, we had sports psychologist talking to us about how important a healthy mind was to achieving success.

“That all stood to me. I am still using all that advice today.”

It’s working. Last Sunday night in Boston he was awarded a controversial unanimous decision over Sean Spencer at UFC 59.

There’s his cracking right hook but if Pendred’s opponent allows him run and dip the shoulder in close contact we’re going to see a spear tackle before the inevitable ground and pound. Those born out of jujitsu or Olympic wrestling have struggled to subdue such ferocity.

Martial arts

“As a kid I had done all sorts of martial arts like judo and taekwondo but I don’t have a strong background in any of them. Really I came to the game raw in every area.

“The one thing I did seem to have a big advantage on every European opponent is my wrestling. Rugby is basically wrestling guys for 80 minutes straight; the aim is to get people to the ground. That’s stood to me.”

After school Healy, O’Donohoe, O’Malley and Keatley entered the Leinster Academy. Pendred would have loved the opportunity but he was passed over.

“If the opportunity had arisen for me to play rugby for a living I one hundred per cent would have done it.”

His route into the UFC is unusual.

Initially studying business and French at DIT, within a few weeks he dropped out and took advantage of a US passport, having been born in America, to spend the year on the beaches of San Diego while waiting a reapply to the CAO to study science.

“There were MMA gyms all over the place, I’d never seen one in Ireland, so I went in one day and absolutely loved it. When I came back to Dublin I was determined to keep it up. I was also playing under-20s rugby for Clontarf . . .

“I got my first amateur fight against Dean Balmer in 2008. This was a huge big deal for my friends, the fight was up in Derry and Paul O’Donohoe organised a big bus for all the lads to go up. They all thought it was nuts – going to see their friend in a fight – they never saw it as a career path, they just presumed I was doing something crazy. Anyway, I won by submission in the first round.

“It just went from there. I had a couple more amateur fights. I was training every day, it was all I could think about. I was still in college, I just figured if I threw everything at it I could make it.

“I went pro and that’s when I needed to find the best trainer in the country. It didn’t take me too long to realise that was John Kavanagh.”

Kavanagh is also Conor McGregor’s coach so Pendred has been able to ride the coattails of this growing sport’s rising star.

“That’s when I knocked rugby on the head. I had come to realise MMA was everything I loved about rugby but in a more concentrated form. I just loved the physicality of rugby; that’s what I was known for as a player. Hitting the rucks, hitting the tackle. I wasn’t interested in getting the ball and making a run.

“I used to always pinpoint one player on the other team. Whoever we were playing in advance I would pick him out and keep talking about how I was going to outplay him, be it the scrumhalf or outhalf, I would focus on spoiling their game.

Eye contact

“I would hit the guy early then make eye contact with them so they know . . .”

You were going to torture them all day?

“Pretty much, yeah. That’s what I meant when I say MMA is everything I loved about rugby but more pure.

“My first professional fight was February 2009.”

And on it went to UFC 59 and possibly a Dublin homecoming this summer at Croke Park or the Aviva .

A topical issue, in both the UFC and rugby, which Pendred readily addressed, is the use of supplements and spectre of doping. A recent opponent, Mike King, who Pendred defeated with a second round submission, subsequently tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone.

King’s share of the purse went to the victor. “Of course doping happens in MMA. It happens in all professional sports. The biggest downfall of any athlete is they are so competitive they are willing to do anything to get an edge, like doping. In MMA it is a little harder to regulate because we don’t compete as frequently as rugby or soccer players or track and field athletes. We compete three to five times a year so people can cycle things in and out of them and not get caught.”

Pendred confirms that there’s no out of competition testing in UFC but he does advocate the use of food supplements. “Using supplements I think is very important. I use supplements. Any professional athlete should to be honest. We push our bodies so much that it is sometimes near impossible to get all the nutrients just by eating food.

Protein shake

“Last thing I want to do after a session is eat two chicken fillets, it is easier to get a protein shake into you. It’s just that; a food supplement. I don’t have a problem with that.” The rugby schools, via IRFU advice, prohibit supplements but who do you think the teenagers are listening to?

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent