Sunday, December 10

Fighting for Liverpool: Paddy the Baddy and Meatball Molly’s UFC takeover | UFC

Paddy the Baddy and Meatball Molly are laughing, again, in a place of dark pain. On Kempston Street, in the heart of Liverpool, the Next Generation MMA gym rocks with joyful noise even though it is here that Paddy Pimblett and Molly McCann practise their bone-breaking kicks and punches. On the mat, and in the cage upstairs, they are flung to the ground by heavier sparring partners who grapple and half-choke them in a restrained imitation of everything that awaits on Saturday night at a sold-out O2 Arena.

Paddy Pimblett leans on Molly McCann during a training session. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) steams back into London for the first time in three years and the Liverpool fighters threaten to blow the roof off as Pimblett and McCann each take their turn in the cage. Pimblett is being called the next Conor McGregor and he is not shy in promising to “take over the organisation” and become “the UFC’s new cash cow”.

His great friend McCann, his “big sister”, has overcome poverty, drug addiction in her family and depression to come out as gay and be the first English woman to win a UFC fight. Her nickname stems from her past work in Subway, where she left every shift smelling of meatballs. She also knows what it is like to win a fight with a shattered eye socket and to be choked unconscious.

Molly McCann shows her support for Ukraine.
Molly McCann shows her support for Ukraine. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

They understand the danger facing them but they can’t stop kidding around on a Wednesday morning. “I’m a fat little kid at heart,” Pimblett says as he and McCann talk about biscuits and politics. McCann has just pulled on a blue Ukraine T-shirt, having decided the Russian onslaught means she should save her Fuck the Tories top for another day, which sets Pimblett off on a riff. Custard Creams top his list of unacceptable “Tory biscuits” but he makes an exception for deluxe M&S Shortbread, which he finds so delicious they belong in the feast he will demolish after his fight against Rodrigo Vargas on Saturday.

Pimblett smiles and ruffles his blond mop-top when I suggest this is not typical fight-talk. “That’s why I have so many fans,” he says. “I look like the kid next door. Most fighters show off their big muscles, they sneer and snarl, tattoos all over them. I’ve got this haircut and not a single tattoo. But I turn into a different person in the cage. I get tunnel vision and all I think about is this guy in front of me and how I put him to sleep.”

The 27-year-old, who describes himself as a socialist and the greatest MMA lightweight in the world, nods when I ask if he really believes he can approach the astronomical fame and wealth McGregor accumulated before hubris diminished him. “Yeah. I see myself being bigger than that, because the sport has evolved even more than when Conor made it mainstream. He had twentysomething lads following him where I’m getting kids from the age of five. Kids look at McGregor and see a big, hard fella with loads of tattoos. Kids have got long, floppy hair, they haven’t got tattoos. They can identify with me.”

Paddy Pimblett knee-kicks to the head of his coach, Ellis Hampson.
Paddy Pimblett knee-kicks to the head of his coach, Ellis Hampson. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

McCann chips in. “Paddy might not look like a fighter and, with the mouth he has, you wouldn’t expect him to do all he does for the community. The two of us are totally mad characters but we come from the best and hardest city in the world.”

After she shows me her tattoo – “My city, my people, my heart” – in tribute to Liverpool, McCann says: “You’ll never meet another Patrick Pimblett or Molly McCann. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a girl and he’s a boy, but we push each other to be better versions of ourselves and don’t envy each other’s success. If he gets a big sponsorship then it’s: ‘Go on, lad, well done.’ If I get more airtime he’ll say: ‘Go on, Moll, it’s right.’ I have not one ounce of doubt in Patrick Pimblett’s ability to be the best in the world. Together, we’ll change the game.”

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Molly McCann fights Ji Yeon Kim in Las Vegas.
Molly McCann fights Ji Yeon Kim in Las Vegas. Photograph: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Last September, in Las Vegas, the UFC was given its first taste of the Paddy and Molly Show as Pimblett made his debut and McCann entered the last fight on her contract. Pimblett intrigued America’s MMA community with his accent and bold proclamations that he would soon be “the main man” in UFC. McCann, meanwhile, knew that defeat would spell the end of her UFC career. At 31, she would be cut adrift.

They were under enormous pressure. Pimblett needed to match the monumental hype as he moved up from competing in Cage Warriors events after he had turned down offers to switch to UFC twice before. McCann was fighting for survival.

“It was intense,” she says, “but there were so many warm moments where it was just me and him. I said: ‘Patrick, I feel a bit nervous. Are you?’ He went: ‘I am, Moll. But we’ll just get on with it.’ He said to me before I won the [2018 Cage Warriors] world title: ‘We’re scousers and we’re the best people in the world. Go show them what we’re made of.’”

Paddy Pimblett goes up against Luigi Vendramini in Las Vegas last year.
Paddy Pimblett goes up against Luigi Vendramini in Las Vegas last year. Photograph: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

In Vegas, McCann beat Ji Yeon Kim and earned herself a new four-bout UFC contract and an extra $50,000 for a fight-of-the-night bonus – with Pimblett getting the same amount for knocking out Luigi Vendramini in the first round. A heavy shot jolted him before Pimblett finished Vendramini with a barrage of blows.

“Not really,” he says when I ask if he was hurt. “Look, lad, scousers don’t get knocked out.” McCann says: “After Paddy got his KO I ran to the cage, screaming ‘We shook up the world, lad!’ March 19, at the O2, will solidify everything.”

Pimblett adds: “It’s going to be a scouse invasion of London and the only thing I can compare to it is when Conor McGregor fought in Dublin. But it’ll be louder than that. Remember the O2 roof got ripped off by Storm Eunice? What a bad name for a storm. Don’t worry. Storm Baddy is about to hit London.”

We drive to Pimblett’s home in Huyton where he grew up. He talks about his growing friendship with Ronnie O’Sullivan and how their fathers were in prison at the same time – and how Rio Ferdinand found him at Anfield the night before. The former England defender had to be asked by Jake Humphrey to get back to football when, live on BT Sport before Pimblett’s beloved Liverpool played Internazionale, Ferdinand spoke excitedly about meeting the Baddy. Pimblett looked like the Pied Piper as awe-stuck young fans followed him. McCann, who supports Everton, was not there.

Paddy Pimblett admires the microphone before giving a live TV interview for BT Sport.
Paddy Pimblett admires the microphone before giving a live TV interview for BT Sport. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

But Pimblett laments that Kenny Dalglish accepted a knighthood. “I hate the establishment,” he says, “the royal family and the Tories.” He also talks about the contract – “worth well over a million pounds” – he has signed with the American company Barstool Sports and the vlogger from Philadelphia who has moved to Liverpool to follow him and post daily content online. Then, passionately, Pimblett explains his bitter dispute with Instagram, which shut down his account when he had almost a million followers.

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He uses his social media accounts to raise money to help a little boy called Lee Hodgson receive experimental treatment for terminal cancer. When a troll “posted something despicable about Lee”, Pimblett contacted Instagram. After he had been told that no guidelines had been breached he called Instagram “dog-shit” and “lizards”. His account was closed, which cuts off a key route of public access as well as costing him money.

Molly pretends to punch a grounded opponent during a training session.
Molly pretends to punch a grounded opponent during a training session. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Pimblett will send a stinging message to Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram from inside the cage on Saturday. “I’m grabbing the mic and calling Zuckerberg out because the weird thing is he goes on about getting bullied at high school and in college. Why are you letting the bullies win now? Instagram’s an absolute disgrace. The guidelines are ridiculous.

“I’ve had people messaging me saying ‘I’m going to rape your mother’ or sending me pictures of Hillsborough, calling Liverpool fans ‘fence-munchers’. Their accounts are still open. But mine gets taken. I feel sorry for Vargas [his opponent]. I’m going to take his head off because of Instagram. The post-fight speech is going to be biblical. I’m going to sing Justice for the 97 [of Hillsborough] with the whole arena at a crazy decibel level. Then I’ll just go – mic drop.”

There will be humour, as always, because he has ordered 1,000 lookalike blond wigs for his raucous fans. But there is also anger on behalf of Liverpool. “What the government has done to our city for years is disgusting. Knowsley [the borough in which Huyton is located] is the worst-funded in the whole of the UK today. People think I’m talking about 40 years ago. But there are kids in this city eating out of food banks. We’re not a Tory area. It’s that simple.”

Paddy poses for a photo with fans outside Anfield.
Paddy poses for a photo with fans outside Anfield. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Pimblett is on his phone for large chunks of the day, answering requests for support, and this desire to help others drives him in the UFC cage. It makes him certain he will surpass McGregor one day. “I’ll be a billionaire eventually,” he says, “and there won’t be no kids eating out of food banks in this city then. I’ll make sure of it.”

Pimblett insists he will never leave Liverpool. His fame, however, is approaching the stage where he will need security and he might have to move to a new house so that people can’t turn up at his front door for a selfie. But his ease in being visible at other times will continue – as will his prolific social media output, which includes a amusing podcast.

“The reason I called it Chattin’ Pony is because, in Liverpool, it means you’re chatting a bit of shit. Tomorrow, I’m doing a new episode with Molly and it’s just us sitting there having an unscripted conversation. We’ll be chattin’ pony and before you know it we’ll have had 200,000 downloads.”

Paddy and Molly recording the Chattin’ Pony podcast.
Paddy and Molly recording the Chattin’ Pony podcast. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

We’ve been “chattin’ pony” for so long that Pimblett has to call McCann and tell her we are running late for my interview with her. She is typically understanding and, half an hour later, we’re back in the city centre and across the road from the Subway where she worked so hard while starting out as an MMA fighter.

McCann asks me if she should watch the evocative documentary about her that is now available on BT Sport. She is worried about the emotions it might unleash before the fight because, having seen it, I tell her about some of the most moving moments. The documentary opens with her first UFC fight, in Liverpool in May 2018, and captures her devastation after she blacked out during a choking headlock.

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“There had never been a female champ like me in Cage Warriors,” she says of the organisation where she made her name. “Patrick sold the most tickets, I’m No 2 and Conor McGregor’s No 3. So getting signed to the UFC was a dream. I knew that as long as I’m in that cage, you’re going to have to put me to sleep to stop me. And that’s what happened.

“My mum took me to a hotel next to the arena. She’s clean and sober now but she bought me a cider. She was like: ‘Drink that.’ I sat there, my head swirling, feeling that losing my UFC debut in my home city was the end of the world. My mum said: ‘You’re cut from my cloth. So go to your after-party and be grateful for what you’ve achieved.’ I said: ‘Fucking hell, Mum, can’t you give me 10 minutes?’ She went: ‘No. Go see your people.’

“I still ended up crying non-stop and got back to my hotel about 10. I went for a Chinese and when I walked in the whole restaurant looked at me and went: ‘Ahhhhh.’ They’d all seen it. A man came over to me and put £100 on the table and said: ‘You’re not buying your dinner tonight, girl. This is on me and my family. Thank you for representing the city so well.’ It meant so much because he understood lots of people will submit and tap out – but not me or my city.”

The two fighters compare bodies during a training session.
The two fighters compare bodies during a training session. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

In her next fight, at the O2 in March 2019, McCann suffered a broken orbital bone and could not see out of her swollen eye for the last round. She still won the fight. “I had four minutes to change the rest of my life and I drew on all the past adversity and found strength. I was thinking this was a good fight to show what scousers are made of because every step I’ve taken in life, every positive thing I’ve accomplished, I attribute to this city. It got me to where I’m going – to where Patrick and I are going.”

McCann’s most difficult battle has been coming out. “At first I couldn’t even think about my sexuality because we had so much going on in my family. The proudest thing for me was my last name. If anyone can, Molly McCann can. When I went to university I opened up and when I started MMA, with its jujitsu ethos that we are all one, it became easier. Your creed, sexuality, religion don’t matter in this gym.

A photo of both fighters appears on the timetable of classes at the next Generation MMA gym in Liverpool.
A photo of both fighters appears on the timetable of classes at the next Generation MMA gym in Liverpool. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“But I still struggle to sometimes bring it up. I have had people go: ‘Oh, that’s fucking gay’ and then they’re like: ‘I shouldn’t have said that, Molly. I’m sorry.’ When I wrote a little book for kids [about being gay] my friends and family members rang to say: ‘I am so sorry I made you feel that way.’ That’s absolutely fine, just don’t make anyone else feel that way.”

Tears roll down her face but McCann is soon smiling again. She wipes her eyes. “One of the proudest things I can say is that, like Paddy, I am a scouser. Think about Irishmen and women who had so much adversity through the Troubles. We’re very similar. Jamie Webster released a song called This Place and it made me cry. In fight week, when Paddy and I are warming up, I’ll put that song on and we’ll sing: ‘My people, my city, my heart …’”

Meatball Molly looks up, her eyes shining as she thinks of herself and Paddy the Baddy. “We owe it all to this place and, on Saturday, we’ll light up the O2. Paddy and me will show it’s not all talk or bravado or arrogance. It’s an affirmation of hard work and belief. We’re gonna turn London into a scouse house party.”

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