If you haven’t thought about the UFC in a while, you’re not alone. It’s been nine months since Conor McGregor fought, with no return to the Octagon yet on the books. And despite losing three of his last four fights, the Irishman is still the reigning, defending champion of the pay-per-view world. Take a look at the most purchased PPV fights in the league’s history and you’ll find McGregor’s bouts make up the entire top six, and eight of the top 10. No one can draw a crowd like “The Notorious.” At least, no one yet.
On March 19 at the O2 Arena in London, the world got a look at the most likely successor to McGregor in the UFC: Paddy “The Baddy” Pimblett. While the main event of the night was a heavyweight fight pitting England’s own Tom Aspinall against the Russian Alexander Volkov, and the co-main bout was a featherweight matchup between fan favorites Arnold Allen and Dan Hooker, the most raucous the sold-out crowd got was for the 27-year-old from Liverpool. His walkout song, which starts as “Lethal Industry” by Tiësto and blends into “Heads Will Roll” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, gave way to a custom chant for Paddy himself.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. The main event is the main event for a reason. The person making $12,000 to show and $12,000 to win isn’t supposed to be the biggest draw, but Pimblett appeared to be. That night the O2 Arena saw its highest grossing gate for a single sporting event ever — and this wasn’t even a UFC pay-per-view.
The reason you haven’t heard about Paddy “The Baddy” before, or hadn’t until last month, is because he’s only had two fights in the UFC. He made his debut last September after coming up through a smaller European promotion called Cage Warriors. McGregor also made his start in the latter league before making his UFC debut in 2013. And just like McGregor, who won three of his first four fights by knockout in the first round, Pimblett has burst onto the scene guns blazing, finishing his first two fights in the major leagues of MMA with explosive first-round wins.
That’s not to say dominance in the UFC inevitably leads to fame. In fact, major victories and undefeated win streaks hardly ever gain MMA fighters the kind of recognition that McGregor has achieved — the kind where even your aunt knows him, where he’s at the VMAs palling around with Justin Bieber. Just look at the two opponents who have vanquished “The Notorious” handily, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier; they’re not even close to being household names.
Detractors have said Pimblett doesn’t have what it takes to become a champion, a claim supported by the fact that both of his opponents were able to get in significant strikes in his first two UFC fights. But in that drama lies part of what makes him such a captivating fighter to watch, and to cheer on.
“As well as this being a sport where you have to win consistently, you have to also win impressively,” Dan Hardy, a 39-year-old English fighting legend, said recently on an episode of The MMA Hour. “What are we talking about since the weekend? We’re talking about Paddy blazing through [Rodrigo] Vargas and finishing with a rear naked choke, with a bit of drama. And also Molly [McCann] catching her opponent with that spinning elbow.”
“They’re risk-takers, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re talking about them coming out of the weekend,” he added. “As a technical analysis, I like to watch Jack Shore and I like to watch Arnold Allen in his decisions because I can learn things from their approach. But as a fan I want to see that chaos, that craziness.”
The chaos and craziness that the UFC has been desperately searching for comes in the form of a 20-something with a ket wig haircut who looks and sounds like he’s a next generation member of Monty Python. He’s the one drawing the attention of people outside the normal MMA sphere — that is, people who don’t normally spend their Saturday nights watching people choke each other out.
“I have had more people in the last few days who, you know, are casual fans, who aren’t the biggest MMA fans, who know that I do this for a living but aren’t watching every single fight,” Ariel Helwani, host of The MMA Hour, said after Pimblett’s debut, “[they] come up to me and say, ‘I love Paddy The Baddy! I love this guy! Where has he been? When is he going to fight again? Who’s next for him?’”
Pimblett has been a professional fighter for about a decade, and in that time he’s won a legion of loyal fans in England, especially in his hometown of Liverpool. Like McGregor, his roots are inextricable from his cage persona. While other fighters in the UFC travel to gyms in different cities and countries in order to train, Pimblett believes athletes are better served sticking by the places where they were brought up. And witnessing that deep bond between athlete and local fanbase — for example, the O2 Arena singing with him “justice for the 97,” a tribute to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster which occurred at a 1989 Liverpool soccer match — makes viewers from all over the world want to be part of that family.
When podcaster Felix Levine asked Pimblett about what it’s like being a hometown hero back in December, he said, “To be honest, lad, it’s been happening in Liverpool for years, ever since I said ‘scousers don’t get knocked out’ in 2016 I’ve been getting pictures nonstop.” (“Scouser” is a working-class nickname Liverpool natives use for themselves.)
“Scousers don’t get knocked out” — this is the kind of memorable line that was the bread and butter of McGregor’s rise to prominence. Even people who don’t consider themselves UFC fans may be able to rattle off a couple from Conor, like “We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over,” talking about Irish fighters after a legendary bout in Dublin in 2014, or “If one of us goes to war, we all go to war,” spoken after defeating Poirier in their first fight just two months later.
Just how important are catchphrases like this? With McGregor, an Irish fan based a song off them that went viral in the lead up to his boxing match against Floyd Mayweather.
This is an individual sport, so it comes down to Paddy’s personality. You can’t take your eyes off him, and not just because of his hair. Before his UFC debut against Luigi Vendramini, Pimblett told Helwani, “He’s not going to last any more than five minutes,” calling the shot for how fast he would finish his opponent, a classic McGregor move; he went on to win in 4 minutes and 25 seconds. Then there was the moment after his O2 win when Michael Bisping asked him who he wants to fight next. His answer? “Mark Zuckerberg,” he said, pointing at the camera. “Lad, I’m gonna punch your head in.” These are the kinds of antics that got him a seven-figure deal with Barstool Sports to be a “brand ambassador and content creator.”
Will his dominance in the Octagon continue to match those antics? You’ll get to see soon enough, as the UFC is almost certainly working out the details of another Paddy fight as we speak.