UFC 296 Paddy the Baddy Pimblett meets his crossroads moment

Paddy Pimblett got to the Camden Centre in London early on the night of his fight for the Cage Warriors promotion on April 15, 2016.

Three hours before he was set to compete, there was Pimblett in the crowd, watching the fights with friends, family, teammates and fans inside the intimate venue for fewer than 1,000 people, talking to everyone and having a good time. Completely relaxed. So much so that people were concerned about the then-21-year-old prospect.

“[People] were all like, ‘How is he gonna go in there and fight? How’s he gonna step into the cage?'” said Graham Boylan, the longtime Cage Warriors promoter and Pimblett’s current agent.

Then, it was go time. Pimblett went backstage, got dressed, and when his music hit — an electronic house remix, as usual — the small arena erupted. Pimblett bounced up and down with a smile as he walked out, his floppy blond hair swaying with the beat. That smile left when he got into the cage, where he dominated veteran Ashleigh Grimshaw via unanimous decision, a display of exciting striking and flashy, effective grappling.

The fans that had just been hanging out with Pimblett earlier were on their feet.

“That was where ‘Paddy the Baddy,’ I believe, was born,” Boylan said. “He came out in that walkout and, from that moment on, his trajectory just skyrocketed. That was the moment where we looked and thought, ‘He has everything that the great fighters don’t have.’ Everyone is connected with him — the arena, the venue at the time connected with him. Social media went wild.”

Five months later, Pimblett won the Cage Warriors featherweight title, following in the footsteps of Conor McGregor, who once held that same belt. Pimblett had ups and downs with Cage Warriors — including some epic walkouts and performances in his native Liverpool — but from that London event on, there was no doubting what Pimblett was.

A star.

That didn’t change when he debuted in the UFC in 2021, perhaps the most anticipated debut for a Scouser — the term for a native of Liverpool — in the United States since Beatlemania. At the quiet UFC Apex in Las Vegas, where crowd size was limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the handful of fans in attendance chanted his name. Pimblett knocked out Luigi Vendramini in the first round with punches.

That meteoric rise has hit a snag, though. A poor performance in his last fight against Jared Gordon and a yearlong absence due to an ankle injury have stalled Pimblett’s momentum. Once considered perhaps the UFC’s next big pay-per-view seller, Pimblett will go into his fight with Tony Ferguson at UFC 296 on Saturday in Las Vegas at a career crossroads.

A scintillating victory over Ferguson, engaging with the crowd and a well-timed callout could put Pimblett back on the path he’s been destined to follow since Camden Centre, a path not dissimilar to the one McGregor walked. A loss or lackluster outing against Ferguson, who has been defeated in six straight, would be a bad omen for “The Baddy” and his popularity.

“[Pimblett] needs to go out there with the intent to just demolish Tony Ferguson,” said Daniel Cormier, UFC Hall of Famer and MMA analyst. “I think that’s the only way. I believe for him to get everything out of this, he has to go out there and just squash him, for lack of a better word.”

It seems a little petty that Pimblett’s buzz has quieted in 2023, due mostly to one uninspiring fight and not competing for a year. But MMA is a fast-moving business, and staying active — in the public eye — is paramount for the sport’s fickle fans. That isn’t lost on Boylan, who has been involved in MMA for around two decades.

“That momentum can stop — and it did stop,” Boylan said.

Pimblett went into that UFC 282 fight against Gordon in December 2022 with a 3-0 UFC record and all finishes inside the Octagon. He was one of the most talked-about fighters on the roster. With all due respect to Gordon, an extremely solid all-around veteran, many thought he’d represent just another step in Pimblett’s road to a pay-per-view main event. Pimblett closed at nearly a 3-to-1 betting favorite.

Gordon, though, is no pushover. He gave Pimblett all he could handle over three rounds. Pimblett won by unanimous decision but lost in the court of public opinion. Of the 24 MMA media members who scored the bout on social media, 23 of them had Gordon winning, as compiled by MMADecisions.com.

Gordon landed a hard left hook over and over, and Pimblett wasn’t able to do much damage going the other way. Afterward, Pimblett cockily intimated that the fight “wasn’t close,” which seemed to rub fans the wrong way since it was contrary to what they just saw. He was booed slightly at T-Mobile Arena by a crowd that was ready to erupt had he won in spectacular fashion.

Pimblett has since watched the fight back several times and acknowledges now it was a “very close fight,” he told ESPN. One that he was not at all pleased with. But there was another matter at play, one that hasn’t gotten as much publicity as the perceived robbery.

In the opening minutes of the Gordon fight, Pimblett threw a kick and injured his ankle. He fought the rest of the three-rounder not realizing how bad it was. It affected him throughout, and the diagnosis afterward, according to Pimblett’s coach Paul Rimmer of Next Generation MMA Liverpool, was that ligaments and tendons essentially came off the bone.

“He’s got that perfect mix of 50-50 — 50% [of people] want to see him win and they love him and they’ll be forever fans, and 50% want to see him lose. … That 50-50 is what creates the talking. It’s what creates all the online bulls—.”

Graham Boylan, manager of Paddy Pimblett

Pimblett, 28, needed three surgeries, a complete ankle reconstruction, and the recovery rehab kept him out of training for the first half of 2023. He returned to the gym about five months ago, but could not start hard training right away out of concern the ankle could get reinjured.

“I don’t think it’ll ever be back to 100% again, but I’m back kicking people in the face with it, so it’s sound,” Pimblett said.

Though Pimblett has said he wants a “war” with Ferguson, Rimmer would be just fine if we don’t see anything like that. There were several things Pimblett worked on leading into this bout, the coach said, including trying to not be as much of a slow starter as he has been. That and showing off his full array of weapons, not just his striking. Pimblett was known as a ground ace when he was coming up in the United Kingdom and he does have two submission wins in the UFC, but he has spent more time on the feet lately than Rimmer would like.

“I feel like in his first few fights for the UFC, he was trying to please the crowd more by showing his striking, where I believe you’ll see more of a rounded approach from him in this fight,” Rimmer said. “And you’ll get to see what his real strength is.”

Pimblett has been public about his belief that the Ferguson bout is a “lose-lose situation” for him. He feels like if he beats Ferguson, the perception will be that the 39-year-old is over the hill anyway and the win doesn’t mean much. And if he loses to Ferguson, people will say Pimblett was unable to beat a guy who had lost six in a row.

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The first round of Paddy Pimblett’s win was electric

Paddy Pimblett and Jared Gordon give the Vegas fans their money’s worth in Round 1 of their co-main bout.

Rimmer doesn’t completely subscribe to the same theory. He thinks Ferguson is still a competitive fighter. Rimmer thinks there are fighters ranked in the UFC’s official lightweight top 15 that would be easier fights for Pimblett than Ferguson will be.

As for Boylan, he just thinks getting Pimblett active and back in the Octagon is the key.

“Every fight that Paddy takes right now is huge,” Boylan said. “It’s not a case of who or which. It’s each one that he takes now, because he’s got that perfect mix of 50-50 — 50% [of people] want to see him win and they love him and they’ll be forever fans, and 50% want to see him lose. And that’s where you want to be as a pro athlete. You need that, because that 50-50 is what creates the talking. It’s what creates all the online bulls—.”

Any star worth his salt in MMA has a fair share of haters, and Pimblett is no different. That and being a former Cage Warriors featherweight champion are not the only things he shares with McGregor. Like Pimblett, McGregor had a major injury in one of his early UFC fights. He tore his ACL and had to gut out a victory against Max Holloway in 2013. McGregor came back nearly a year later to knock out Diego Brandao in the first round in his home city of Dublin, and his popularity reached new heights.

Perhaps Pimblett needs a similar outcome against Ferguson. Boylan, who was once McGregor’s promoter, sees the parallels between “The Baddy” and “The Notorious.” And maybe with a finish of Ferguson and another big performance, a McGregor vs. Pimblett matchup could be on the horizon down the road.

“Who would not buy that pay-per-view?” Boylan said. “I mean, Jesus Christ, that fight is huge. … I would think at some point that fight probably has to happen.”

Will it be something Pimblett will call for? Probably not. Pimblett doesn’t normally call opponents out. His reasoning, he has said, is that he is the big fight and it’s up to others to try and earn that. Pimblett also doesn’t like to choose opponents or turn fights down. The other side of that is Pimblett is probably the most called-out fighter in the UFC, other than McGregor.

“I can understand that after me last performance,” Pimblett said with a laugh. “I didn’t look good at all. I can understand. All you’ve gotta do is look at that last fight. Because Jared doesn’t have that much power and he hit me with a lot of left hooks. I was eating left hooks for days.”

Chael Sonnen, the former multi-time UFC title challenger and current MMA analyst, said Pimblett’s policy of not calling out potential foes is a misstep. He’d like to see that change if he beats Ferguson, which Sonnen feels would still be a considerable feather in Pimblett’s cap.

“Man, [12] months is a long time [without fighting],” Sonnen said. “This is a massive opportunity on pay-per-view to have a good performance, grab the microphone, remind people of your value, not only with skills but also entertainment.”

But Pimblett won’t get that chance to talk unless he wins and wins big against Ferguson, which Cormier said is necessary for Pimblett’s ascent to get back to where it was.

“Paddy can still do that,” Cormier said. “He can still be that draw. He can still be the guy that people look to and go, ‘Wow, this kid special.'”

Cormier said he interviewed Pimblett once before being able to watch one of his fights in person. Pimblett told him, “DC, you’ve never experienced one of my walkouts — just wait.”

“And he wasn’t lying,” Cormier said, referring to Pimblett’s UFC 282 entrance to a beat-dropping mashup of “Lethal Industry” by Tiesto and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll.” “It was f—ing crazy. I was like, ‘Wow, it really is a thing.’ The music was f—ing blaring. The crowd was going crazy. He’s got like the perfect song for who he is.”

On Saturday night, T-Mobile Arena might feel like Camden Centre did to Boylan seven years ago. And if Pimblett can put together a bounce-back performance, maybe his floppy hair will be bouncing to the beat of a UFC pay-per-view main event walkout one day in the future.

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