Paddy the Baddy and Meatball Molly light up London on thrilling UFC night | Donald McRae

The duo secured victories that delighted the crowd at the O2 Arena and promise bright things to come for British MMA … All photographs by Tom Jenkins.

“Are you not entertained?” Paddy “The Baddy” Pimblett shouted deep inside a roaring Saturday night scouse house party which dominated the UFC’s first promotion in Europe in three years. A few minutes earlier he had secured a victory, when forcing Rodrigo Vargas to submit, which fulfilled his prediction of a first-round stoppage. His great friend, and “big sister” from Liverpool, “Meatball” Molly McCann, had already produced an even more remarkable finish with a stunning third-round knockout which lit up the 02 Arena in London on a transformative night for the garrulous scouse duo and British MMA.

There were seven British winners on the night, including another impressive first-round stoppage for the heavyweight Tom Aspinall, and the UFC president, Dana White, described it afterwards as the most enjoyable promotion in the history of his organisation. White was so caught up in the fevered atmosphere that he made the unprecedented decision to award a $50,000 bonus to the winner of every one of the nine bouts which ended in a stoppage – rather than rewarding just one fighter on the night.

Paddy Pimblett dances to celebrate his first-round submission victory over Rodrigo Vargas
Paddy Pimblett dances to celebrate his first-round submission victory over Rodrigo Vargas Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

There was no doubt, however, that this was the Paddy and Molly Show as the two highly distinctive fighters from Liverpool lived up to their pre-fight hype. In only his second UFC contest, Pimblett received an ecstatic reception as he strutted to the octagon. His floppy blond mop-top, goofy grin and pale lightweight frame, devoid of a single tattoo, means that Pimblett looks so unlike a traditional UFC fighter. Vargas, his imposing opponent from Mexico, glowered menacingly but the 27-year-old from a council estate in Huyton kept grinning.

The switch in Pimblett’s cheerful mood came only a minute before the cage door shut when he was introduced. Rather than acknowledging the crowd Pimblett looked suddenly concentrated as he stared back at the Mexican who had promised to teach him a harsh lesson. Vargas started with intent and a hard right hand rocked Pimblett. After 18 seconds of the contest Vargas had taken Pimblett down and pinned him to the canvas as the Mexican drew on his upper-body strength and jiu-jitsu skills.

Pimblett’s explosive striking had sealed a first-round victory on his UFC debut in Las Vegas in September but, throughout his MMA career, his submission work on the ground has been exceptional. He had also spent weeks in training camp working on his grappling and had flown in a leading American wrestler, Chasen Blair, at his own expense to develop his skillset.

There was still a sense of jeopardy and a hush fell across the arena as a transfixed crowd waited to see if Pimblett could escape the tightening grip of Vargas. Slowly, inexorably, Pimblett began to wrest back control. There was a roar as Pimblett broke sufficiently free so that he could gain enough leverage to rise to his feet – and they continued grappling in upright positions.

Paddy Pimblett starts to celebrate his quick victory.
Paddy Pimblett starts to celebrate his quick victory. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Then, three minutes into the first round, the contest changed dramatically as Pimblett’s left leg wrapped around Vargas’ sturdy limbs and he completed a slick judo move which allowed him to throw the Mexican to the canvas. Within seconds, Pimblett’s left arm turned into a vice around Vargas’s neck. He began to squeeze and choke his opponent and, after three minutes and 49 seconds of the first round, the end came. Vargas tapped out in surrender for he was helpless against the force of that rear naked choke.

Pimblett raced across the cage. He climbed the fence and headed straight for White, who sat next to Eddie Hearn and Anthony Joshua – as the boxing promoter and former world heavyweight boxing champion smiled in surprise while Pimblett reminded the UFC head-honcho that he was on his way to becoming, in his words, the “main man” and “new cash cow”.

Paddy Pimblett and Molly McCann celebrate with their coaches Paul Rimmer and Adam Ventre after Pimblett’s win
Paddy Pimblett and Molly McCann celebrate with their coaches Paul Rimmer (left) and Adam Ventre (right) after Pimblett’s win. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

He was soon back in the cage and being hugged by a jubilant McCann. It took a while for the fighting friends to be separated but then Paddy the Baddy was at his motormouth best. “I’m never, ever, ever, ever in a boring fight, lad,” he told Michael Bisping, the former UFC world champion from Manchester. “I have to get a punch to the face to get woke up and I’ll have a nice little shiner in the morning to prove it.”

Rating his performance as “only a five or six out of 10”, Pimblett focused instead on the crowd and his rocketing fame as he and McCann become such an irresistible double-act. “See this arena? The 02? Too small, too small. Get me a stadium. Get us to Anfield and we’ll fill it.”

White confirmed that the success of Saturday night’s promotion meant the UFC would return to the UK later this year. Pimblett, an ardent Liverpool fan, has set his heart on fighting at Anfield and believes that he and McCann, who supports Everton just as passionately, would draw a crowd of 70,000.

Paddy and Molly soak up the plaudits on a hugely successful night at the O2.
Paddy and Molly soak up the plaudits on a hugely successful night at the O2. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

In typical Paddy the Baddy fashion, Pimblett then said his next battle would be with the billionaire owner of Facebook and Instagram. “Mark Zuckerberg, lad, I’m going to punch your head in. I’m sick of you, lad. I’m sick of you shutting my Instagram account down when all I’m doing is helping charities, helping people with mental health problems. You’re the biggest bully in the world.”

There was still time for a tribute to the 97 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough. “I was gonna sing F the Tories but the world is too full of hate at the minute,” Pimblett said. “We need positivity. Will everyone sing with me?” He turned to the crowd and led the chant: “Just-tice for the 97 … Just-tice for the 97 …” Meatball Molly, with an Everton scarf draped around her neck, joined the singing. She was still reeling in delight after a milestone performance less than an hour earlier.

Facing Luana Carolina, a Brazilian woman with a considerable reach advantage, McCann had been dominant in the opening round. She looked close to sealing an early stoppage with her superior punching as blood seeped from Carolina’s face. McCann also expended so much energy, on such an emotionally charged night, and her intensity dropped a little in the second round even though she again won it clearly.

Carolina had five minutes left in the third and final round to salvage her night but McCann was intent on closing the show. A straight left jolted Carolina who, defiantly, beckoned McCann to come at her again. The Liverpool fighter did not need any invitation. Stalking the taller Brazilian, she waited for her moment. When Carolina raised her left knee, McCann shaped to grab it before, ducking and swivelling away, she spun around in a tight circle and completed the most stunning move of the night. Her back elbow crashed into the face of her stricken opponent. Carolina was out cold even before she hit the canvas, her arms spread wide in utter oblivion. McCann wheeled away, her mouth open in amazement and joy.

Molly McCann knocks out Luala Carolina with a stunning spinning elbow to win the bout
Molly McCann knocks out Luala Carolina with a stunning spinning elbow to win the bout. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

She confirmed in the octagon that the spinning back elbow stoppage, which is so rare, had been a move “we drilled every day” in the gym. McCann then yelled out a tribute to her city and to Everton: “Liverpool that was for you! Up the Toffees!”

Watching her astonishing knockout in the dressing room before his own fight, Pimblett had hollered in delight. His friend repaid the tribute as she cut short her interview in the cage. “I’ve got them scouse lungs in me so I’m ready to punch all night,” McCann said. “I’m so happy … please, please, put it together for … ‘Oh, Paddy the Baddy …’” The crowd joined Meatball Molly in roaring accompaniment to her fellow scouser.

A packed crowd cheer on the two stars of British MMA.
A packed crowd cheer on the two stars of British MMA. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

On Sunday morning, Paddy the Baddy tweeted: “Woke up in dreamland here 2 of Liverpool’s back 4 tweeting yes Andy lad,” after Andy Robertson and Virgil van Dijk both took to Twitter to celebrate Pimblett’s victory. Images of Wayne Rooney embracing McCann and Pimblett also lit up social media with the “just a couple of kids from Liverpool” tweet matching their love of their home city.

It echoed the late-night delirium of Saturday night when backstage, while he devoured a giant pizza, Pimblett confirmed: “It was like fighting in Liverpool. Half of my city is here. We took over London. Wait until we do Anfield, lad. That’s gonna be one special night.”

The Paddy and Molly Show seems unstoppable now.


Donald McRae

The GuardianTramp

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