John Lennon once proclaimed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, which kicked up a lot of conversation at Sunday Mass. A little over 56 years later, another lad from Liverpool made a big statement when Paddy Pimblett said he was going to be the UFC’s biggest box office name since Conor McGregor. It didn’t hit quite the same as Lennon’s infamous declaration, but since he said it in that familiar scouse tongue—and since McGregor is just about as ubiquitous as JC in fight circles—it let you know what Paddy the Baddy’s intentions are.
To take over. To make the fight world his own. Just like McGregor before him.
You know it’s fight week for Pimblett because people are breathlessly barking at him online or fantasy matchmaking his future bouts. First it was the inevitable chatter as to what would happen if he were to face McGregor, the Forbes-listed Irishman who is still months away from recovering from a broken leg. Never mind that Paddy fights at 155 pounds and Conor (from the looks of it) is walking around north of 200, the idea of the two fight-game meteors going at it is a temptation worth splurging some imagination on. The trash talk alone could be its own pay-per-view in the lead-up to that.
Everybody wants a part of Paddy, because he is swiftly becoming the most coveted fighter out there. He’s a marketing wizard. He’s a UFC favorite. And—the thinking goes—he’s beatable.
His old rival Ilia Topuria—a featherweight who will fight Bryce Mitchell this weekend at UFC 282—had to wait for Paddy to leave the UFC Performance Institute before he could enter this past week, as the UFC was worried about reviving an encounter from a few months back when they got into it in England. That happened right as Jake Paul tried to set up a sparring session with Paddy out in Puerto Rico after Pimblett recently said that Paul’s fights were fixed in an interview. They went back and forth trying to settle on a time and location, which was difficult because … oh yeah, Paddy has an actual freaking fight this weekend.
He will be taking on Jared Gordon at UFC 282 in Las Vegas. The fight was already considered an unbelievable bang-for-your-buck on the pay-per-view, but Pimblett—the A-side in every matchup he has—lucked out on his placement. With the original headlining bout between Jiri Prochazka and Glover Teixeira scratched from the card and the original co-main between Jan Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev being bumped into a battle for the vacant light heavyweight title at the top, Pimblett now shares the marquee as the co-feature.
It’s just how he wants it.
“I was put on this earth to entertain people and fight,” Paddy told The Ringer. “And I’m good at doing both things at once.”
Despite him being one of the UFC’s biggest buzz names, Saturday night will mark only the fourth time Pimblett has stepped into the Octagon. He’s gone 3-0, with three finishes. A little over a year ago he made his UFC debut against an out-of-the-woodwork figure that nobody had heard of named Luigi Vendramini. It ended up being the kind of barnburner that only Pimblett can put on. He came out headhunting with switch kicks and wild strikes, only to get cracked early with a big left. It wobbled him and threw a scare into the UFC matchmakers. Was all the hype about to die just as he was hitting the mainstream?
Not so, Paddy the Baddy traded blows before rocking Vendramini with a right of his own, and then blitzing him with forward-lunging punches from both hands against the fence until it ended. It was exactly what people from England expected to see from their hometown hero. A floppy-haired man-child on a hurt spree. An entertainer with a keen sense of the spotlight, who’s not afraid to chin-check with anyone. A loveable star in the making, whose own blond mop-top sways beautifully to his violence. Is that fighting style sustainable in the chaotic realm of MMA? There are those who doubt his staying power, but Paddy says that’s OK.
“That’s just the way I am,” he said. “I’d rather be in an entertaining fight, a fight that gets bonus of the night and lose than come in and dry-hump someone for three rounds, you know what I mean?”
The UFC certainly does. That’s why Dana White loves Paddy. He has a sense of the moment, and he puts on a show, not unlike a certain Irishman who ended up breaking PPV records with that formula. In his past two fights the UFC has stuck him in prime spots on Fight Night cards at the sold-out O2 Arena in London where the adulation—the chants, the songs, the mop-top wigs—is like nothing the UFC has witnessed since McGregor fought Diego Brandão in Dublin back in 2014.
And in some ways, this is Paddy’s first real fight in the States. His fight last year against Vendramini took place at the UFC Apex, a warehouse turned private event ballroom off the Strip that the UFC used during the pandemic, which holds maybe a couple of hundred spectators.
That was different, because as Paddy says, he lives for the energy of the crowd: “The crowd is everything to me—I get the crowd going like nobody else.”
Through his short time in the UFC, Paddy has handled the pressures of the spotlight with eager-eyed willfulness. He pops up everywhere. He has a partnership deal with Barstool Sports—alongside his good friend and fellow UFC fighter and scouser Molly “Meatball” McCann—which adds to the general circus air of his events, and he doesn’t mind the cameras tracking his every move. Every time the UFC flashes on the JumboTron at a live event, he bends his cherubic cheeks with a smile and the crowd lets up a roar. If there’s a comparison to be made to the Fab Four, it’s that he understands and leverages his boyish attraction.
“I still feel about 12 years old in the end,” he said. “I’ll be honest, I was a late bloomer. I didn’t have a pubic hair until I was about 14. I didn’t become a man until about two years ago, didn’t mature or develop into a man! So, when I fought Søren Bak [in Cage Warriors in 2018], I was not a man. I was a child. I was still a baby.”
Last month a video went viral of Paddy showing up at a neighbor’s house to inform them that his dog had taken a “sloppy shit” in their yard. He wanted some water to clean it up. The neighbor recognized him and told him not to worry about it, yet wasted no time in posting the video for millions to see. Not that Paddy minded.
“That [video’s] absolutely blown open,” he said. “I knew she took a screenshot of it, and I knew it was going to get sent down, but didn’t expect for it to get on SportsCenter and ESPN and pages like that. The UFC even put it up. Before I’d even got home with my dog, I’d already been sent it three times from friends.”
Almost everything Paddy does these days goes viral, and he’s taking all of it in stride. If he shows up at an event out of training, people post memes to show how big he has gotten since his last fight, analyzing his plumping season almost as much as the fights themselves. He has said that he’d rather be “fat and happy than ripped,” and—playing along with the weight concerns that plagued him earlier in his career—jokes that he’s most content when his “cheeks are back.”
A lot of the polish the 27-year-old has exhibited comes from experience. Much like Ronda Rousey and McGregor, Paddy fostered a cult following before arriving in the UFC. By the time he was 25, he’d already experienced the highest of highs. He’d already sold out the Liverpool Arena, which was formerly known as the Echo. He’d already fought for a title in the U.K.-based Cage Warriors, and won it at just 21 years old, against Johnny Frachey. He was the face of the Cage Warriors, which is the biggest, most successful regional promotion in the European market.
Perhaps more importantly, Paddy experienced the lowest of lows, too. He lost the title just six months after winning it. The emotional extremes of winning and losing under a public microscope, of being celebrated and then ultimately doubted so early in life is a roller coaster that most fighters experience in a 10-year UFC career. The lows took him places he wasn’t sure he’d recover from.
It’s one of the reasons that after beating Jordan Leavitt in his third fight, in July, he used his post-fight mic time to talk about the importance of asking for help when it comes to mental health. He was speaking from experience then, too.
“After Nad Narimani beat me for my belt [in 2017], I was down,” he said. “But then, the Søren Bak loss was the worst, because I’d fought him with a broken arm. I punched him in the second [round], and broke my hand again. I had nothing in me. When he got on top of me and he was two stone heavier than me, I felt it.
“Obviously, if I would’ve had the other arm underneath when I had that choke on the first round, I would’ve choked him out. But because my arm was that weak, I couldn’t get the finish properly. So, I thought about it more than any of them.”
Some media speculated he might retire after the loss, but it went deeper than that.
“To be honest, I went into a deep depression,” he said. “I thought about suicide, never mind finishing my career. You see the highs, but you don’t see the lows. I was bad for a few months until I started speaking to people and letting people know that I felt that way.”
As many young people coming into fame and status do, Paddy went through a wild phase early. He says he strayed away from listening to the people who had his best interest at heart—his coaches, family, and friends—and started hanging around the wrong crowd.
“These idiots who only wanted to be with me to get in night clubs and stuff like that,” he said. “I was going out partying all the time, doing stupid stuff. And I took a loss for it. You know what I mean? I had to sort my life out. Every loss I’ve had in my career, there’s been a reason behind it, and I’ve had a meaning to it after I’ve come back from it.”
Then he turned things around. Paddy returned to action in Manchester in March 2020, just as the pandemic was shutting down the world, beating Decky Dalton via first-round knockout. He came back a year later and tapped out Davide Martinez in London in what turned out to be his final Cage Warriors fight.
Later that year he debuted as the UFC’s must-see new kid on the block—the golden boy from England, the most famous man from Liverpool. His look, his attitude, his fighting ability, and ultimately his perseverance makes him one of the UFC’s biggest stars. He is a refreshing blend of fighter and rock star.
Everybody wants a piece of Paddy. And right now no one can get enough.
“It’s going well,” he said. “I’m making money off YouTube—in fact, I’m probably making a bit more off YouTube and I don’t have to get punched in the face for it.”
That said, he’s not ready to give up his day job. “I like getting punched in the face and I like punching people in the face.”
“My last fight [against Leavitt] was on a new contract, though,” he said. “This fight, I’m getting good money now. Not great money, but I’m getting good wealth. I can’t even say it’s not great money, because I am getting good money. But that’s because they know my star power. I think I’ll probably get yet another new contract after this one when they see me at the T-Mobile [Arena].”
The days of Fight Night Paddy are over. He says it’s pay-per-view from now on. He’s not quite the Beatles at Shea or as popular as Jesus, but the next McGregor? He’ll tell you that he is, and so long as he’s winning that comparison will be made.
“I always said I’m going to be the biggest star that sport’s ever seen,” he said. “I’m just backing my words up.”
Chuck Mindenhall writes about combat sports without bias, and sometimes about his Denver teams with extreme bias. He cohosts The Ringer MMA Show on Spotify.