‘It’s only me who truly knows the cost’: The fighter sacrificing everything for a second shot at glory

Manchester PFL featherweight Brendan Loughnane (Getty Images)
Manchester PFL featherweight Brendan Loughnane (Getty Images)

“Sometimes you’re sat in the back, thinking: ‘I’m actually about to go out there and do this again.’ And the higher level the opponent is, the more scary it gets. Mate, it’s wild. It’s wild.”

It’s rare to hear a fighter speak so candidly about the nerves – fear, even – that can accompany a fight night and the entire build-up to a bout. But Brendan Loughnane’s honesty rivals his in-ring qualities.

The Manchester featherweight has compiled a 21-4 record in his 12 years as a professional mixed martial artist, with 13 of his wins coming via stoppage and three of his four defeats going down as split decisions. In June 2019, Loughnane achieved a comprehensive points victory on the UFC’s Contender Series show but was denied a contract with the promotion by president Dana White – despite viewers falling in love with Loughnane’s dynamic, versatile striking and impressive range management.

The 32-year-old had established himself as one of the sport’s hottest prospects, however, and soon signed with the Professional Fighters League (PFL), which utilises a unique play-off format and offers each of its champions a $1million winner’s cheque. Loughnane won his first two fights in the American promotion before the Covid pandemic disrupted the 2020 season, forcing the Briton to wait until 2021 for his first real shot at gold and glory in the PFL.

Loughnane followed a first-round KO win with a decision victory to reach the featherweight semi-finals, where he suffered the narrowest of points defeats by undefeated Dagestani Movlid Khaybulaev – the eventual champion.

“It’s hard when the fights are so close together,” Loughnane tells The Independent ahead of his season-opening clash with Ryoji Kudo in Texas this Thursday. “I broke my hand in the play-off, right, and I had surgery and two double-plates put in there. I had five weeks until the next fight.

Loughnane lands a knee en route to outpointing Tyler Diamond last year (Getty Images)
Loughnane lands a knee en route to outpointing Tyler Diamond last year (Getty Images)

“The [doctor] said: ‘That’s unheard of; it’s three months before you can even do any impact [training].’ I said: ‘I’ve got four weeks.’ That’s what I had to go through mentally and physically. I had to fight a 19-0 Dagestani killer with one hand. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s gonna be again this year. I’m nervous about doing it again – but I’m excited.”

While the PFL season is unforgiving in its scheduling, it is offset by an off-season that provides its own benefits – including time to heal both injuries and personal relationships.

“I took a good month or two of doing nothing, then got back into slow training,” Loughnane says. “And I patched up all my friendships and relationships as well – because you’re away [in the US] for six months of the year, and you’re very emotionally and physically invested in the task at hand.”

Do Loughnane’s friends and family understand the reality of what he is undertaking – could any of them ever truly comprehend it?

“People will never, ever understand how hard it is until they’ve actually done it,” he stresses. “Cutting 15-20lbs in the space of one or two weeks, doing that four times in the space of five months, fighting world-class fighters so frequently, being away from your family, the diet, the anxiety around your opponent...

“People don’t see that, they just see a product on TV. They just say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t look good tonight,’ or, ‘He lost that one.’

In 2021, Loughnane returned to the ring five weeks after breaking his hand (Getty Images)
In 2021, Loughnane returned to the ring five weeks after breaking his hand (Getty Images)

“You can speak to people about it, but... The guy I last fought, I went for dinner with him in Dubai. He said: ‘It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, I had to leave my family.’

“That’s someone I can talk to about it. But if I talk to my mum about it and say, ‘It's really hard this,’ yes, she’ll feel sorry for me and she’ll help me through the journey, but it’s only me who truly knows the cost – physically, mentally, emotionally.

“Your friendships, too – it gets hard... You’re away for six months, I haven’t got kids for that reason, but there are fighters in this tournament who have kids and families. It’s exceptionally difficult for them, so fair play to them for getting through it.”

I ask whether Loughnane, at 32, ever sees himself having children, and whether his fight dream has distorted any dreams he had for his life when he was younger.

“I just take every day as it comes,” he says. “I don’t think: ‘I want kids... I don’t want kids...’ Of course I want kids eventually, but I don’t think: ‘This is the year.’

“I’m so obsessed with my profession that women don’t get in the way, lifestyle doesn’t get in the way; everything is so focused on singularity. I missed the title barely last year, I will not be missing it this year.”

The 2022 PFL season began on 20 April. Channel 4 will be the exclusive UK broadcaster ofthe PFL’s inaugural Challenger Series, along with the 2022 PFL regular season, play-offs and world championship.