'Meatball' Molly: I Felt Like The Fifth Beatle!

A working-class hero is something to be.

Life, by her own admission, is changing for UFC Flyweight contender - and lifelong Evertonian - ‘Meatball’ Molly McCann after recording a stunning victory over Ji Yeon Kim in the last bout of her four-fight contract with the premier Mixed Martial Arts promotion last month.

Two knee ligament tears, a broken knuckle and the residual effects of a dislocated shoulder - a list of injuries hardly conducive to the perfect preparation for a career-defining night in Las Vegas.

But there has never been time for excuses in Molly’s world.

“I used to have to spend my time justifying my sport to everyone I met,” she explains. “This is six Olympic sports rolled up into one. Thankfully, the reputation is changing. It’s changed for me over time but it’s really changed in the past four weeks!

"I was known before my last fight but, oh my… like, when I came back, I felt like the fifth member of The Beatles in town!

“I wanted to put on a show of heart and honesty. I put everything I had into that fight.

“It was made into such a big show in this city - you had four people fighting out of Liverpool, three of us were Scousers, on one card - it was on everywhere. It was like a World Cup final.

“The whole city absolutely held on to it. Even beyond Liverpool, I’ve been to Birmingham and London in the past couple of weeks and I’ve had a lot of people come up to me in the street to say well done and to say they never liked MMA previously but that I’ve turned them into a believer. 

"It’s a surreal position to be in.

“When I was a kid I used to walk around the docks every Sunday with my grandad and I used to say to him, ‘When I’m big and famous, I’m going to live up there’. Well, that’s where I live now, overlooking the docks. 

“Every day I get to do what I love doing. It feels like a dream, as much as that sounds like a cliché."

Brought up in Norris Green, the 31-year-old is a vehemently proud Scouser, with the admirable values and charisma to match.

Vicious when it comes to the discipline she has dedicated her life to, yet deeply compassionate with a strong sense of community outside of the famous Octagon.

It has been a cocktail for success but her ascent has been far from plain sailing - a common theme for those resilient enough to rise to the top of the unforgiving realm of MMA. 

Just eight years ago, Molly could be found studying at at university while working part-time in a sandwich shop in the city centre.

In 2017, she signed with Cage Warriors - Europe's leading and longest-running MMA promotion - where it took less than a year to steamroller a competitive division and be crowned Flyweight champion.

The success that would ultimately lead to the jump to the world-renowned UFC in May 2018.

A mixed bag of three wins and three losses would follow, leading to a make-or-break face-off with South Korean Kim at the UFC Apex Arena.

The chips were down in Sin City and, characteristically, Molly delivered, producing a performance worthy of the Fight of the Night bonus and the offer of a new, lucrative four-fight contract with the prospect of a title shot firmly on the horizon.

“I’m never in a boring fight,” she admits. “Getting the Fight of the Night bonus was huge for me. It’s a $50,000 bonus and for someone like me that’s huge… That’s a deposit for a house, which is the big one.

“But beyond that, it’s the reputation boost that comes with it, too. It was the last fight on my contract so I knew if I lost, then that would have been curtains for me. Maybe I would have still been offered a new deal, but not at the level that would have kept me going.

“At the stage of the career that I’m in now, I could have gone to less reputable companies and paid more - but I don’t want to. I’ve never wanted to be anywhere but the UFC. 

“I worked my way up through Cage Warriors and it was always my dream to reach the UFC. It came for me and I’m living it. 

“I’m excited to see what the future brings for me.

“I want to be [a] Top 10 [contender]… I want to say by the end of the year but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get another fight in. Definitely, by the end of 2022 I want to be in the Top 5 [in the official UFC rankings]. 

“I want three or four solid wins under my belt and who knows? It could be two big wins and the title shot, or it could be four wins and then the big one. 

“Either way, I’m in this to be the best. I’m here to be number one.”

The current incumbent of the Flyweight belt is the formidable Valentina Shevchenko, who has successfully defended her crown a record-breaking six times after seeing off Joanna Jędrzejczyk to land the vacant title in December 2018.

The list of Shevchenko’s credentials - to the mere mortal, at least - appears overwhelming.

In the Women’s Flyweight division, Shevchenko has recorded the most-ever wins (eight), most knockout wins (four) and most stoppage wins (five). She also has victories over three former UFC champions, was named Female Fighter of the Year in 2020 and sits comfortably second in the Women's pound-for-pound best list, behind only the greatest Women's mixed martial artist of all-time in Amanda Nunes. 

'Meatball' Molly McCann
I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I was going to be a UFC world champion.

In typically honest fashion, Molly admits there has been period of adjustment to rubbing shoulders - or, more precisely, trading leather - with the world’s elite of the sport.

But the unshakeable confidence that was present during those days back in Cage Warriors has now returned.

“Whoever has the belt - I’ll be trying to steal it… It doesn’t matter to me who it is,” she insists. “You’ve got Shevchenko, then from 2-30 [in the rankings] there’s a hair splitting us all. That’s how open it is. 

“There have been ups and downs but I feel like even in my defeats I’ve shown massive growth. If you can get to this level, the level of growth every fight is huge.  

“The last fight was the first one I’ve won and really felt like I was the cock of the UFC. When I was in Cage Warriors, me and Paddy [Pimblett] would work around with this confidence that we were the best. Then, when I got to the UFC, it brought that doubt… ‘Am I?’… ‘I am!’… ‘Or am I?’… ‘No, I am’… 

“It’s taken me three full years in the UFC to get to where I am now - and that’s that I know I’m made to be here. 

“Everyone could see there was a difference in me going into my last fight - in the camp building up to it and fight week itself. The doubt has gone. That’s it. 

“The sky is the limit from here.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I was going to be a UFC world champion. I could quite happily not get punched every face in the gym! 

“The day that I think I can’t be the best in the world is the day that I won’t do it anymore."

A damaged hand suffered in September’s fight led to a routine ‘medical suspension’ from the normally relentless gym routine and a chance to for some well-earned downtime.

Naturally, that means following her beloved Everton - home and away.

“I’ve been to a few games,” she says, with a growing smile. “I love being able to go and have a drink with my mates. I’ll never change. Give me the Gwladys Street or an away end over a corporate box every day of the week!

“I’m feeling it [the football on the pitch]. The biggest thing for me is playing for the badge. Nothing frustrates me more if I see players who I don’t think are playing for the badge on the front of the shirt. 

“Rafa has got us playing as a team and showing steel. 

“It’s been a really positive start and I look at the likes of Demarai Gray, Andros Townsend, Abdoulaye Doucoure, Yerry Mina, Ben Godfrey… that’s how I want to be represented as an Evertonian. They’re showing some bite and some character. I love that. 

“We’ve got to build on it from here.”

A promising start to the 2021/22 campaign for the Blues mirrors the feeling surrounding a new chapter on which she is about to embark in her UFC journey.

She’ll be hoping there’s room at the top for both.

And, if you want a hero, well, just follow Molly.