Paddy Pimblett returned to the cage after 18 months, picked up a win and hinted that his oft-mooted move to the UFC might finally materialize in the near future.

Pimblett (15-3) defeated short-notice opponent Decky Dalton (11-5) by first-round TKO on Friday at Cage Warriors 113, and said he was just relieved to get back into the swing of things after so long away.

“It’s been that long out the cage, it’s nearly 19 months now,” Pimblett told Cage Warriors’ Edith Labelle backstage at the BEC Arena in Manchester, England. “I just wanted to get back in. I wanted to get hit in the face and I wanted to hit him in the face, instead of just sparring in the gym, but it went perfect. I’ve come out unscathed, I haven’t got a mark on me. I think I took one left hook – he hit me with it and it woke me up. I’m a bit lazy at first, he hit me with the left hook and woke me up, and from there on it was just me.”

Pimblett looked close to securing a submission finish via rear-naked choke, but ended up flattening out Dalton and sealing the win with ground and pound. It may have looked like a change of plan mid-fight, but Pimblett explained he’d predicted the finish to his coach prior to entering the cage.

“I hit him with a nice one-two down the pipe, checked a kick and ended up on top,” Pimblett said. “Then it was me, with ease, then. As soon as I get your back, that’s it. As soon as I got the back I knew it was the start of the end. As everyone knows, 18 months ago with my bad hand I couldn’t finish the choke (against Soren Bak), so with that one I didn’t just squeeze, I didn’t just go for the choke. I wanted to work on other stuff. I’d said to Paul before, I said to my coach, ‘If I take his back I’m going to flatten him out and I’m going to pound him.’

“Hats off to Decky. I can’t thank Decky enough. He’s a proper fighter. He got in there with me on two weeks’ notice when no one else in the U.K. would. Never mind Europe, no one else in the U.K. would. So I respect Decky, I can’t thank him enough for stepping in and getting in there with me, but there’s levels to this (expletive) and I’m just levels above.”

The fight capped off 18 months of frustration for Pimblett, who suffered injury and multiple fight cancellations before finally returning to action in Manchester. But when UFC on ESPN+ 29 in London, originally scheduled for the following night, was postponed, Pimblett feared his bad luck was set to continue.

“When Molly (McCann’s UFC London fight) got canceled I thought, ‘Surely ours is next to go.’ I thought, ‘I’m the unluckiest kid on the planet.’ What happened last time with that fat bum (a reference to Joe Giannetti, who missed weight for their planned bout last November), my injuries before that, and then a week out I was sitting at ours, looking at cake and thinking, ‘Should I eat this cake or keep drinking this water? Cake? Water?’ I just kept drinking the water and kept the faith.”

That faith was repaid when the event finally went ahead in Manchester, where he opened the main card with a dominant performance. While some may instantly link him with a title fight against newly-crowned lightweight champion Mason Jones, Pimblett hinted that bigger things could potentially be around the corner.

“After a dominant performance like that, in half a round, you never know who’s going to come calling, do you?” Pimblett said. “We’re open to all offers, so we’ll see. I was speaking to Joe (McColgan) yesterday and Mason before, and if they ever want to get it on in the future, I’m always here. I’ll fight anyone. I won’t back down to anyone, and I’ll fight for that belt, I want that belt. But I’m sick of people asking me, ‘When are you going to the UFC?’ So when the coronavirus gets to (expletive), we’ll see what happens.”

Pimblett also had a word for the additional safety measures introduced for the event, with multiple doctor checkups, plus social distancing measures, imposed for the show that meant he was stopped from coming down to cageside to watch his teammate fight earlier in the night.

“The guidelines were perfect,” Pimblett said. “I don’t see how anyone can bat an eyelid at it. I came down to watch a teammate of mine who fought earlier, but the health and safety precautions in the way, I got told I had to go back to the changing room, we couldn’t have a certain amount of people in there. Anyone that thinks this is unsafe is wrapped in cotton wool. Going to shops more people are touching and being closer to each other. Everyone is a drama queen who’s saying this show should have got canceled.

“I put my heart and soul into this and for this to have got pulled six days out, no one would have been saying how unfair it was on me or the other fighters on this card who were trying to earn a living and make money for their families. People don’t look past that. We put our heart and soul into this and I wouldn’t let someone take that away from you without kicking and screaming. (Expletive) coronavirus.”