Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
In a very short period of time, Sean O’Malley has become one of the most talked about fighters on the entire UFC roster – and he knows it.
Thanks to a UFC contract-winning knockout on Dana White’s Contender Series and a colorful personality, the 25-year-old bantamweight had a lot of eyes on him from the moment he made his debut.
Less than three years later, O’Malley is coming off back-to-back knockout wins, including a jaw-dropping performance against former WEC champion Eddie Wineland at UFC 250. Following that win, he engaged in a back-and-forth with former champion Cody Garbrandt, who fought on the same card, about who had the more impressive finish. He also drew the ire of new bantamweight king Petr Yan, who responded to O’Malley in a fiery Twitter exchange before he defeated Jose Aldo to become champion.
It all adds up to a bigger spotlight, and in a sport where popularity goes a long way toward determining career arc, O’Malley truly believes he’s the future of this division.
“I’m for sure easily the most talked about guy in the division,” O’Malley told MMA Fighting. “I’m talking a lot of smack about Petr [Yan], Cody, Henry [Cejudo], all these dudes, and they’re all replying. They all know that’s a realistic fight in the future. They’re not taking it as a joke. They know it’s serious business.
“I’m clearly in Petr’s head, or Pete-R, whatever you want to call him. I’m clearly in his head. He’s thinking about me. I think he’s dreaming about me, waking up and asking someone to help him tweet something.”
The trash talk definitely puts a spotlight on O’Malley, but more than anything, he’s just having fun. Maybe it’s more personal for the fighters he’s targeting, but said he’s just playing the game to win – both inside and outside the octagon.
“Nothing’s personal,” he said. “These guys say anything, they can do anything, say anything – nothing’s going to be personal. I do look at the whole, even the social media tweets, as business. Short little people like Petr and Cody and Henry have short man syndrome, and they get angry at things and it’s personal.
“For me, it’s always going to be business. I think Conor [McGregor] was really good at that until the Khabib [Nurmagomedov] fight. I feel like that got too personal, and it played games with him. I definitely learned from that experience with Conor vs. Khabib, I can’t let it get personal. I learn from everyone always, especially guys like Chael [Sonnen], Conor, guys that know how to talk and sell fights.”
Beyond the verbal warfare that’s gotten him so much attention, O’Malley appeared ready to make a big step forward in the division after he demolished Wineland at UFC 250. It appeared there was even interest in a showdown with Garbrandt after he scored a devastating knockout of his own on the same night.
UFC President Dana White later downplayed that possibility, but O’Malley certainly didn’t take that as a slight on his skills, or his readiness for the fighters at the top of the division.
Instead, O’Malley argues he’s absolutely ready for the best of the best at bantamweight. But the way he sees it, there’s a valid reason why he’s not being matched up with Garbrandt or the other higher-ranked contenders in the weight class.
“Even Dana White, he didn’t say I wasn’t ready for Cody,” O’Malley explained. “He acknowledged that, ‘Oh if he beats Cody, we only have so many options, he’s top-five already, he only can fight four other people.’ I think the UFC wants me active right now. What I take away from that is they don’t want me to limit my options of opponents.
“I go out there and knockout Cody in the first round, now I’m potentially fighting a couple times a year rather than taking these guys. Like, I don’t even think “Chito” [Marlon Vera] is ranked. That’s who I plan on fighting next in my head, and then I have a ton of options after that. I think it’s smart in the UFC’s business wise not to give me a guy in the top-five, or even a top-10 guy right now because it limits the options of who I can fight next.”
With a fight scheduled at UFC 253 against Marlon Vera on Aug. 15, O’Malley is anxious to earn his third win in 2020 with hopes of staying active through the end of the year.
While his long term goal involves the bantamweight title, O’Malley understands that will come eventually. Now is the time to rattle off as many wins as possible while he’s healthy and ready to compete.
“When I’m healthy, like I am now, I enjoy fighting multiple times,” he explained. “I’m excited to fight in August. That’s what I hear when I hear them say that. It’s not that I’m not ready.
“I think everyone that understands fighting at a technical level, understands that I’m ready for these top dudes. But they just don’t want to push because then I limit my options of who I can fight. [But] I’m super confident against anybody in the division.”
Because O’Malley’s career was put on hold for two years as he dealt with a drug testing issue with the United States Anti-Doping Agency. After it was finally resolved, the thing that mattered most was just fighting.
Given enough time, O’Malley knows he’ll get to Cody Garbrandt and Petr Yan. But there’s no rush right now.
“I got a lot of sh*t being out for those two years,” O’Malley said. “People saying, ‘Do you even fight anymore? Why don’t you fight?’ I like fighting, I like being active. I’ve got over 30 fights, and I’ve been doing this for about 10 years now. So I like staying active.”