Sean O’Malley’s name is a lightning rod for opinions. To some, he’s a star either in the making or already established. Others see him as unproven, overrated and overpromoted. What’s a fact is that he is one of the most entertaining and exciting fighters in the talent-rich bantamweight division.
At the very least, O’Malley is settled into his place in the sport for the time being. Perhaps his greatest strength beyond the speed, the power and the striking technique, is his comfort in the spotlight he demanded the moment he arrived on Dana White’s Contender Series. It’s clear in the way he interacts with the media and fight fans, like when he continued to claim “undefeated” status after his first professional loss or how he played into the criticism of “ducking” tougher opponents so far in the UFC.
“Every single person that talks crap in the comments is going to watch my fight,” O’Malley told UFC.com. “They can’t not watch my fight. If my fight was on, and someone told them they had to leave, they’d be so mad because watching me – you have to see it. As long as they’re watching, that’s all that matters.”
O’Malley knows what he’s working with even if there’s not a number next to his name, and ahead of his date with Raulian Paiva at UFC 269, O’Malley is riding with a new moniker: Unranked Champion.
When UFC.com visited him in Arizona ahead of his UFC 264 bout with Kris Moutinho, he expressed his belief that people were starting to get a better grasp on his “comedic” personality and accepting the “entertainment side” of the “Sugar Show” a bit more. Granted, it always helps when you’re back in the winner’s circle, which O’Malley was after a record-setting victory this summer.
“I feel like I’m one of the biggest stars in the UFC,” he said. “I feel like if everyone was fighting at the same time and you could only pick one person to watch, it would be me. That’s where I got the ‘Unranked Champ’ mindset.”
For all the noise about O’Malley’s strength of schedule through his first seven UFC fights, Paiva is by no means an unknown quantity. The 26-year-old Brazilian comes into the matchup riding a three-fight winning streak, including his most recent victory over Kyler Phillips, a fight he took on short-notice.
O’Malley admitted he didn’t really know much about Paiva until Phillips fought him (O’Malley and Phillips are friends and sometimes train together at The MMA Lab in Phoenix). He understands Paiva doesn’t carry the name recognition O’Malley’s detractors want from his foes, but that doesn’t mean “Sugar” is overlooking him by any means.
“I know it’s not an easy opponent,” O’Malley said. “I’m not going in there like, ‘Oh, I’m going to take this dude out easy.’ Sometimes I go in there and make it look easy. I made Thomas Almeida look easy, Eddie Wineland look easy. When I go in there and do that to opponents, they’re like, ‘Oh, that was too easy for you,’ but that’s just my skill.”
Although O’Malley thought Phillips did enough to win, he gave Paiva credit for a “good heart performance” and believes his opponent is “pretty well-rounded.”
O’Malley naturally believes he presents too many problems for Paiva when they lock the Octagon door on December 11. He cites his speed as the biggest athletic difference between the two and scoffs at the notion that Paiva can lean on a high-paced, in-his-face approach en route to success.
Like he said, O’Malley is in a catch-22 at the moment. If he dispatches Paiva in the style to which he’s accustomed, people will return to the “he hasn’t fought anyone yet” argument. If Paiva pushes O’Malley, the noise will mimic that which came after his loss to Vera – debates about nerves in the leg aside.
Such is life for O’Malley. It’s nothing to which he’s not accustomed. The 27-year-old hasn’t just gathered Octagon-time during his UFC career, he has lapped up a keen familiarity of life under the microscope.
Rise Of Sean O'Malley
Unlock MORE of your inner combat sports fan with UFC Fight Pass! Fighting is what we live for. And no one brings you MORE live fights, new shows, and events across multiple combat sports from around the world. With a never-ending supply of fighting in every discipline, there’s always something new to watch. Leave it to the world’s authority in MMA to bring you the Ultimate 24/7 platform for MORE combat sports, UFC Fight Pass!
Rise Of Sean O'Malley
When I ask about how differently he handles high-profile now compared to when he was younger, he keenly points out that every single one of his fights have come on main cards, more often than not on major pay-per-views (the lone exception being his win over Jose Quinonez at UFC 248, which came after two years out of competition. It was, however, the “featured prelim” that night). It’s that experience which informs his fluid ease.
“I’m not nervous,” O’Malley said. “I’m not trying to say the right thing. I can just say whatever comes to mind and be authentic.”
For all the hubbub about who he has and hasn’t fought, O’Malley hasn’t shied from calling out the bigger names in the division, at least publicly.
Ironically, three of the names O’Malley has thrown out there are also fighting on December 11: Dominick Cruz, Pedro Munhoz (who are fighting each other) and Cody Garbrandt (who is making his flyweight debut versus Kai Kara-France. Slyly, he points out that those perennial contenders and established names each make the walk earlier in the night than himself.
“I just think they’re all interesting matchups,” he said. “I think they’re all good fights that the fans would like to see. People want to see me fight someone that they know, not necessarily ranked. I’m not calling them out to be ranked. I’m calling them out because they’re interesting fights. They’re on the prelims. They gotta do something cool, something good, something big.”
For now, O’Malley is just going to keep fighting who is given to him and continue to polarize fight fans regarding his ceiling. What’s undeniable is the fact that we’ll all be watching, and O’Malley knows exactly what he can do with all eyes on him.
“I’m obviously not ranked,” O’Malley said. “It’s funny because it makes people so angry. I’m making money and doing my thing.”