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Unified MMA Lightweight Discusses His Goals And Ambitions Ahead of Clash With Craig Shintani on Friday Night at Unified MMA 54

He might be quick to argue otherwise, but in speaking with the 31-year-old from Fort Macleod, Alberta ahead of his return to action this Friday at Unified MMA 54, I can tell you that the aspiring lightweight is someone I would choose to have speak to younger fighters about how to approach this unpredictable, often unforgiving, sport.

“My goal is the bigger organizations and fighting the best in the world, but it’s also sharpening my martial arts skills,” said O’Connor, who faces off with Craig Shintani in a critical lightweight battle later this week. “I love the opportunity to compete in the cage, period — the fact that I get to pursue this as a career and a lifestyle, I’m so grateful for it and I love it.”

Sporting a 12-2 record and having won three straight under the Unified MMA banner, O’Connor is one of the top competitors on the Canadian regional scene, and a potential call-up to a larger promotion has hovered around his last couple of fights.

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The specter of being close — of the next win perhaps being the one that elevates you to the bigger stages — is the kind of thing that can get fighters thinking a little too far ahead at times. For many, graduating to the next level is the main motivation, the lone goal that pushes them through training sessions and trips into the cage, but it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come for everyone.

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So rather than fixate on earning the victory that elevates him to the next level, O’Connor’s primary focus is always on improvement — on building up his skill set, sharpening his weaponry, being better the next time out than he was the last time out — with the understanding that nothing is guaranteed beyond the next fight, so making sure he’s as prepared and focused as possible to step in against Shintani is his top priority.

“I know I can’t look past the 15th — nothing happens past that moment; I have to do my job then,” he said with a smile, sitting on a heavy bag just a few days out from the fight. "The tag of having (one of these bigger organizations) as part of my identity or my career, my goals, that goal is not bigger to me than being a good martial artist, performing well, seeing how my skills come out on December 15th.

“Being able to fight on December 15th, show my skills, show the stuff we’ve been doing in the gym is coming together and I am getting better — that’s my biggest goal anyway, so that helps keep me focused on the task at hand.

“That’s the heart of my goals, and secondary is these bigger organizations, these bigger opportunities,” he added. “Having that priority list where I want to be the best version of me, and that hopefully will carry me to these bigger tier organizations. If it does, that’s great because that is also a goal, but No. 1 is doing what I’m doing (in the gym) and am I getting better at what I’m doing?”


That focus on controllable elements has come in handy in the weeks leading up to his return to action, as O’Connor was initially penciled in opposite Ramil Kamilov on Friday night.

Undefeated in six professional appearances and having registered stoppage victories in five of those wins, the pairing with the Champion’s Creed representative was the kind of higher profile contest that was set to bring more eyeballs to his next appearance in the cage, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Kamilov was forced to withdraw due to an undisclosed injury, resulting in Shintani tapping in, making the fourth time the Canadian veterans have been paired off against one another, though they’ve yet to officially share the cage.

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“Adaptability is part of this game,” offered O’Connor, who registered a third-round stoppage win over former champ Tim Smith last time out. “If you’re in MMA and you expect it to be smooth sailing all the time — wrong sport, wrong business.

“One thing I’m really grateful for is that my camp talks about being adaptable and not letting anything shake you too much. It definitely sucks because it’s exciting to fight Ramil — he presents a lot of cool opportunities and challenges; at 7-0, being the guy to take that away could be a really big springboard to take me to the next level — but I feel the same with Craig.

Catch all of Unified MMA December 15 live and exclusive on UFC Fight Pass

“This guy is a banger just like me,” he said of Shintani, who sports an 11-4 record that includes a win over streaking Ontario lightweight Scott Hudson and bouts with former Unified MMA titleholder Neal Anderson, BFL standout Dario Sinagoga, and ascending UFC welterweight Mike Malott. “You have to be prepared for war.

“There is no time to be disappointed about Ramil being out — it’s back to the drawing board, back to putting in the work.”

After rattling off seven wins in eight starts over his first five years as a pro, O’Connor, like many others in Canada, faced a slowdown in terms of opportunities from 2019 through 2021, splitting a pair of fights under the XFC banner.

But he made a pair of successful trips into the Unified MMA cage last year, and Friday will be his second fight of 2023, and the talented lightweight is quick to highlight the positives of keeping an active schedule and how it has forced him to be introspective about where he stands and where he wants to be as an athlete.

“The last few years have been really good for learning what it takes to go from maybe a Tier Two or Tier Three level to knowing what it takes to be in that top tier, and activity is a big part of that,” began O’Connor, who credits his coaches Trevor Hardy and Brad Wall, and his nutritionist, TJ Whelan, for helping him get further dialed in over these last couple years. “A big goal of mine has been to stay active and make sure I’m doing this the right way, so my body is healthy so I can take these fights.

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“If I fight in December, am I gonna be able to fight in January, February if someone calls, if something comes up? I want to be in a position where I’m ready to jump at any opportunity.

“It works really well because you also learn, ‘Are you at that top tier?’” continued the Alberta lightweight, speaking with a level of introspection and sincerity that is uncommon in competitors pushing to reach the highest level in their given pursuit. “I’ve always had the confidence where I’ll fight anyone in the world, but there is also just a level to putting everything together on the night where everything is sharp. We all know these guys — we’ve trained with them, we’re friends with them — who are sick in the gym, but don’t put it together the night of, and you’re like ‘this guy is a killer; he could beat anyone in the world,’ and then the night of, it doesn’t come together.

“Finding that balance is an art and that has, luckily for me, been (what I’ve worked on most) the last two years,” he added. “I’m on the edge, but I’m not quite there yet in terms of putting it together.”

Having that level of clarity, that kind of focus bodes well for O’Connor, both as he continues to pursue his ambitions inside the cage and overall going forward.

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He clearly has a good sense of what he’s after and what matters most to him, and has surrounded himself with people that will not only keep him humble, but will also continue to push him and aid him in his quest to reach his personal and professional goals.

Long-term, that means becoming the best martial artist he can be and constantly working to improve himself in that realm.

Short-term, that means showcasing the gains he’s been making by stepping into the cage and making a statement against Shintani on Friday night.

“A successful night on December 15th is finishing Craig; finishing him inside the distance,” he said with a smile. “I tend to fight later, so I’m working on making sure I’m sharp from the get-go. Right at the start of the bell, I want to be putting my game together, and finish him early, finish him late — I just want to make sure I get a finish.”