Sean O’Malley’s confidence and swag have been major factors in his rapid rise to UFC stardom.
But he hasn’t always possessed that trait.
O’Malley remembers one of his first amateur fights when he was a self-described skinny 18-year-old kid back in Montana and feeling nervous about the “jacked 32-year-old dude” standing across the cage.
“I knocked him down with a spinning back fist on the first punch,” O’Malley said. “I was just like, ‘Whoa.’”
The fighter nicknamed “Suga” hasn’t looked back. On Saturday, the 25-year-old bantamweight will return after a two-year absence when he meets Jose Alberto Quinonez at UFC 248 at T-Mobile Arena.
“I was taking on these other amateurs who weren’t really good, but at the time I didn’t know that,” he said. “I was knocking dudes out left and right, fighting every weekend, and I just built this confidence. I wasn’t this kid walking around school feeling confident. I got this confidence from beating people up. I’ve had a lot of fights and knocked out a lot of people, submitted people.”
It has been quite a journey back for the popular O’Malley, who has undergone surgery on his foot and a torn labrum in his hip along with a prolonged saga with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency over testing irregularities involving minute traces of ostarine since his last fight.
He lost two years of his career at a time when he was on the verge of becoming one of the UFC’s biggest stars, but insists he’s not bitter.
“I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been and better than I’ve ever been,” he said. “The two years have been really a blessing.”
O’Malley used the time to build his brand, which was truly launched with his flashy knockout of Alfred Khashakyan on a Dana White’s Contender Series card in Las Vegas in 2017.
The UFC’s internal numbers indicate that more than 4.3 million people have viewed the fight through their various platforms. It was the No. 1 play of the day on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and is best remembered for guest commentator Snoop Dogg screaming O’Malley’s name over and over.
O’Malley, a vocal marijuana enthusiast, had an infamous smoke session with the famous rapper after the fight.
The weed. The hair. The tattoos.
It’s all part of the appeal that has kept O’Malley so popular during his absence.
“As far as what has made me popular, I don’t know,” he said. “People say it’s just that thing, I guess. I believe I have ‘it,’ and I’ve believed I’ve had ‘it’ for a long time. Nobody knows what ‘it’ is, but it’s real.”
He says he’ll prove that again Saturday against Quinonez.
“I’m here. He’s here.” O’Malley said. “Nothing is holding me back now. He’s like a sacrificial lamb for me. There’s not a lot that can go wrong now.
“I’m still only 25. I have time to build this thing. I’m going to go bust him up, sit down with my team, figure out who’s next and hopefully get back at it in July.”
The bout will headline the preliminary card, which will be televised on ESPN beginning at 5 p.m. The main card, headlined by a middleweight title bout between Yoel Romero and champion Israel Adesanya, will stream on ESPN Plus pay-per-view at 7.