“Suga” Sean O’Malley has been a star in the UFC since declaring himself one following his blistering first-round knockout victory over Alfred Khashakyan on the first season of Dana White’s Contender Series.
Then a 23-year-old undefeated prospect with seven straight victories, six finishes, and a curly mop of brown hair, the Montana native climbed on top of the UFC cage and welcomed everyone to “The Suga Show,” and folks have been tuning in enmasse since.
Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, O’Malley makes the walk to the Octagon for the third time this year and eighth time in his career, squaring off with Brazilian RaulianPaiva in the opening bout of the UFC 269 Pay-Per-View main card.
He’s already earned a pair of third-round stoppage wins in 2020, as well as two more post-fight bonuses, and is one of the biggest attractions on a fight card that includes a lightweight championship fight between Charles Oliveira and Dustin Poirier, and the greatest female fighter of all time, Amanda Nunes, defending her bantamweight title against former Ultimate Fighter winner Julianna Pena.
In a sport where there are fewer legitimate stars than before, O’Malley is most certainly a star, but figuring out where he fits in the bantamweight division is a much more difficult question to answer.
O’Malley is a phenomenal talent, with tremendous height and reach for the division and a keen understanding of how to use both inside the cage. He’s a smooth striker with good power for the weight class, a solid submission game in his back pocket just in case, and a flair for the dramatic, which means he’s always going to hold the audience’s attention every time he competes.
On top of that, he has a massive personality and a keen understanding of how to market and promote himself, forcing himself into the greater consciousness early in his UFC run by turning up to open workout sessions despite not being on the call sheet, dying his hair funky colors before each contest, and embracing his favorite recreational activities as branding opportunities.
Not only does O’Malley have “it” but he also “gets it,” and it has made him one of the most popular fighters on the roster despite the fact that seven fights into his UFC career, he still hasn’t faced or beaten a ranked opponent, which is why figuring out where he fits in the division is tricky.
The bantamweight division is arguably the most competitive division in the UFC at the moment, with two champions, a handful of legitimate elite contenders, and then a multi-tiered, interwoven collection of experienced stalwarts and emerging threats that includes O’Malley and at least 30 other fighters.
While none hold a candle to O’Malley in terms of popularity, there are several other up-and-coming talents that are ahead of him in the pecking order.
Song Yadong collected a second-round stoppage win a couple weeks back to push his record to 7-1-1 inside the Octagon, then celebrated his 24th birthday a couple days later. The Chinese standout is currently stationed at No. 14 in the rankings and just topped ESPN’s list of the Top 25 Fighters Under 25.
Adrian Yanez graduated from the Contender Series a couple years after O’Malley, but has posted four victories in as many starts since joining the UFC roster last fall. Last time out, the 27-year-old Houston native out-hustled veteran Davey Grant in gritty, hard-fought battle that shows he’s ready for another step up in competition.
Ricky Simón has earned two victories already this year and three straight wins overall heading into his clash with Top 15 stalwart Raphael Assuncao next weekend, while Kyler Philips, who came up with O’Malley at The MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona, bested Song earlier this year before losing to the man set to share the cage with the wildly popular bantamweight this weekend.
While each of those four athletes either have individual victories or enough cumulative successes to establish a clear baseline for where they fall in the hierarchy in the 135-pound weight class, O’Malley is still lacking a true standout win. He’s had some incredible performances and beaten a couple former divisional contenders in Eddie Wineland and Thomas Almeida, but the former hadn’t been in the mix for several years when they crossed paths and the latter entered on a three-fight losing skid with a 1-4 record in his previous five fights.
The one time O’Malley did face someone currently working his way up the ranks was last summer at UFC 252 against Marlon “Chito” Vera, and he stumbled, suffering a first-round stoppage loss.
Losing to Vera isn’t anything for O’Malley to hang his head about — he’s proven he’s a legit Top 15 talent in the 135-pound weight class — but the problem is that O’Malley refuses to accept the defeat, which is another reason it’s hard to know what to expect from him as he starts to wade into deeper waters.
Everyone gets beaten at some point or another, save for Khabib Nurmagomedov, and most are able to accept it and move on. Thus far, O’Malley has gone in the opposite direction, claiming that he’s still undefeated and making myriad excuses for why things went the way they did. Combined with the fact that his wins have come against fighters that were a combined 17-16 inside the Octagon before they fought and have gone just 1-6 since their meeting, it makes a fight like this weekend’s pairing with Paiva that much more important because at some point, O’Malley has to actually show that he’s capable of hanging with the best fighters in the division.
Talent-wise, he ticks all the boxes, but styling on the JV squad and holding your own against the varsity are two different things entirely, and thus far, O’Malley has been a second-squad superstar, while acting and being treated like someone that has already proven himself in the ultra-competitive division.
We’ve seen it from Song, Yanez, and Philips, and Simón gets another chance to get a marquee win next weekend, but O’Malley came up short in his biggest fight to date, refuses to accept or acknowledge the result, and has made it clear that he doesn’t want to take those marquee fights until he’s getting paid like a marquee fighter.
On one hand, it’s a savvy business decision and further illustrates just how much he understands the game and his position in it. On the other hand, it leads to several of his contemporaries moving ahead of him in terms of their performances and results, which only increases how badly people want to see O’Malley do the same.
This weekend’s pairing with Paiva is actually a really stern test (on paper), with the Brazilian making the walk second and fighting out of the red corner, yet O’Malley has still been installed as a -300 favorite.
And he probably should be, because he’s a phenomenal talent with the skills to be a world champion at some point in the future, but he needs to show it this weekend.
Busting up a short-notice replacement like Kris Moutinho or battering a shopworn Thomas Almeida add to the highlight reel and the resume, but Saturday’s clash with Paiva is a must-win if O’Malley wants to keep pace with the other emerging talents in the bantamweight division that have actually stepped into the Octagon and beaten solid competition.
Hype can get you a long way, but at some point, you have to start posting meaningful victories.
The hype surrounding O’Malley has been out of control since that Contender Series victory four years ago; now it’s time to start posting the wins that validate all that attention and acclaim.