From high school dropout to rising UFC star, Sean O'Malley found his footing in the fight game

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
Sean O’Malley will face Andre Soukhamthath in a featherweight fight on the main card of UFC 222 Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)
Sean O’Malley will face Andre Soukhamthath in a featherweight fight on the main card of UFC 222 Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)

There should be a disclaimer every time the Sean O’Malley story is told: Don’t do what he did, no matter how badly you hate school and want to fight. Chances are, it won’t work out.

It’s worked out amazingly well for O’Malley, who dropped out of high school midway through his sophomore year because he was tired of wasting his time. He then went to what he called “sort of a boot camp” in order to obtain a GED, but was expelled after getting into a fight and enrolled in a “alternative high school.”

O’Malley saw the world in black and white and didn’t understand why he needed to fill his head with all of these things he’d forget the minute he walked out of the door.

A friend introduced him to fighting and he was instantly hooked and never wanted to do anything else. School, well, that was another story.

“I just didn’t like school, you know,” the 23-year-old said a few days before facing Andre Soukhamthath in a featherweight fight on the main card of UFC 222 Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. “At that time, in my mind, I thought, ‘This is pointless. I don’t like what we’re learning.’ I thought it was a waste of time and thought I should have been doing something else.”

That something else was fighting, and he’s turned into a sensation in an amazingly short period of time. Search as hard as you want and you won’t find many great fighters from Helena, Montana, though O’Malley laughs and says, “Well, what about me?”

He’s 9-0 and 1-0 in the UFC, but he’s got some ways to go before he’s considered great. But he’s shown himself to be an exciting, unorthodox fighter. His head kick knockout of David Nuzzo on May 5 at LFA 11 remains one of the most astonishing finishes you’ll ever see:

O’Malley uses spin moves a lot, and this one seemed as if he’d throw a spinning back fist with his right hand. It was a right, all right, but it wasn’t the hand. As he spun, he brought up his right foot and caught Nuzzo with a kick to the face. Nuzzo went down in a heap, the referee shoved O’Malley away and a legend was born.

He admired the great boxer Roy Jones, primarily for Jones’ unpredictability. As he racked up the wins, O’Malley was showing plenty of unpredictability himself. He is long and lean, and at 5-11, is extraordinarily tall for a bantamweight.

It’s easy to see the genius in what he does now. He earned his spot into the UFC with a first-round knockout of Alfred Khashakyan in July in Las Vegas on the “Dana White Contender Series” show.

Khashakyan came forward in a traditional manner, throwing a jab with a right hand behind it, and had early success. But his style was built on knowing where his opponent would be and being able to anticipate where the punches would be coming from.

He couldn’t possibly know, though, because O’Malley didn’t know. He was driven by instinct, shifting weight, moving left, pivoting right, throwing kicks when it should have been a punch and going high when it seemed he’d go low.

He eventually cracked Khashakyan with the very straight right hand he’d been throwing at O’Malley all night, and referee Mark Smith instantly stopped it as Khashakyan crumpled to the canvas. White jumped from his seat and, with his jaw dropped and mouth agape, paced around with a grin on his face, incredulous at what he’d seen.

It was hard for Khashakyan to defend himself when he was just not nearly as quick as O’Malley and not sure where O’Malley would be at any given time. It’s the way O’Malley began and despite moving to The MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona, where he works under the highly regarded John Crouch, it’s the same basic style he uses today.

He was on vacation in Utah with his family when he was 15 or 16 when a friend from Helena called.

“He said, ‘Hey, you want to go to a fighting gym?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ even though I didn’t know anything about fighting,” O’Malley said. “But I loved it and I never stopped going.”

He had no clue, though, what to do. He didn’t know the difference between an orthodox stance and a southpaw stance, and he didn’t have any concept of footwork. He did what felt right, and found that it worked, so he kept doing it.

And though he wasn’t one for school work, he learned something else about himself: Fighting taught him lessons he would never learn in a classroom.

“If I wasn’t fighting, I have no idea what I’d be doing,” he admits. “But just the fact that I learned how to fight and I learned what it takes to get better and improve, I’ve realized that if it turned out I couldn’t fight, I know now that I could get good at something else and I’d be able to make a career out of something else. Fighting taught me that, not school.

“Taking the fighting road, that’s where I’ve learned the most. I learned to eat healthy. I learned how to treat my body right. I’ve learned how to do all these things to just become a better person, so there’s no doubt that fighting helped me more than school ever did.”