LAS VEGAS — Sean O’Malley is on the verge of something special. He’s already become one of the most popular MMA fighters just four bouts into his UFC career.
He’s coming off a devastating one-punch KO of veteran Eddie Wineland that set off a feud with former champion Cody Garbrandt, who had a one-punch KO of his own on that same card on June 6.
Kevin Holland, an up-and-coming middleweight contender, name-checked O’Malley on Saturday at Apex after he scored a crushing knockout of Joaquin Buckley.
“That was like ‘Sugar’ Sean O’Malley-type stuff right there!” Holland said of his KO. “That was pretty cool.”
O’Malley’s bout on the “Dana White Contender Series” has been viewed on YouTube 5.6 million times, second in the series’ history behind only the 6.5 million who watched Chase Hooper’s fight.
It’s not a question of whether he’ll blossom into a star; he already is a star. It’s more a matter of how big of a star he’ll become, and he clearly has the potential to be in the Ronda Rousey-Conor McGregor level.
But to get to that level, he has to be able to fight as well as he promotes. And the only question about his fighting is how he’ll do against an elite grappler or wrestler.
On Saturday at UFC 252 at Apex, O’Malley will face what he concedes is the toughest bout of his career when he takes on Marlon “Chito” Vera in a three-round bantamweight fight.
Vera has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and has collected seven victories by submission among his 15 professional wins. He’s won fights by rear naked choke, armbar, triangle choke and heel hook, showing he knows an array of techniques.
While O’Malley says he believes the fight will be a battle between his striking and Vera’s jiu-jitsu, he insisted he won’t feel lost if Vera manages to take him down and turn the bout into a grappling match.
“I’m not unfamiliar with the ground game,” said O’Malley, who has one submission win en route to a 12-0 pro start. “I understand jiu-jitsu and I’ve been doing it for a long time. Whether he takes me down and I either get back up or I play my guard and see where it goes from there. I’m excited.”
O’Malley competed in the UFC’s Quintet grappling tournament last year. He submitted Takanori Gomi and drew with Gilbert Melendez, though he was submitted by Hector Lombard. To be fair, it must be pointed out that Lombard had at least 50 pounds on O’Malley and was twice as thick.
But for those who saw O’Malley as a one-dimensional fighter who relied on striking first, last and always, it had to be an eye-opener.
He proved that while he isn’t necessarily looking to grapple, he can hold his own if the need arises.
“That was huge for my confidence, knowing I can grapple with Gilbert Melendez, Takanori Gomi [though] not so much with Hector,” he said. “It was a big confidence boost. Going into those grappling matches, you don’t know who you’re going to compete against. But I had a training camp for that Quintet match and I was ready to go against whoever and compete hard. But then submitting Gomi and going eight minutes with Gilbert Melendez was huge for me.
“I felt it really gave me that confidence that, ‘Damn, I can grapple with these high-level guys in a competition.’ I grapple with high-level guys in training all the time but translating it to competition is another thing. I’ve never had an issue competing, and it’s nice to know I could go and compete with high-level black belts.”
But he’s not going to make his money because of his grappling prowess. It’s his striking, his flair and his ability to sell a fight that is going to make him a mega-star.
O’Malley OK with Garbrandt dropping to 125
After he knocked out Wineland and Garbrandt knocked out Raphael Assuncao at UFC 250, there was talk of who had the better KO. That led to a war of words between O’Malley and Garbrandt that hasn’t ceased.
Even as he faces his toughest challenge, O’Malley is lobbing bon mots in Garbrandt’s direction.
Garbrandt is dropping to flyweight and will challenge new champion Deiveson Figueiredo in November.
“I think Cody’s doing the right thing going down to 25 and fighting Figueiredo,” O’Malley said. “I just said this a little bit ago, if he drops down and beats him, I’m pumped. I’m going for Cody. I would love for Cody to go down, knock out Figueiredo and come back up to 35 and we get to fight eventually.
“It would make it that much sweeter when I knock him out, because it would make me champ-champ then. But the other side of that is, almost maybe the more realistic side of that is, he goes down to 25 and gets knocked out by Figueiredo. Then he’s 1-4 in his last five with four KO losses. Then I knock him out and he’s 1-5 with five KO losses, so it’s just not the same.”
Speaking of not the same, UFC cards aren’t the same without O’Malley. He’s one of those guys whose presence on the card helps to build the anticipation and make them that much more exciting.
If he proves he can deal with a grappler like Vera — the MGM Grand Sports Book has him a -300 favorite — he’s going to be a lot more familiar to even the most casual of fans a lot more quickly.
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