In theory, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is a meritocracy. In order to win the world championship in mixed martial arts, one has to win a certain number of matches, which results in the UFC granting that person an opportunity to fight for the championship belt. Unlike in the WWE, the fights in the UFC adhere to a specific ruleset, and the outcome is not scripted.
That said, the promotion certainly treats individual fighters differently. Some only need to win a few fights to compete for the belt, while others can amass incredibly long win streaks without getting a title shot. The company has always favored popular fighters that have the potential to attract more fans and bring in more revenue for the company. Historically, the majority of fans have gravitated toward fighters who talk trash, win consistently or deliver exciting finishes, as seen with the likes of Conor McGregor, Jon Jones and Israel Adesanya. Current UFC bantamweight contender “Suga” Sean O’Malley possesses all three of these attributes, and thus the UFC took notice of him early on in his career and has already marketed the rising star heavily to its audience.
O’Malley quickly impressed UFC president Dana White on the “Dana White Contender Series” in 2017, a show designed to discover up-and-coming talent. Despite having to serve a suspension for taking ostarine in 2019, O’Malley resumed his rise in 2020, picking up two flashy, devastating first-round knockouts against José Alberto Quiñónez and Eddie Wineland.
The UFC sought to facilitate O’Malley’s road to the title and matched him up against bantamweight veteran Marlon “Chito” Vera. Although O’Malley started off strong, he suffered a rare injury when Vera’s toe connected with O’Malley’s peroneal nerve. The blow severely compromised O’Malley’s movement and allowed Vera to easily finish him when O’Malley’s leg suddenly buckled, ending his undefeated streak.
The outcome of this match divided fans and fellow fighters, many of whom believed that O’Malley had inherent leg weaknesses that would stop him from defeating the best bantamweights in the world. Others, particularly O’Malley himself, considered this fight a freak accident that would not stop him from continuing to win and ascend the UFC rankings. He regarded himself as “mentally undefeated,” a comment that drew immense criticism from the fans and his fellow fighters. They believed that O’Malley’s ego and refusal to acknowledge his shortcomings would prevent him from improving and challenging for the belt.
Ahead of his UFC 260 bout with Thomas Almeida, a fighter who himself had suffered some devastating losses but still possessed high-level striking and knockout power, critics still favored O’Malley but cited leg kicks as a straightforward way to cripple the young prospect. During the fight itself, however, O’Malley controlled the action from start to finish, evading almost all of Almeida’s kicks while returning devastating leg kicks of his own.
In the first round, O’Malley landed a beautiful head kick that clearly stunned Almeida, but O’Malley attempted to recreate his walk-off finish of Wineland, which allowed Almeida to recover and continue fighting. Nevertheless, O’Malley used his footwork and feints to systematically outstrike Almeida until the third round in which he once again dropped the Brazilian and finished him with a brutal hammerfist. Unlike his most recent wins, which both ended in the first round, O’Malley demonstrated an ability to maintain his output and pressure in an extended fight, which further proves his ability to compete with the top-ranked fighters in the division.
Even though the performance allowed O’Malley to display his impressive skill set for an extended period of time, his opponent Almeida did not even rank within the top 15 of the UFC’s bantamweight division. For O’Malley to prove that he can fight for the championship belt, he will have to face increasingly stiff competition. As a result, questions about his durability will still follow the rising star.
All of the ranked fighters in the division are better than anyone O’Malley has faced up to this point, both in terms of technique and athleticism. That said, within all of his matches so far, O’Malley has demonstrated a unique skill set that can present challenges for every fighter in the division. His ability to manage distance makes him an incredibly difficult target to hit, and his striking accuracy and speed allow him to inflict serious damage on his opponents. On a purely technical level, O’Malley may in fact already be the best striker in the division, but his ability to maintain that level when faced with adversity will determine how far he can rise.
Moreover, his ground game remains untested, as no opponent has been able to take him down consistently thus far. In his fight against Vera, O’Malley did not show an ability to defend himself on the ground, which may become problematic as the higher-ranked bantamweights all have high-level wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu pedigrees. O’Malley will have to maintain not only his takedown defense, but also his ability to defend against submissions and strikes on the ground.
For O’Malley’s immediate future, a fighter ranked within the top 15 certainly makes sense for his next competition. Rumors of a fight with former champion Dominick Cruz have already circulated, and if O’Malley were to win, he would suddenly find himself only one or two more wins away from an opportunity to fight for the title. Winning is far from a guarantee for O’Malley, though, as Cruz himself has demonstrated incredible defensive ability. O’Malley will have a much more difficult time landing a knockout punch on “The Dominator” than against any of his prior opponents.
For all of O’Malley’s shortcomings, he has an intangible quality shared by only a handful of other fighters within the organization. If O’Malley were to improve enough to become the undisputed UFC bantamweight world champion, his ability to connect with a massive audience and sell pay-per-views would make him a global superstar comparable to other historic fighters, not just within the UFC, but within combat sports as a whole.