UFC Bantamweight Champion Henry Cejudo is at the top of the heap for his weight class and will likely go down as one of the best bantamweights of all-time. But when it comes time for him to pass the torch to the next great in the division, that exchange could be with UFC rising star “Sugar” Sean O’Malley.
While top bantamweight contenders Marlon Moraes (age 31), Aljamain Sterling (30), and Petr Yan (27) pose the more immediate threat to Cejudo, it is O’Malley, who at just 25 years of age is off to an 11-0 (3-0 UFC) start in professional MMA, that could eventually be in a prime place to capitalize on a changing of the guard in the bantamweight division.
O’Malley is less than a month removed from his return to the octagon at UFC 248 Adesanya-Romero on March 7. In a matchup with a formidable opponent, Jose Quinonez (8-4 MMA, 5-3 UFC), O’Malley needed just two minutes and two seconds to end the fight by TKO (Head Kick and Punches) and earn his seventh knockout in 11 pro bouts.
The Suga Show wasn't canceled, it was just between seasons. Welcome back @SugaSeanMMA.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) March 8, 2020
Those two minutes were the summation of two years without competing for O’Malley.
The Montana native was supposed to fight Quinonez at UFC 229 in October 2018, but he had to pull out in September because of a potential Anti-Doping Policy violation. While waiting to receive judgment on his potential violation, O’Malley also received hip surgery. He was subsequently suspended for six months by the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) after testing positive for Ostarine. He became eligible to return in March 2019.
O’Malley was scheduled to face Marlon Vera in July 2019, at UFC 239. However, he announced his withdrawal from the bout in June due to another failed test for Ostarine. Although the Ostarine in his system was likely residual from his previously failed test prior to UFC 229, NSAC decided to suspend him due to the failed test and he was also suspended for six months by United States Anti-Doping Association (USADA).
But the time off for the 5-foot-11, wiry 135-pounder proved to be time well-spent as he healed from foot and hip injuries and worked on his mental control and awareness.
“It is a practice,” O’Malley recently told UFC.com. “You don’t just meditate a couple times and get good at it, or if you’re bad at it, you quit. It’s a practice, so I think I was doing a little bit before, and then I went through that (time off) and realized I need that more than anything, just to be able to quiet my mind and be more in control of my thoughts.”
While O’Malley certainly wishes he didn’t need a two-year-long process of healing and suspension in order to further the mental aspect of his game, he said he is content knowing the time off was a useful part of his preparation to ascend the UFC’s bantamweight rankings.
After making quick work of Quinonez and earning Performance of the Night in his most recent fight, O’Malley displayed his mental control with a subdued and humble reaction after the victory in his highly anticipated return. Calmly walking away from his opponent and seeming underwhelmed by his own performance, O’Malley showed maturity and self-awareness that is typically well beyond his years.
THE SUGAR SHOW LIVE AND IN COLOR. 📺
— UFC (@ufc) March 8, 2020
“I was just enjoying the moment,” O’Malley said. “I was just very calm. I was extremely calm before the fight in the locker room. I was calm during the fight, and I was calm after the fight. I think I was just trying to keep a level head, and just stay calm the entire time.”
And while he doesn’t lack the demeanor and ego of a future champ, O’Malley’s ability to think introspectively and understand the hill he has ahead of him to get to the top of the bantamweight division keeps him grounded and patient when it comes to talking smack before or after fights.
“I could sit online and say I’m this good or I’m that good,” O’Malley said. “I could sit there and want to say how I feel, which is I feel like I want to become world champ, I feel like I’m going to be one of the best fighters to ever live. But it’s just pointless to say that stuff when I haven’t fought in two years, so be able to go out there and do that and prove that to everyone, now people see that I’m legitimate. I’m real. I’m not just a fake hype train. I’m a real hype train.”
O’Malley’s career in the UFC got started in 2017 when he fought on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series and earned a contract from the promotion with a knockout over Alfred Khashakyan. Over the course of the next year, The MMA Lab (Glendale, Arizona) product would go on to win two more UFC fights by unanimous decision before his layoff.
MMA is not O’Malley’s only talent. He is also a professional video gamer who plays frequently on Twitch. O’Malley joined the professional gaming organization OpTic Gaming in June 2018.
Skilled, entertaining, different, and likable, “Sugar” has all the makings of a future UFC star and championship contender. His journey will have to start by breaking into the bantamweight rankings — perhaps after one more UFC win. A win or two against ranked opponents in his division and no more failed UFC drug tests and O’Malley could find himself headlining an event with a title on the line within the next few years.
Pat Donohue has been covering sports for more than 10 years. He is a former Washington Redskins beat reporter and has been covering the University of Maryland football and basketball recruiting and daily beats for Rivals.com since 2013. Pat graduated from Maryland with his master’s degree in journalism and has received bylines in publications such as USA TODAY Sports, The Philadelphia Inquirer, SB Nation, and Yahoo! Sports. As a wrestler for 13 years in Pennsylvania, Pat has a deep appreciation for MMA and a keen understanding of the sport.