Like it or not, UFC bantamweight Sean O’Malley is on the short list of potential stars in mixed martial arts. And for the record, there are plenty out there who do not like it.
O’Malley (14-1) has been a polarizing figure since he signed with the UFC off Dana White’s Contender Series in 2017. He is 6-1 inside the Octagon — including four finishes — but he has taken some criticism regarding the level of his competition. O’Malley, 27, has never beaten anyone ranked inside the UFC’s top 15.
O’Malley, who faces Raulian Paiva at UFC 269 on Saturday (10 p.m., ESPN+ PPV), has responded to any remarks about a padded record by trolling his critics. He recently released merchandise that dubbed him the “Unranked Champ.” He’s also dropped merchandise in the past that boasts of his “undefeated” record, as he feels a freak injury was behind his only loss, a first-round TKO by Marlon Vera in August 2020 after a kick numbed O’Malley’s lower leg and rendered him defenseless.
Heading into his eighth UFC appearance, O’Malley spoke to ESPN about the meaning behind “Unranked Champ,” the pressure of superstar expectations and this weekend’s fight.
Editor’s note: Responses were edited for clarity and brevity
On being unranked and ‘undefeated’
The UFC rankings have always been something not super important to me. So, the merchandise says “Unranked Champ 15” because this is my 15th fight and I’m about to be 15-0. That fight against Vera, I don’t feel like I lost because his skills were better. I don’t think he truly, truly thinks he won the fight, either, the way it played out. It was so rare. Look at how many times I’ve been kicked in other fights; you don’t see my whole leg go numb the way it did against him. Mentally, I don’t feel that I lost. If Vera goes out in a rematch and beats me in a decision or finishes me fair and square, I’ll have no issue saying I lost.
I lose in sparring, I lose in grappling. I’m not worried about losing. I just don’t feel like I lost that fight, and a lot of people hate that I say that.
On what makes him ‘the people’s champ’
Petr Yan is the champ right now. He’s beaten the people he needs to beat to be the champ in the UFC. But I feel I’m the people’s champ. I have more eyeballs on me than anyone else in the bantamweight division. That’s what I consider “the champ.” I’m the most entertaining. People care about me the most. That’s what “the champ” is to me.
Editor’s note: Yan is actually an interim champ, with Aljamain Sterling holding the real belt. But Yan controlled their 2020 title bout before losing his belt to Sterling by disqualification.
On why he’ll feel no pressure Saturday
Sean O’Malley reflects on his time away from fighting and how it has helped him grow as a person. Order UFC 248 here on ESPN+ espn.com/ppv.
I’m going to go out there and fight Paiva, a dangerous opponent, one of the tougher guys I’ve fought, for sure — but it doesn’t matter. I’ll finish him, and that’s what is supposed to happen. It’s the Suga Show. I’m supposed to go out and finish him.
I’ve learned a lot, through being in the UFC since I was 22, mostly to not care what people think. I’ve been very active on social media, and you can’t care what people think.
If I go out there and lose to Paiva, I’ve still got my house that’s almost paid off. I’ve got my other house. I’ve still got my family, friends. My life is still good, win or lose. So it doesn’t matter to my happiness. I don’t really put that extra pressure of, “I gotta win this fight or people are going to think I suck.” I don’t care, you know what I mean?
I don’t really feel pressure and I don’t really get nervous before fights.
2020 to 2030 is going to be my whole era. It’s the Suga Era. 2020 was a fantastic year for me. 2021 has been amazing. 2022, I see myself getting back in there during the first quarter and just continuing to do what I’m doing. You can’t look too far ahead in this game. I learned that in the Vera fight. I already had big plans going into that one. I didn’t plan on my peroneal nerve getting tapped and my foot going completely numb. I’ve learned to kind of pull back from looking too far ahead.
On the fight he most wants
I want to fight Petr Yan. I know he’s the champ and you have to beat certain people to get that fight, but that’s a fight I want eventually. Even if he’s not the champ, that’s a fight I want. I think he’s one of the best pound-for-pound, top-three fighters in the world. I love his style, his boxing, the way he switches stances, covers up, his defense. He’s just so good. Every time he gets in there, it’s impressive.
I like his humor, too. Obviously there’s a language barrier, but I enjoy his comedy on Twitter. He calls me a poodle. I find him very funny.
What’s next after Saturday
If I had to say what’s next, probably I’ll get another fight in March. Whether it’s top 15, top 10, not ranked, I truly don’t care. I love going out there and performing. Performing is what I love the most, going out there live, T-Mobile Arena, screaming fans, millions of people watching live. That’s what I love. As long as I can go in there and fight, it doesn’t matter who it is.