The Sean O’Malley Phenomenon: A Glimpse into Combat Sports’ Future?

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Henry Smith

UFC is a sport like no other when it comes to making superstars overnight. 

Take a look at the meteoric rise of Conor McGregor to the pinnacle of the sport in the mid 2010s, going from being a plumber to a household name for his prowess as a fighter in what felt like a matter of months.

While we’ve seen quite a few fighters rise and fall over the past decade, one who seems like he has an excellent chance to stick around is Sean O’Malley.

Who Is He?

Credit: Henry Smith

O’Malley recently claimed the UFC Bantamweight championship, upsetting the heavily-favored Aljamain Sterling with a second round TKO. With Sterling on the offensive, O’Malley backpedaled, leaning back out of reach from a swing before letting loose with a devastating counterpunch of his own that put Sterling on the ground.

A lanky 28 year old who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 135 pounds, O’Malley possesses a 17-1 record in his career, with nine of those wins coming in UFC… including six knockouts.

While he was born in Montana, O’Malley calls the Grand Canyon State home these days, training out of Glendale. Follow the fighter from Phoenix with the Arizona sports betting apps, where he’s opened as an early favorite to defend his title as he pushes for a rematch with Chito Vera, the only fighter who he’s ever lost to.

A Star in the Making

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While many MMA fans had had their eyes on O’Malley even before he became a world champion because of his rapid ascent through the sport, his knockout of Sterling proves that he’s arrived in a big way. O’Malley has eight fight or performance of the night awards in ten UFC matches throughout his career. His talent allows him to put on a show with stunning victories, something that will only continue to boost his popularity if he continues to rack up wins.

McGregor’s rise and fall shows that it isn’t just what one accomplishes in the Octagon that makes them a star, but how they do it as well. O’Malley seems to have the same sort of swagger that The Notorious possesses, like his outrageous curly hair—which he isn’t afraid to dye, like when he colored it yellow, blue and red in tribute to the Ecuadorian flag ahead of a match with Vera, who hails from the South American nation—which he had done up in intricate cornrows during his bout with Sterling.

O’Malley already had more than three million followers on Instagram before his August 19 knockout of Sterling. In the week since then, though, that number has grown quite a bit, as he’s up to 3.5 million as of August 25. 

It’s the sort of exponential growth we’ve come to expect out of combat sport sensations, although he has quite a ways to go before he can challenge McGregor’s 46.8 million followers on the gram, despite the fact that McGregor hasn’t taken part in a fight in more than two years, and may never do so again. 

No Stranger to Controversy

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Beyond the Irish last names, the fighting talent and the headline creating personalities, there’s one last way that O’Malley’s surging career reflects that of McGregor: he doesn’t shy away from causing controversy. Whether it’s just who he is or a cunning marketing strategy designed to keep his name in the headlines and increase the hype for his bouts, O’Malley’s outspoken, no holds barred approach with the media is a two-edged sword.


It’s going to increase his popularity, maintaining a constant buzz around what he does, but he’s also giving his opponents plenty of bulletin board material, adding motivation to want to take him down in the Octagon. In the days following his win over Sterling, O’Malley caught flack for describing his one way open relationship: he feels free to sleep around, but doesn’t let his wife Danya do the same, even though he said she isn’t happy when he’s finding other women on the side. 

O’Malley played into a number of alpha male tropes in describing the dynamic, referencing controversial (to say the least) media personality Andrew Tate, who claims that his status lets him get away with whatever he wants. 

O’Malley’s statements put many UFC fans off, and it’ll be interesting to see if they’re rooting against him because of it when he next steps into the Octagon.

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