PHOENIX — Stay in the fight game long enough and the days start to bleed together. The monotony of the grind, the routine of repetition; it’s enough to dull even the sharpest of memories. But John Moraga can still remember the day he met Sean O’Malley.
It was the summer of 2014, and the previous year Moraga had taken the greatest flyweight who ever lived into the fifth round of a UFC title fight watched by more than 2 million people. Though Moraga lost, he proved he belonged. Tucked away in the quiet mountain town of Flagstaff, Ariz., he was already deep in camp for the next rung of his comeback climb when he was surprised to see a teenager he had never before met abruptly shuffle into his sparring cage, all skin and bones with a baby face that belied his gameness. The two strangers barely shared pleasantries before the new kid and the world-ranked professional fighter were pitted against one another in a spirited session.
O’Malley was only 19 years old, still just an amateur, but this is what he had wanted. This is why he left the Montana plains he called home, why he abandoned all he had grown up around and made the 19-hour trek down to Arizona, to pursue the only escape to a better life he knew and forge himself among some of the best fighters in the world.
Moraga started light against the inexperienced teen, but soon enough he was throwing hard. The fires of competition are sometimes impossible to hold back, and this scraggy newcomer was bringing it out of the UFC title challenger. He was a raw prospect without a single pro fight to his name, but O’Malley was long and crafty, an unrefined but dangerous striker with sneaky precision, and he could eat a shot.
In the end, he won over the veteran’s respect the hard way.
“I went after him and he just took it,” Moraga says now, laughing. “Afterward, I was just like, ‘Alright, this kid’s going to be something.’”
That something happened fast. Even faster than O’Malley expected.
Just three years after his welcoming foray against Moraga, the bantamweight dubbed “Sugar” emerged as a potential prospect to watch with the kind of 2017 campaign that dreams are made of, a nine-month stretch that saw him shoot from fighting for pennies in a dusty North Dakota casino to fighting in a bonafide UFC co-main event on FOX Sports 1. Between those bookends came his ludicrous AXS TV knockout, his ballsy Tuesday Night Contender Series showing — which left UFC president Dana White’s mouth comically agape — and even his much-publicized smoking sesh with the dogfather himself, Snoop Dogg. Now O’Malley finds himself nestled between legends of the game Andrei Arlovski and Frankie Edgar on a UFC 222 pay-per-view that will cost people $65.
“This time last year, I was 5-0 and broke,” the 23-year-old says, now a first-time home buyer who’s readying for his sophomore Octagon appearance against Andre Soukhamthath on March 3. “Me and my girl had an apartment. But I’ve known I was going to be in the UFC. Since I moved down here, I’ve always known I was going to be in the UFC. … Since I was little, I’ve known. I thought I was going to be in the NFL when I was like 7, 8 years old — I didn’t realize you had to be f*cking 7 feet tall — but I’ve always thought, in my head, I’ve always had this idea of me becoming something bigger, something great. And this is just the path it took. Now I’m just rolling with it.”
O’Malley’s path is striking not just for its linearity — a throughline that travels straight from childhood aspirations into adult success, an increasingly common trend among the new generation of MMA athlete — but also for how disastrous it all could’ve been.
When O’Malley was 16 years old, he dropped out of high school. He was a teenager discontented by his own disinterest, an adolescent left to find his own way in the world.
Up until that point, youth sports like football, basketball, baseball, and soccer were the only arena in life the gangly Montanan ever felt truly engaged, the only outlet with which he felt truly alive. Schoolwork never spoke the kinetic language of O’Malley’s mind, but he could watch a new athletic technique be demonstrated and apply it aptly within minutes. His size worked against him on the playing field, but that only pushed him harder to compete. So after his freshman year, he decided he had enough.
He walked away from the system.
He had a plan though, if only in the vaguest sense that a 16-year-old can have a plan.
The year before, O’Malley had joined a local boxing club. He was always a quiet kid, never one to get in many fights, but the concept of being able to handle himself regardless of size appealed to him. So the gym became his new schooling, the heavy bag his new coursework. The same night many of his classmates earned their high-school diplomas, O’Malley competed in his first kickboxing match. It was a fitting parallel; years of hard work coming to fruition in one grand showcase, albeit in two far different forms.
To fund his passion, O’Malley found work in a group home for the mentally disabled. It was a heavy job for a kid so young, but it paid the bills, and in time, O’Malley became better for it. “There were eight clients who lived there, and what we did, we just helped them,” he remembers. “Like, I’d drive them to work, I’d pick them up, we’d help them with their dinner, their chores, make sure they’d clean their room. If they need help showering, we’d help them shower. And that was the job I did to save up money. I worked there for probably close to two years, and that job was super cool.
“I felt like I could talk to them on a certain level or communicate with them, and I just felt super comfortable with them and they felt comfortable with me. So it was rewarding. I liked helping them out.”
By the time he became a man at 18, O’Malley was all-in on the martial way. Without a high-school diploma, it was MMA or bust. But he believed.
In the spring of 2014, he competed in his fifth amateur fight on the Montana circuit, using his long legs to lure his opponent into a spider web of a triangle choke in less than three minutes’ time. As fate would have it, a fellow Montanan by the name of Tim Welch had flown into Great Falls to commentate the card. Welch was a veteran of Bellator’s short-lived Fight Master series and a trainer at The MMA Lab, the renowned Glendale, Ariz., team led by John Crouch and former UFC champion Benson Henderson. Welch was impressed by what he saw from the skinny prospect. He offered up his own house and asked if O’Malley would be interested in flying down to the desert for a trial run with the team. Within months, O’Malley was endeavoring to sink or swim against Moraga. Three years later, he was sauntering out of an Octagon in Las Vegas, being broadcasted live on UFC Fight Pass, bellowing in euphoria at the gobsmacked president of the UFC.
“Welcome to the Sugar Show!”
While it’s much too early to say where this story leads, the early returns are promising.
With his massive dimensions for a bantamweight — a 5-foot-11 frame buoyed by a 72-inch reach and a blossoming understanding of how to fight long — O’Malley is undefeated after nine professional fights, having left a trail of highlight-reel stoppages in his wake. His UFC debut proper came in December against Terrion Ware, a hard-nosed veteran with heaps more experience who had never been knocked out. “Sugar” unloaded the kitchen sink hunting for an early stoppage in an effort to break that streak. Then, in an encouraging sign for a debuting prospect, he roared back to life with a second wind to close out a strong performance and win the most important judges’ decision of his life.
What could’ve been a career-altering letdown ended up being an admirable start for the up-and-comer.
“Terrion was tough, I hit him with a lot of shots that would’ve dropped a lot of people,” O’Malley says, looking back. “He made me push harder than I’ve ever had to push and go 15 minutes hard, and you just grow from that. You learn from that. Now going into this next fight, if I’ve got to go 15 minutes, I already know I can. I did it last fight. I had to dig deep and use heart, and I knew I had it. I knew if I got into that situation, I wouldn’t break and I’d keep going. I just got to show everyone else. So I’m going to go into this fight in better shape and more dangerous, a lot more dangerous.”
The confidence that drove O’Malley to roll the dice — to redirect his path at an age where most kids are worried about simply fitting in, and instead enroll himself into his own life’s passion, risks be damned — is now his greatest asset.
And that confidence can be seen everywhere, from the occasional hands-at-his-side flash of his fighting style to his often ostentatious, marijuana-fueled social media presence. In that way, little has changed. Moraga says from their very first sparring session in 2014, O’Malley “always had a little swag to him,” but that even then, it was something that only came out when needed, when the lights were drawn and moment called for it. Other times, he can still be the quietest voice in the room.
“Even as a kid, I never really wanted to fight people unless it was in front of an audience,” O’Malley says. “I think of it more as a performance. I always grew up playing sports, so I thought of it just as another sport. Fighting was performing in front of people. Over this last six weeks, I’ve been practicing so I can go out there and perform on March 3. That’s kinda how I look at it and that’s how I’ve looked at all of my fights.”
“He is very confident, but that’s Sean. That’s why he’s ‘Sugar,’” says Cortney Casey, a fellow UFC contender at The MMA Lab. “He’s super sweet. He has a lot of confidence but he’s so humble at the same time. He’s very humble. He comes in here, he shows up every day, he works hard, he’s always helping everyone. ... You ask him little things and he’s always there to put in his two cents, which is good. You want teammates like that. You want teammates that have that confidence, because you only feed off of it.”
The most crucial factor now will be managing expectations. Few fighters traverse the perils of the UFC without falling headlong into a slump or two, and the pressures that come with being an athlete the promotion gets its marketing muscle behind — as the UFC seems to have done with O’Malley — can fast become overwhelming. An increase in spotlight brings with it an increase in cynicism, a desire from others to see the hand-picked prospect fail.
But one year into his Octagon journey, O’Malley is taking things in stride.
“I have a passion for this and I just want to get better at it,” he says. “I was super lucky to be able to find [something I’m passionate about] so young, at a young age, and have that.”
O’Malley’s mood only darkens, if ever so slightly, when the topic of Soukhamthath arises.
Soukhamthath knocked out a fellow MMA Lab prospect, Luke Sanders, in his last fight, and gym vengeance rests at hand on Saturday.
“He just knocked out a top prospect, and I’m going to go out there and beat his ass,” O’Malley says flatly. “He’s 1-2 in the UFC, two of those losses were split decisions that could’ve went either way, so he very well could be 3-0 in the UFC, and I really do think I’m going to go out there and outclass him. Every fight I go into, I plan on not getting hit. I plan on me being that much faster and better. Obviously it’s a fight and you’re going to get hit, and I know that, but I’m going into this fight planning on getting in, getting out, and the only things that are going to be hurting are my hands from bouncing them off his head.”
At that, O’Malley cracks his knuckles, a whip-like crack that rips through the dead air of the gym. For a moment, the laid-back demeanor of the underdog kid is gone, replaced by a long-stoked fire that devours the silence in the room. Then, as soon as it arrived, it vanishes. “Sugar” Sean O’Malley, professional UFC fighter, is relaxed once more.
How could he stay mad? He’s living the life he always wanted to live.
Not bad for a high-school dropout.
“Sky’s the limit for him. He’s already a step ahead,” says Moraga. “He’s been training with a lot of talented guys since he was a kid. That’s helped him progress to where he’s at now, and that’s also showing his ability to learn and just get to the top quick. He’s not even done developing as a mixed martial artist, and he’s just getting better and better. I don’t even know how young he is, but man, what, 23? He’s got at least seven, eight, nine more years of fighting if he wanted to. Who knows, I’m 33.
“So man, I mean, seriously, the sky’s the limit.”