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With $1 million in hand, Sean O’Connell hopes others follow his PFL path

Ilir Latifi vs. Sean O’Connell at UFC fight night 81

Now that he’s riding off into the sunset with a check for $1,000,000, Sean O’Connell doesn’t mind if other light heavyweights size him up and think “if that guy can become a millionaire, why shouldn’t I give the Pro Fighters League a try?”

The Utah native came close to calling it a career after he lost three straight UFC bouts and was released from his contract two years ago. But he gave the fledgling PFL a whirl, and went on to win their inaugural PFL divisional tournament in his final career fight in one of 2018’s feel-good MMA stories.

So if a mid-level current UFC fighter took a look at O’Connell draped with a title belt and an oversized check after defeating Vinny Magalhaes in the finals at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve and thought “I could beat him,” well, that suits O’Connell just fine.

“I think the PFL is the best idea that’s happened to MMA in a long time,” O’Connell told MMA Fighting. “I was skeptical like anyone else when they came along and said they’d be passing out million-dollar checks, but this was the best thing I could have done. So if there are guys out there who think they could beat me, or even if they’re guys who did beat me, I’d like to see them get out of their one-sided UFC contracts and go make some real money.”

O’Connell noted that the light heavyweight runner-up, Magalhaes, still took home $200,000, and that it took multiple Fight of the Night bonuses (he earned three in a five-fight span) to get O’Connell to sniff that type of money in the UFC.

“Hey, I’m not going to knock the UFC’s business, because they create superstars and then they have a very tight ship for everyone else,” O’Connell said. “It works for them. But there are a lot more guys like me than there are making big bucks. I had to keep winning bonuses just to get the check Vinny’s going to cash. If guys like Vinny and I making this money gets higher-ranked competition to come and give us a chance, then this thing is going to build. That’s how things will work for the PFL in the long run.”

O’Connell vowed this was going to be his final fight, win or lose, but Magalhaes had been the story of the tournament and perhaps the entire PFL season after he won all four fights -- two regular-season bouts, along quarterfinal and semifinal playoff matchups -- with submissions in under two minutes.

But O’Connell’s ace up his sleeve was his longtime coach, one of the OG’s of MMA ground game in Jeremy Horn.

“Jeremy Horn was the antidote,” O’Connell said. “If you ever need to fight someone who knows his way around the ground, you go find Jeremy Horn in Utah.”

O’Connell was able to weather the early storm, then continually laid on his heavy hands. It became apparent didn’t have a Plan B, or the cardio to keep up with O’Connell’s pace. O’Connell’s confidence grew as the fight went on, as he continued to punish Magalhaes in the standup and avoid mistakes on the ground.

Finally, Magalhaes’ corner threw in the towel after the third round. And now O’Connell is free to admit he wasn’t so much fresh as he was simply less exhausted than his foe.

“Hey man, I only know one speed to go. I’ll push through exhaustion. If I have to throw up in the bucket right in the cage when it’s over that’s fine, but you’re not going to get me to slow down while the fight is going on.”

The 35-year-old O’Connell retires with a 21-10 record. He did so in the sort of manner few fighters ever get to experience. Mark Munoz walked away after winning his last fight in his homeland of the Philippines; Urijah Faber got a hero’s sendoff in his hometown of Sacramento, and after that, well, such retirements are few and far between.

As for what he’ll do now, O’Connell acknowledges he’s the kind of energetic sort who always has to be doing something. MMA was his second act as an athlete after a football career that took him to the University of Utah. He’s keeping busy as a Sirius XM Pac 12 radio host, has worked as a commentator for PFL fights, and has tried his hand as an author.

O’Connell imagines something is going to keep him active, but getting punched in the face won’t be a part of it.

“I was talking to my wife and I was like ‘so what am I going to do in a couple years, maybe go try an Ironman or something?” he said. “I really like to eat, I’m going to get fat fast if I don’t do something. Realistically I could see myself going out and doing one of these competitive grappling events. That will keep me sharp without having to get hit in the face. That I’m done with.”

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