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Sean O’Malley hopes to follow the Conor McGregor model when it comes to his UFC career

Sean O’Malley
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Prior to UFC 248, Sean O’Malley thought a two-year absence would make his return to action feel like his Octagon debut all over again.

The reception he received from the Las Vegas crowd during his first-round TKO win over Jose Quinonez told a much different story. The fans didn’t forget about him — they clearly missed him.

“I don’t think I really lost any hype going into that fight,” O’Malley told MMA Fighting. “It was exciting. I think people feel that certain way when I fight, and I’m excited to get back in there and make them feel that again. It’s powerful.”

O’Malley’s career has been a roller coaster since 2018, when he earned his second UFC win and plotted his third later that year. Unfortunately, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and Nevada State Athletic Commission derailed O’Malley’s plans with a pair of suspensions, and he wasn’t cleared to compete until Feb. 25.

While he was ultimately exonerated from knowingly taking any banned substances, O’Malley can’t get that time back. Still, he credits the attention paid to his case – along with a pair of fight bookings over the past two years – with keeping his name in the headlines.

“I think the two fights I was supposed to be in brought that hype back a little bit,” O’Malley explained. “Then it got pulled, then it got built up again, then it got pulled. There was a lot of drama behind it all, so it almost made it more exciting for my return, but yeah, it felt like my debut all over again.

“I enjoy that. It’s cool to be able to get such a big following, so many eyes to watch me fight from being in the UFC. It’s a sweet life.”

Now that he’s active again, O’Malley really doesn’t want to slow down, though the ongoing coronavirus pandemic might force him to sit out longer than expected. That said, O’Malley would like to return to action in late spring or early summer with the hope of fighting at least three or four times in 2020.

“I’m healthy – I obviously love to fight,” O’Malley said. “We’re going to go back to the drawing board. I’d like International Fight Week, but it does feel like it would be a little bit too far out. I don’t know if I really want to wait that long. I know there’s a card in San Diego. I think that’s like eight weeks. That could be a potential date.

“As far as right now, I don’t know. We’re going to let it die down for a little bit and then pick back up in a week and figure it out.”

Just after his fight ended – and prior to the UFC cancelling the next three shows on the schedule – O’Malley’s name came up from dozens of fans who volunteered him for a potential short-notice fight against Raphael Assuncao after former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt was forced out of that March 28 matchup.

The card ended up getting cancelled anyway, but O’Malley appreciated that so many people were passionately trying to get him into a co-main event slot against a longtime top-five ranked veteran.

In his mind, O’Malley believes he’s more than capable with hanging with the best bantamweights in the sport right now. But he also understands he’s only three fights into his UFC career.

The 25-year-old bantamweight prospect knows he has to balance expectations when looking toward the future, especially when it comes to his rise up the ranks in the 135-pound division.

“I’m 25 – I’d like to fight until I’m 35 or 36,” O’Malley explained. “I’m extremely healthy and I could maintain that for that long. Once you start fighting the best guys in the world, you’re going to fight nothing but the best guys in the world. So I’m going to take it fight by fight, take it slow.

“I’m 3-0 in the UFC, and it’s hard to do that when you feel like you could knock out these top dudes in the world. I feel like my skill level’s there, my mindset’s there and everything’s there, but it’s a balance. Trying to make this a smart career.”

There’s no road map for how the UFC chooses to elevate up and coming talent in any division across the sport. Some prospects are given plenty of time to develop while others are thrown in the deep end almost immediately. A few learn to swim. Many drown.

For O’Malley, he hopes to make a steady climb up the bantamweight ranks. He sees a former two-division UFC champion as a perfect example of somebody who came in with a ton of hype, but was still given a chance to evolve and grow in the Octagon.

“Conor [McGregor’s] career, they did pretty well with as far as building him up,” O’Malley said. “It’s a business. It’s a career. You can only fight for so long. You’ve got to make as much money as you possibly can. So we’re going to look at it like a business and go from there.”

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