The rest of the bantamweight division may want to start taking marketing tips from Sean O’Malley.
O’Malley opens this Saturday’s UFC 269 main card in about against Raulian Paiva, a booking that shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows given O’Malley’s popularity; however, another bantamweight bout featuring Pedro Munhoz and Dominick Cruz — No. 11 and No. 14 respectively in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings — has a lower positioning on the card on the ESPN+ preliminary portion.
So how did “Sugar” end up with higher billing than Cruz, a former UFC champion and arguably the best-ever to compete at 135 pounds?
“I let a little giggle out it just because I remember Dominick Cruz saying something, trying to teach young fighters how to promote, just something like that, how to do something,” O’Malley said on The MMA Hour. “It’s Dominick Cruz, the dude’s a legend, I can’t sit here and disrespect him, but he’s on the prelims. The UFC stacks the card in a specific way for a reason, you know what I mean?
“If they thought Dominick Cruz and Pedro Munhoz could sell more pay-per-views than me, they’d put him on the main card. I think it’s just the UFC’s a business and they understand what they’re doing, so they’re there because they’re there.”
Since earning a contract on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2017, O’Malley has fought seven times for the UFC and five of those appearances have been on PPV, including the co-main event of UFC 252 one spot below the Stipe Miocic-Daniel Cormier trilogy bout. Though O’Malley has yet to crack the top 10, he is consistently one of the bantamweight division’s most talked-about fighters in the lead-up and aftermath of every card he appears on.
That buzz has motivated O’Malley to dub himself the “unranked champion,” a theme he’s carried into his latest merchandise launch. He has said on multiple occasions that he picks fights based more on name value than rankings as his compensation is mostly unchanged regardless of opponent.
“‘Unranked champ’ just seems to make sense going into this fight considering I’m on the main card,” O’Malley said. “I’ve got Paiva moved all the way up to the main card as well and we’ve got two guys in the top 10 fighting on my prelims. It makes sense.”
O’Malley currently sports a 6-1 UFC record (14-1 overall) and outside of his loss to Marlon Vera at UFC 252, he has impressed with his stylish striking performances. The 27-year-old has also worked on cultivating his public persona through his tattoos and wild hair colors, his social media activity, and his podcast.
Asked why he’s become such a polarizing figure, O’Malley downplayed his extracurricular activity as he believes peoples’ opinion of him is based primarily on his actual fighting ability.
“I think it’s my performances, I really do,” O’Malley said. “All the talk, all the hair, all the whatever, the face tats, all of those things are just additives, I think. My performances, you just want to watch me fight. I move different than people, I think that that’s what it really is.
“But I could be wrong. It could be my beautiful smile.”