Casey O’Neill has never feared jumping into the unknown, but that doesn’t mean she’s flying blind when it comes to her career aspirations.
Considering that she kickstarted her career by flying to Las Vegas without a place to live or anywhere to train, simply in hopes that the UFC would take notice and sign her, the 24-year old flyweight prospect thrives whenever the opportunity arises to bet big on herself.
That said, O’Neill is also smart enough to play the long game, especially with challenges like eventually earning a shot at reigning UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko.
“I bet on myself against everyone, no matter what,” O’Neill told MMA Fighting. “If it was up to me, obviously I’m going to say yes to everyone. But [UFC matchmaker] Mick [Maynard] knows what I want. He knows the path that I’m trying to build and the legacy that I’m trying to build. I’m trying to retire as the greatest fighter to ever do it, obviously, as we all do, and I think that making the right steps is a super important part of that.
“Just fighting better and better competition as it goes on, and if I need to fight through the whole flyweight roster before I get to Valentina, I’m happy to do that as well. I still believe that I’m a couple years away from fighting Valentina. I know there’s still things I want to fix before I get in there with her, and make sure I’m invincible by the time I get to her. I want to be the first person to take her out. So [I’m] not too long away, but also not tomorrow either.”
It’s that kind of brutal honesty that could help O’Neill succeed where so many others have failed.
Since moving to 125 pounds, Shevchenko has been a human wrecking ball who has completely demolished every single contender in her path. It’s gotten to the point where Shevchenko losing a single round to Jennifer Maia in an otherwise lopsided decision was the only glimmer of hope for any flyweight with hopes of dethroning her.
O’Neill firmly believes that she could eventually be the Chris Weidman to Shevchenko’s Anderson Silva, but she also knows the time to issue that challenge isn’t right now.
“Obviously, Valentina is amazing and she makes me better everyday,” O’Neill explained. “I can’t sit on my couch without thinking Valentina might be working right now, and I’ll get up and go for a run or she’ll make me do an extra session. She’s pushing me the same way Ronda [Rousey] pushed all the bantamweights and Joanna [Jedrzejczyk] pushed all the strawweights at one point.
“She’s pushing us all to be better, and I believe that having a really dominant champion on top of your division makes everybody get better so much faster, because everyone is trying to be the one to beat that person. I love having someone like Valentina at the top of our division. She definitely makes me be on my game everyday.”
With a 3-0 record with three finishes to start her UFC career, O’Neill already has a lot of people taking notice. She won MMA Fighting’s Rookie of the Year award in 2021 and she’ll look to make it four wins in a row when she returns on Saturday night in Houston.
At UFC 271, O’Neill faces women’s MMA pioneer Roxanne Modafferi in what is expected to be Modafferi’s final fight of her career. The narrative surrounding the fight may seem like one generation of passing off the baton to the next generation, but O’Neill certainly doesn’t see it that way.
“I definitely don’t think it’s a good fight for her to go out on, so I’m grateful that she decided to take the fight,” O’Neill said of Modafferi. “I’m not sure if it’s a passing of the torch, per se, because I do believe that people are looking at me to just smoke her, which I do believe that I’m going to do anyway.
“I think the torch has already been passed. This is just going to be like a nail in the coffin type thing.”
There’s a thin line that separates confidence from cockiness, but O’Neill understands the difference, even while making that kind of bold prediction as far Modafferi is concerned.
O’Neill has learned from the past mistakes of others, and that’s why she’s more than ready to tackle her next challenge at UFC 271 while still acknowledging that she’s got time to go before clashing with a savage like Shevchenko.
“You’ve got to look at it as a marathon and not a sprint,” O’Neill said. “I just think it comes down to being honest with yourself and where you are. People will blow smoke up your ass when you’re doing well, and people will tear you down when you are doing bad. I just feel like you can’t get too high and you can’t get too low.
“You’ve got to stay within yourself and be honest with yourself, and assess how you’re doing as a person and try to not let the outside factors matter too much. I’ve tried really hard on staying level-headed and keeping good people around me who are honest with me as well.”