On May 6, Sterling defended his UFC bantamweight title with a split decision victory over Henry Cejudo at UFC 288. Shortly after that, rumors swirled that the UFC wanted Sterling to make a quick turnaround and defend his title in August against O’Malley at UFC 292 — something Sterling was open to, but said he needed to see about some lingering injury concerns first. Then the UFC went ahead and announced the fight anyway, sparking a war of words between Sterling and UFC president Dana White.
And while O’Malley’s coach Tim Welch can understand where the champion is coming from, he’s says that, ultimately, this is just business.
“It does kind of suck for Aljo, just having to get pushed in there and not really getting a say,” Welch said recently on The MMA Hour. “But the UFC knows what they’re doing. The UFC knows what they’re doing. I just try to stay out of that. But I do see Aljo going off about, ‘Who is the smarter one?’ Taking all these fights. I’d be curious to see who made more money in those months. I know Aljo fought three times and ‘Sugar’ only fought [during] that [time] once, but still. With his brand deals, with his merch company, I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a similar amount of money. So really, who is the smarter one?”
Sterling and O’Malley have had their differences, with the two even facing off in the cage following Sterling’s win at UFC 288. Earlier this past week, those tensions ratcheted up when O’Malley dismissed Sterling’s injury issues, prompting Sterling’s aforementioned response.
Welch has tried to distance himself from that back and forth, giving Sterling credit as “the most dangerous bantamweight champion there’s ever been,” but even he acknowledges that if he had his druthers, O’Malley would be fighting Cejudo for the title rather than Sterling.
“I was hoping Henry also,” Welch said. “Just because of the accolades he has. He’s double champ, Olympic champ, and if ‘Sugar’ laid him face-first and KO’d him, that would just be that much sweeter. Plus he is kind of annoying and I think a lot of people wanted that. But Aljo won, so we’ve got to get prepared for him. Aljo’s, I think, the most dangerous bantamweight of all-time, and it’s going to be a fun challenge getting ready for him.”
One of those challenges is going to be ring rust. Unlike Sterling, O’Malley has been out of action for some time. The 28-year-old fighter from Montana last fought at UFC 280, taking a split decision win over Petr Yan. That win propelled O’Malley to the No. 1 contender position, but when Cejudo decided to return from retirement, the UFC instead shelved “Sugar” for that matchup, meaning that O’Malley will have been out of action for 10 months when he finally does face off with Sterling. But Welch says that may actually be a blessing.
“He was putting together a lot of fights back to back, a lot of camps back to back, and his body was beat down,” Welch said of his student. “It’s been 10 years of him fighting constantly, besides that little two-year suspension, so giving his body time to heal and rest and still stay disciplined — he wanted to fight. He wanted to fight earlier than that, but the UFC just kind of was like, ‘Let’s wait around for it.’ I don’t think it was bad because now his body is healed up, he’s ready for this training camp. It’s going to be a long one against Aljo and his body is ready for it.”
And it won’t just be his body that’s ready, but his skills, because come August, Welch expects O’Malley to finally claim UFC gold.
“Sugar’s reaction times are so good and if you make a mistake striking — look at Petr Yan, how high his guard is and how sharp of a striker he was, and ‘Sugar’ was able to find his chin and drop him,” Welch said. “I just cannot see — I think ‘Sugar’ is going to crack him. I think he’s going to hurt him, wobble him, and Aljo’s going to take a s***** shot and [O’Malley is] going to put him to sleep, one way or another.”
UFC 292 takes place on Aug. 19 at the TD Garden in Boston.