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Hype Machine: How first-time title challengers fared, and what that means for Sean O’Malley at UFC 292

MMA Fighting

You never forget your first.

It’s not easy to create a marketable champion. But every now and then, the stars align just right for the UFC. A fighter completes a rise to the top that is equal parts thrilling and seemingly effortless. In other instances, fighters stumble at the finish line, or well before they even get there.

On Saturday, in the main event of UFC 292, Sean O’Malley takes on long-reigning bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling, looking to complete a quest that began in 2017, when no higher authority than Snoop Dogg anointed “Sugar” as the next big thing after a win on the Contender Series.

At times, it’s felt as though the talented striker’s rabid following has willed him to the front of the contenders’ line, and now it falls on him to live up to the hype.

Ahead of what could be the dawn of a new era, we take a look back at other notable names that rocketed toward a UFC title shot, with some nailing the landing and others detonating before liftoff.

Conor McGregor

The journey: McGregor was massively hyped before his UFC debut in April 2013 after departing England’s Cage Warriors promotion with belts at 145 and 155 pounds.

He won his first five UFC fights, four by TKO, and separated himself from the pack with his distinct striking style and confidence on the microphone. The highlight of this run came when McGregor took center stage in his native Dublin and destroyed Diego Brandao. McGregor’s people gave him a rapturous welcome, and a future title shot was all but guaranteed.

The first shot: McGregor’s championship triumph is really a two-parter, as he first had to face Chad Mendes at UFC 189 for an interim featherweight title when his bout with undisputed champion Jose Aldo was postponed due an Aldo rib injury. It was both a blessing and a curse, as McGregor was about to be tested by a prime wrestler, his supposed Achilles heel.

It looked like the McGregor doubters were right through the first five minutes. Mendes took McGregor down with ease and pummeled him in Round 1, only to be betrayed by his gas tank. In Round 2, McGregor was the fresher fighter, and he pulled away on the feet before finishing Mendes in the closing seconds of the frame. Just like that, McGregor had his first UFC belt.

Aldo still had the real thing, though, and surely, at UFC 194, the McGregor hype train would go flying off the rails.


The aftermath: The 13-second win and undisputed champion validation sent McGregor’s fame into the stratosphere, where it remains to this day despite a lack of in-cage success and an abundance of outside-of-the-cage nonsense in recent years. He followed up on the Aldo win by taking part in an unforgettable two-fight series against Nate Diaz, embarrassing lightweight titleholder Eddie Alvarez to become the first UFC fighter to hold two championships simultaneously, and then arranged a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather that made both men blindingly wealthy.

There has never been a more successful journey from UFC newcomer to superstar than McGregor’s.

Brock Lesnar

The journey: This guy comes close, though.

Brock Lesnar
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The intrinsic connection between pro wrestling and MMA is well-documented, and no one has had more success crossing over between the two than Brock Lesnar, a WWE headliner and an NCAA Division-1 wrestling champion to boot. He joined the UFC with one MMA fight under his belt, and after a rude welcome from Frank Mir, he rebounded with a win over Heath Herring to earn a title shot in just his fourth pro bout. Such was the fascination with the once-in-a-lifetime physical specimen.

The first shot: Bang on.

Just based on skill and experience, there’s no reason that Lesnar should have been able to defeat the legendary Randy Couture. However, not only was he a slight favorite when they fought at UFC 91, he delivered on his enormous potential with a second-round TKO to become the UFC heavyweight champion. Again, this was his fourth MMA fight!

It probably helped that he was 14 years younger than Couture and more athletic than anyone the division had ever seen outside of Kevin Randleman.

Aftermath: Despite Lesnar being one of the UFC’s all-time great pay-per-view draws, he never seems to get credit for being a pretty solid champion, as well. In his first defense, he avenged his loss to Mir and then survived an onslaught from Shane Carwin to pull off a comeback win and make it two in a row.

It was all downhill from there, as he was soon decimated by Cain Velasquez and Alistair Overeem before having a win over Mark Hunt at UFC 200 overturned due to a positive drug test. He later returned to the WWE and hasn’t competed in MMA since.

Few candles have burned brighter inside the octagon for as short a period of time.

Holly Holm

The journey: Holm had a Hall of Fame fighting resume before she even stepped foot into the octagon, having won world championships in boxing before fully committing to MMA. She was 7-0 when she made her UFC debut in 2015, and it made sense that someday she’d be a logical challenger for the rampaging Ronda Rousey.

Admittedly, Holm did little to capitalize on that buzz at first as she eked out a split decision win over Raquel Pennington at UFC 184 and then won a forgettable unanimous decision over Marion Reneau. Not that it mattered. Rousey needed a fresh challenger after a record-breaking run of title defenses, and Holm was the next woman up.

The first shot: The big difference between Holm and the rest of the names on this list as that she was a massive underdog heading into her title challenge. While Holm still had some cachet from her boxing exploits, the general (read: betting) public had zero faith that the soft-spoken “Preacher’s Daughter” could beat Rousey at UFC 193. Depending where you looked, Rousey was as high as a 22-to-1 favorite to retain her bantamweight title.

Depending which pundits you asked, though, Holm’s contrasting style made her one of the liveliest dogs around, and that played out in real time as she survived Rousey’s grappling, clowned her on the feet, and then wiped her out with the most famous head-kick knockout of all time.

Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Aftermath: Holm lost the title in her first defense against Miesha Tate at UFC 196 and has come nowhere close to the heights of the Rousey win, but she remains a relevant contender eight years later. She fought in three more UFC title fights across bantamweight and featherweight and still holds a high ranking at 135 pounds, though that has as much to do with the dearth of talent in the division as Holm’s impressive longevity.

Darren Till

The journey: This one likely requires some explanation, because in the fast food world of MMA, I’d wager plenty have forgotten Darren Till’s run toward a title shot, even though it wasn’t that long ago. “The Gorilla” looked poised to become the next big thing out of Europe with an undefeated record that was built up in Brazil rather than his native England, and he mostly lived up to those expectations with a 5-0-1 UFC start.

A contentious split decision win over Stephen Thompson earned Till a shot at welterweight champion Tyron Woodley at UFC 228. Till was actually a popular pick to beat Woodley, given that the defending champion was coming off of two dreary wins over Demian Maia and Thompson, so fans were eager to see a new face atop the division.

The first shot: This went poorly.

Imagine if the result of McGregor-Mendes had resembled the first round as opposed to the second, and you have an idea of what Woodley did to Till here. Till was grounded by Woodley, who smoothly put him away with a brabo choke in the second round of what turned out to be his most dominant title defense. And possibly the last title fight for Till.

Tyron Woodley and Darren Till
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Aftermath: Again, I can’t blame anyone for dismissing the Till contender run as some kind of fever dream. It’s been one setback after another since, with injuries piling up and a split nod over Kelvin Gastelum sandwiched by a knockout loss to Jorge Masvidal and three consecutive losses to Dricus du Plessis, Derek Brunson and Robert Whittaker.

Till requested his release from the UFC earlier this year and will likely appear in a boxing ring next, whether it’s of the traditional, bare-knuckle, or influencer variety.

Cody Garbrandt

The journey: Garbrandt doesn’t quite fall in the Till overhype category, but he wasn’t as underhyped as Holm either by the time he got his crack at bantamweight king Dominick Cruz. He falls somewhere in between.

What stood out most with Garbrandt besides a sizzle reel of first-round finishes was his age and experience. He was just 25 years old and 10-0 when he was booked to challenge the bantamweight GOAT at UFC 207, and the odds reflected that as he was around a 2-1 underdog on most books.

The first shot: If you watched this fight in isolation with only a passing knowledge of Garbrandt and Cruz’s histories, you’d think it was Garbrandt that was the all-time great.

He styled on Cruz, maybe more than any fighter has ever styled on another over the course of a 25-minute UFC title bout. He clowned one of the trickiest fighters in the game. This was the flow state of flow states. And he left UFC 207 as the undisputed champion at 135 pounds.

Aftermath: There were no title defense layups waiting for Garbrandt as he had former Alpha Male teammate-turned-blood-rival T.J. Dillashaw up next. Dillashaw punched Garbrandt out at UFC 217 and then did it even quicker in an immediate rematch at UFC 227.

Like Till, Garbrandt has dealt with frequent injuries, as well as some reckless tactics that have been deleterious to his durability. He is 2-5 in his past seven fights and was actually supposed to fight Mario Bautista this Saturday before (you guessed it) being forced to withdraw due to injury.

Francis Ngannou

The journey: From the moment Ngannou made his first walk out to the UFC, he just looked like a dude that was going to do some damage. If you can name his first four UFC opponents off the top of your head (Curtis Blaydes is a gimme) I’ll give you a cookie, but that doesn’t matter in the heavyweight division. What matters is wrecking shop, and in that regard, Ngannou was a bull surrounded by fine china.

After demolishing Alistair Overeem and Andrei Arlovski to bolster his contender case, Ngannou was set up to challenge Stipe Miocic at UFC 220.

The first shot: If you didn’t know better, based on some of the pre-fight marketing, you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought Ngannou already had a title around his waist. He looked like a destructive deity on camera, while Miocic looked like…well, Miocic.

Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

I can just imagine live bets on Ngannou soaring once they saw the two heavyweights actually standing across from each other. But Miocic did what a champion is supposed to do, defusing the threat of Ngannou with timely wrestling and riding that strategy to a clear-cut five-round win.

Aftermath: Ngannou stumbled in his next fight against Derrick Lewis (the less said about this one, the better), but he bounced back by smoking Blaydes again and then defeating former champions Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez in a combined 1:37. A 20-second KO of Jairzinho Rozenstruik led to a Miocic rematch and this time, Ngannou didn’t miss. Ngannou came equipped with improved takedown defense and with that terrifying tool at his disposal, he needed less than six minutes to knock out Miocic.

More Ws followed, with Ngannou defending against Ciryl Gane, leaving the UFC having never lost his belt, and signing a lucrative deal with the PFL this past May.

Jon Jones

The journey: I guess there’s no way to have this discussion without mentioning the youngest champion in UFC history.

Jon Jones and Lyoto Machida
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Jon Jones wasn’t supposed to fight for a title as early as he did. The then-23-year-old was pegged as a replacement for training partner (and future rival) Rashad Evans after an injury forced Evans out of a UFC 128 clash with light heavyweight champion Mauricio Rua. That said, Jones was clearly on the path to contention and no one would be surprised if he beat the more decorated “Shogun.”

The first shot: We were not surprised, MFers.

Jones’ first title fight was scintillating. He looked poised beyond his years before finishing Shogun with a flurry of strikes. Before the greatness, before the Daniel Cormier rivalry, before the outside-of-the cage problems, it looked like we were staring directly into the future as Jones claimed gold.

Aftermath: Nothing much, just arguably the most dominant title run we’ve ever seen.

Jones successfully defended his light heavyweight belt 11 times across two reigns and currently holds the UFC heavyweight championship. While he has repeatedly embarrassed himself with his personal failings and a checkered drug test record (but, you know, picograms or whatever), as a competitor, he has surpassed what were already lofty expectations.

Sean O’Malley

MMA: MAY 06 UFC 288
Sean O’Malley
Photo by Louis Grasse/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

O’Malley is the perfect mixture of all of the above names. He has fame that exceeds his actual accomplishments. His finishes have gone viral a thousand times over. He has a resume full of holes. He has the full support of Dana White and the UFC. And he’s going up against an all-time great champion.

One thing we do know is that taking the express lane to the championship guarantees nothing afterwards. Will O’Malley beat Sterling and go on his own memorable run? Win or lose, will UFC 292 be the peak of his fighting career? Or are we about to see the coronation of MMA’s next mainstream star?

Hype never dies. Until it does.

Honorable mentions

  • Chuck Liddell (lost to Randy Couture in an interim title fight before beating Couture in his second try and embarking on the best light heavyweight championship run pre-Jones)
  • Anderson Silva (won his debut and then won a poll to be middleweight champion Rich Franklin’s next challenger, decimated Franklin at UFC 64 and went undefeated in his first 16 UFC fights)
  • Henry Cejudo (the Olympic gold medalist was humbled in his first meeting with flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, but later went on to beat Johnson and hold titles in two divisions)
  • Alex Pereira (chased Israel Adesanya from the kickboxing ring to the octagon and vanquished his rival for the middleweight title at UFC 281 before dropping it back to him in an immediate rematch)

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