With one stunning sequence of strikes, O’Malley became the UFC bantamweight champion Saturday in the second round of the main event of UFC 292 after sending Sterling down to the mat with a right hand that “Funk Master” wouldn’t recover from. It was the sixth—and by far the most important—knockout victory of O’Malley’s UFC career to date.
While the result may have come as a surprise to some based on the odds heading into the fight, to O’Malley it was simply a matter of practice making perfect.
“Punching backwards is a skill not a lot of people possess and I can punch going backwards and I knew he was going to be pressuring me and I know he likes to throw to shoot,” O’Malley said at the evening’s post-fight press conference. “He likes to throw for me to counter so he can shoot under. So I knew he was going to be lunging in with shots.
“It really wasn’t even a bad punch that he threw, it’s just I’m that f****** accurate. I sniped him. I’ve been saying all week, I’m a sniper. I’m going to snipe his chin. I’m going to find it and there we were. That’s definitely a punch I visualized all week.”
With the win, O’Malley completed his journey from Dana White’s Contender Series viral sensation to controversial contender to undisputed champion. The 28-year-old has been heavily promoted by the UFC from the start, something that has irked O’Malley’s rivals and critics, even as he racked up finishes and forced his way into the title conversation with a narrow split decision win over Petr Yan last October.
Not that the lack of faith in his chances is unwarranted. O’Malley himself admitted that the way the fight played out was almost like a dream.
“It definitely feels surreal,” O’Malley said. “It feels like I’m playing a video game and I just got cheat codes and I’m like, ‘Alright, I’m going to knock out Aljo in the second on Saturday,’ it’s crazy. A lot of people kept telling me, ‘I have a weird feeling it’s going to be in the second,’ and I had that feeling. I don’t know if I ever said that out loud, but I definitely feel like it could have been the second.
“I feel like that fight kind of played out how I expected it to. My main goal was to not let him take me down and I knew if I could keep it on the feet I would knock him out.”
Making O’Malley’s win even more impressive was the fact that, according to him, he was unable to grapple for weeks leading up to the feet. That revelation is significant given the fact that Sterling is an expert wrestler and submission specialist, which led prognosticators to assume that he had a clear path to victory against O’Malley.
It’s this assumption that O’Malley thinks may have affected Sterling’s performance.
“I thought the longer the fight stayed on the feet, the better chance I had of knocking him out,” O’Malley said. “I knew I’d get him frustrated, him not being able to grab me, I thought he was way too confident that he was going to be able to come in and just grab me. I don’t know if he’s ever sparred someone as good as I am or fought someone as good as I am.
“I truly believe I am a level above most people in the striking department and I just felt like he was very confident because he had never experienced—It wasn’t his fault, he’d just never experienced someone that fast in front of him.”
O’Malley’s right-hand counter that put Sterling down is guaranteed to be replayed for years, but it wasn’t actually the blow that officially finished the fight. “Sugar” had to follow up with strikes on the ground to ensure his victory and earn the referee stoppage.
Just as his career has ascended to another level, O’Malley felt a higher calling once he landed the telling blow.
“It’s so weird, I just kind of allow myself to be taken over by my higher self and it’s hard to remember certain moments in there, because I feel like I’m just flowing,” O’Malley said. “I do remember seeing his eyes roll back three or four times and I was surprised the ref didn’t step in. Not that he should have, but I thought he could have, but Aljo’s so tough.”