From tears to triumph: Sean O’Malley’s rise from skinny boy from Montana to colorful UFC champion

By | March 6, 2024

MISSOULA, MONTANA – SEPTEMBER 16: UFC bantamweight Sean O'Malley celebrates with the Montana Grizzlies after defeating the Ferris State Bulldogs at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Missoula, Montana.  (Photo by Tommy Martino/University of Montana/Getty Images)

UFC bantamweight champion Sean O’Malley celebrates with the Montana Grizzlies football team at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Missoula, Montana. (Photo by Tommy Martino/University of Montana/Getty Images)

The first time Tim Welch invited Sean O’Malley to train with some real pros outside his home state of Montana, things didn’t go so great. This was long before O’Malley became the UFC bantamweight champion, a title he will defend Saturday at UFC 299 in Miami (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV). It was before O’Malley was even anything that could reasonably be considered a professional fighter.

At the time, he was just a skinny kid who had made it big on the local circuit in Montana and wanted to broaden his horizons with a quick trip to the MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona.

“As soon as he got there, he got beat up really bad,” Welch told Yahoo Sports this week. “I remember him crying after a few practices. Then he went back to Montana, and I didn’t think I’d see him again.”

This wasn’t necessarily surprising. Welch himself had appeared in Montana’s fight scene, so he had witnessed this before. Fighters did well in local MMA events in places like Great Falls and Billings and Missoula. Then they left the small pond and discovered that they weren’t such big fish after all – and the lesson stung. Such experiences make people reconsider their career aspirations, and Welch assumed O’Malley was one of those.

But O’Malley was different. He went home to Montana, okay. Then he packed his car and drove straight back to Arizona to live with Welch and dedicate himself to becoming a professional fighter. A few years later, he made a memorable appearance on “Dana White’s Contender Series” to earn a UFC contract. A few years later he became a UFC champion.

Heading into UFC 299 this weekend, O’Malley looks very much like a fighter who has been thrust squarely into the spotlight. His rematch with Marlon “Chito” Vera is the main event of a legitimately big UFC pay-per-view card. He’s about to become one of those names that people know even outside the MMA bubble, whether they follow the sport or not.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – DECEMBER 15: UFC bantamweight champion Sean O'Malley is seen on stage during the UFC 2024 season press conference at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – DECEMBER 15: UFC bantamweight champion Sean O'Malley is seen on stage during the UFC 2024 season press conference at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Sean O’Malley heads into Saturday’s UFC 299 main event as a -275 favorite at BetMGM over Marlon Vera, who is +220. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Even for someone like O’Malley, who has been acting like he’s famous for far longer than he’s been even close to being famous, this takes some adjustments.

“I’ve had a few old ladies recognize me at the grocery store,” O’Malley said. ‘I thought, how can you even watch fights? But I also have a pretty strong following among the younger generation. … I also have a stoner fan base that likes the idea that you can smoke weed and be successful. Honestly, I think it’s a diverse fan base.”

O’Malley’s home state didn’t always know what to do with him. He grew up in the capital Helena, which sounds cosmopolitan until you realize it’s a city of only about 33,000 people. He left at the age of 19 and wasn’t particularly vocal about representing the Treasure State on his path to the UFC ranks. With his dyed hair and facial tattoos, he doesn’t necessarily live up to people’s expectations of a boy from Montana.

Yet for many people in Montana, he was the only MMA fighter they knew who wasn’t named Conor McGregor. Montana doesn’t exactly have a lot of people to cheer for in the professional sports scene (I’m writing this from Missoula, Montana, where I’ve lived for a long time), so O’Malley was definitely better than nothing.

But something changed after he won the UFC 135-pound title last year. That seemed to be the moment O’Malley went from a colorful MMA personality (with the colorful hair to match) to something approaching a true star.

Suddenly, Montanans were eager to claim O’Malley. He was invited to a University of Montana Grizzlies football game last fall to raise the No. 37 flag before kickoff (a great honor in Montana sports culture, just take my word for it). His appearance on campus, with his pink hair and sparkling jewelry, was nothing short of a mafia scene.

The thing is, O’Malley wasn’t really supposed to win that title fight. He wasn’t supposed to win the fight early either. His rematch with Vera on Saturday will be the first time in three fights that he isn’t at least a 2-1 underdog. For whatever reason, many people just seemed unwilling to believe in him as a championship caliber fighter.

And going into the Sterling fight with an undisclosed rib injury that had limited his ability to train, O’Malley would have had every reason to doubt himself as much as the oddsmakers did.

“I’ve been with him for 19 fights now and that was the worst training camp we ever had,” Welch said. “That was a fight camp where we literally could only hit with mitts. When I walked out there, I was afraid we were a lamb going to the slaughter. But we really studied the tape on (Sterling) and we knew we still had some specific ways to win.

One thing O’Malley had going for him, Welch said, was his ability to root out doubts and believe. Even injured, his confidence did not waver. When he dropped Sterling early in the second round and finished him with strikes shortly after, he finally had the UFC hardware to match that belief.

For O’Malley, the rematch against Vera appears to be as much a matter of establishing himself as the clear champion as it is of avenging his only professional loss. (Vera defeated O’Malley via TKO in 2020, in a fight in which O’Malley went down with a lower leg injury that had hampered him in previous bouts.)

“I mean, the only reason he’s getting a title shot, let’s be honest, is because I asked for it,” O’Malley said. “I am the champion. I called about it. In another way, he won’t get a title shot, at least not after beating Pedro (Munhoz). … He’s an experienced, durable guy. But that just won’t be enough.”

Still, even O’Malley wonders why a portion of the MMA fanbase doesn’t seem to believe he’s good enough to be a UFC champion. Even now, there’s a sense that some are still waiting to find out if he’s the genuine article or a particularly bright flash in the pan.

Maybe it’s the way he looks: he looks more like someone you’d see hanging out outside a mall than beating world champions in a cage. Maybe it’s because he’s a skinny kid from Montana, with no serious athletic pedigree to suggest he should be among the elite.

“I don’t know what it is,” O’Malley said. ‘I’ve been wondering the same thing. …But maybe when I’m done fighting. They can rewatch my entire career and watch it all unfold. Then they’ll say, ‘Wow, he was as good as he told us he was.’ But I still have a lot of work to do before that.”

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