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Sean O’Malley: One-man Spectacle

“I’m an entertainer, [and] I’m going to be the biggest entertainer of my time,” the bantamweight contender tells Boardroom ahead of his return to the cage at UFC 269.

“Suga” Sean O’Malley’s tattoos and rainbow hairdo are not natural. However, his antics inside the octagon feel about as natural as it gets. None of his signature gestures and pantomimes — dribbling, fadeaway jumpers, or the patented “walk-off” following a knockout — are premeditated. Everything comes instinctively in the moment.

And this weekend, “The Suga Show” returns to Las Vegas for UFC 269 on Saturday, Dec. 11 when O’Malley faces off against Raulian Paiva.

“When I go out there and beat Paiva, people are going to say it was an easy fight and he’s very tough,” O’Malley told Boardroom this week. “Since he’s not ranked and people don’t know about him they look at that as an easy fight because I have so much hype around me. It’s kind of frustrating a little bit but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter.”

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With a record of 14-1, O’Malley’s thrilling performances in the past have caused him to be one of the UFC’s most fascinating fighters. Fans have flocked to his side as they eagerly wait for his next move. For context, O’Malley has been with the UFC for four and a half years, has eight UFC fights under his belt and has remained unranked for each of them.

Still the Helena, Montana native has more followers on Instagram than four of the five top-ranked fighters in the bantamweight (135-pound) division.

The fan following has allowed the Suga Show to be a coveted partner for sponsors.

“I’m to the point where I’m making as much money from deals, merch, and sponsors than I am from actually fighting,” O’Malley said. “The knockout over [Alfred Khashakyan] in the Contender Series where I got on top of the cage and said “Welcome to the Suga Show” is where it all started.”

“I’ve been selling merch since I was an amateur, but I’ve always grinded [outside of the Octagon],” he said. “I was constantly promoting myself. I obviously wouldn’t be in this position without the UFC, but it’s just an entrepreneurial thing that I’ve always enjoyed doing.”

O’Malley has endorsement deals with Monster Energy, Sanabul, Dr. Dabber, and King Palm. He also streams his video gaming nearly every day on Twitch, is planning more NFT releases, and has a podcast called the “Timbo SugarShow.” And instead of being irritated by his unranked status, he’s embraced it — Throughout the ongoing UFC 269 fight week, O’Malley has been sporting a customized jersey that reads “Unranked” on the front and “Champion” on the back. The merchandise is also available for fans to purchase on his official website.

“I happen to have a pretty unique style. I found a style that fits my true self and I got really good at building the skills and the tools within that to create what I’ve created,” he said. “I never thought too much into it, I don’t think I could’ve done this any different. I couldn’t have tried to do what the fans wanted to see [because] everybody has to go in there and be themself.”

Brand building outside of the UFC goes hand in hand with fighters being able to make money that isn’t from their scheduled bouts. O’Malley said the likes of Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier, and Israel Adesanya are all fighters he looks to when thinking about creating a name for himself away from fighting.

Earlier this year, Forbes named McGregor the highest-paid athlete on earth, checking in at $170 million (thanks almost entirely to the sale of his whiskey brand, Proper No. 12). Poirier has multiple sponsors, his own brand of hot sauce, and a cooking and travel show in the works with Complex called Food Fight. Adesanya is the first MMA fighter ever to be sponsored by Puma, and landed the cover of the latest edition of the UFC’s EA Sports video game.

Like McGregor, Poirier, and Adesanya, O’Malley’s MMA record isn’t entirely unblemished, but as fate would have it, O’Malley doesn’t acknowledge his TKO defeat against Marlon “Chito” Vera in August of 2020 — and it’s all part of the spectacle. As Suga Sean told ESPN:

That fight against Vera, I don’t feel like I lost because his skills were better. I don’t think he truly, truly thinks he won the fight, either, the way it played out. It was so rare. Look at how many times I’ve been kicked in other fights; you don’t see my whole leg go numb the way it did against him. Mentally, I don’t feel that I lost. If Vera goes out in a rematch and beats me in a decision or finishes me fair and square, I’ll have no issue saying I lost. I lose in sparring, I lose in grappling. I’m not worried about losing. I just don’t feel like I lost that fight, and a lot of people hate that I say that.”

The loss didn’t put an end to the Suga Show, of course. In his next two bouts, he beat his opponents while also earning $50,000 bonus awards — a “Performance of the Night” against Thomas Amedia and a “Fight of the Night” against Kris Moutinho. 

O’Malley will aim to generate similar buzz (and dollar signs) with his ninth fight in the UFC. But he already has a goal in mind for what he wants to be known for and how he wants to be remembered way, way down the line.

“I’m an entertainer, [and] I’m going to be the biggest entertainer of my time,” he said.

When you’re persona is literally that of a walking, talking show, it comes with the territory.

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