Rising star, Sean O’Malley, will battle Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Bantamweight kingpin, Aljamain Sterling, this Saturday (Aug. 19, 2023) at UFC 292 inside TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
O’Malley’s rise from Contenders Series standout to genuine contender has been a lot of fun to watch, if a bit controversial. Really, the biggest development came during O’Malley’s two-year Ostarine-induced layoff from 2018-2020. Prior to that period, O’Malley was a scrappy and athletic youngster, a twig he poked and prodded at his opponents and showed off his timing.
He returned a grown man, far stronger in wrestling exchanges and more easily able to hurt his opposition. He hasn’t been perfect — the “Chito” knockout loss and Pedro Munhoz “No Contest” both happened post-return — but O’Malley has repeatedly proven to have that “It Factor” that sometimes equals championship potential.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
O’Malley is a big Bantamweight, standing at 5’11” with a 72 inch reach. Add incredible quickness and good power into the mix, and it’s not hard to believe that O’Malley has established himself as one of the division’s best strikers.
Aside from his physical attributes, there are a pair of important aspects to consider about O’Malley’s kickboxing before getting into the details. Firstly, O’Malley has a lot of avenues towards offense. He fights seamlessly from both stances. He lands hard shots moving forward and backwards. He attacks the body more than most. It’s a lot to consider!
Building off that is O’Malley’s excellent use of feints. “Suga” is never just hanging out in the cage. He is constantly shoulder pumping to threaten his jab, a movement which brings his head forward and helps set up his pull counters (GIF). His low body is just as active, as O’Malley shows little hip turnovers or half-steps with a raised knee, threatening kicks at all times.
Lots of options plus a lot of feints tends to open up a lot of opportunity.
For the most part, O’Malley is dedicated range fighter, mostly pursuing the pocket after hurting his opponents. He’s not afraid of extended combinations, but O’Malley does his best work when leading the dance with short combinations or kicks, then side-stepping or pulling to counter on his terms before fading away to safety.
At the edge of his range, O’Malley has a lot of good weapons. He can throw good round kicks to any target, but the front snap kick is more of the signature O’Malley weapon. It makes him feel even longer, and that stab to the mid-section is difficult to counter. More than just being a punishing weapon, O’Malley sets himself up to land punches from the snap kick. Sometimes, he’ll snap kick and then quickly replace the foot to counter as his opponent looks to step forward. Other times, O’Malley will use the threat of the snap kick to step forward, pivot to an angle, then attack with punches.
Worth noting: O’Malley has exceptionally fast spin kicks to the body and wheel kicks to the head from this range as well.
O’Malley scores a lot of his hardest shots countering opponents who want to push forward through his kicking range. Sometimes, it’s about replacing the kicking leg, planting, and firing. More often, O’Malley convinces opponents to reach for him, then he hops both feet a few inches to the side and backwards, creating a new angle for his counter cross/combination (GIF). This is especially deadly when the two athletes are opposite stances, a dynamic O’Malley frequently creates by switching to the opposite of his opponent.
A half-step closer, O’Malley’s boxing game is notable for his ability to both jab well and lead with the cross masterfully. Sterling’s frequent shoulder pumps, low hands, and natural speed add up to a jab that can prove nearly invisible. Better yet, he’ll mix up his jab and feints. He can attack shoulder pump-jab, jab-shoulder pump-jab, or just a straight double jab off the bat depending on the distance — and he can do it all from both stances!
The lead cross is a great weapon for O’Malley, one of his best for scoring knockdowns. What makes O’Malley so dangerous with this weapon (aside from the feints) is that he can stick it straight or step in hard with more of an angle. Particularly while opposite stance, O’Malley will often just handfight then unfurl his cross in snappy, quick fashion. However, when the two are back to a same stance engagement, O’Malley will instead commit his weight and step forward with an overhand that scores at a different timing (GIF). O’Malley’s ability to jab well, throw quick crosses well, and step into hard overhands is what allowed him to find the holes in Petr Yan’s tight guard.
Sharp-shooting, kicking, and countering makes up the bulk of O’Malley’s offense, but there are more wrinkles, particularly when he hurts an opponent. For example, O’Malley’s use of the uppercut is tricky. Often, it comes off his slight level change feint, which can load up the rear hand uppercut. That’s not an easy punch to land in MMA, but O’Malley scores often, and it can help set up his cross/overhand as well.
When O’Malley opens up, his ability to flow between stances with power punches is really beautiful to watch. His finish over Raulian Paiva, for example, saw him first ding the Brazilian with a huge right overhand that was set up by four minutes of previously straight punches. With Paiva hurt, O’Malley immediately switched Southpaw and feint his power hand to back him into the fence. From his new stance, O’Malley continued to land hard with his right hand, sneaking an uppercut through the guard then really finishing things off with a left straight to the body-right hook connection (GIF).
Another great example came in the third round against Petr Yan. Orthodox O’Malley feinted low then exploded into a step knee that cut Southpaw Yan. Then, O’Malley switched Southpaw, feinted an uppercut, and snuck through a left overhand. Back to Orthodox, O’Malley fired a powerful high kick then stepped in with a 1-2-3, jabbing at Yan as he backed away.
Smart shot selection, feints, and dangerous threats from both stances: that’s what makes O’Malley so nasty.
Defensively, O’Malley is a hard man to hit due to his length, quickness, and commitment to range management. He does keep his hands low and head fairly high, but it takes a really elite striker to make him pay for those habits. Yan managed it with some seriously hard counter shots, but he also took some heavy connections in the process.
Since Vera defeated him via calf kicks and ground strikes, everyone has chased O’Malley’s legs. That’s not a bad idea: O’Malley is a movement and jab-based striker, everyone should be trying to take out his legs. There’s no defense available to the low kick if caught jabbing or circling into the strike, but I will say O’Malley managed to check a handful of Pedro Munhoz’s naked calf kicks at distance, forcing him to get trickier with his setups.
O’Malley hasn’t landed a takedown since his 2017 showing against Terrion Ware. He did time a nice double leg and cut to the back against Petr Yan, but he couldn’t control the Russian for more than a split-second.
Defensively, it remains difficult to get a read on O’Malley. Most of his opponents never had a real chance to take him down because of his speed and footwork. Catching his fast kicks is not easy, and O’Malley will quickly limp leg from any bad shot at distance.
Yan is the exception. The Russian managed to back O’Malley into the fence and actually get hold of him far more than anyone else, and as a result, he scored quite a few takedowns. Frankly, O’Malley looked unaccustomed to wrestling off the fence. Several times, he forced Yan to the single leg, which should typically be a stalemate position for the lanky striker, who just has to control one hand and keep his legs spread. Instead, Yan was able to collect the far leg and finish the double anyway, an ominous sign ahead of this bout versus Sterling.
Sean O’Malley hasn’t grappled much inside the Octagon, especially recently. His guard work against Yan was reasonably good, however. He was continually threatening with the triangle/armbar from his back, which opened up avenues for him to stand even if none of the actual submissions were particularly threatening. He also showed some neat looks by sitting out and Granby rolling to escape bottom position at one point.
Typically, O’Malley turns his back to stand up. Hopefully, he learned from Cory Sandhagen that “Funkmaster” is not the opponent to play that game.
O’Malley has the type of confidence and momentum that sometimes rockets athletes to the belt. He may not be fully proven at the elite level, but his talent is unquestionable, and he’s been given an opportunity. Sometimes, that’s all it takes!
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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