UFC 292 – Sean O’Malley: Better than you’d like

BE's Connor Ruebusch breaks down the technique, style, and grit displayed by Sean O'Malley in his (unfortunately) great fight with Petr Yan.

By: Connor Ruebusch | 1 month ago
UFC 292 – Sean O’Malley: Better than you’d like
Scott Garfitt IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

I decided I didn’t like Sean O’Malley right before he fought Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera in 2020. It was O’Malley’s first big test, and while I had certainly found him annoying before then, there wasn’t much to separate him from legions of other Conor McGregor impersonators out there. The UFC is the sport’s largest promotion, after all, and it is run by Dana White; in this environment, being annoying is a petty crime, at worst. 

But I liked Chito Vera, and still do. He is a charming guy with a serious mean streak, which really only reveals itself in the cage. And my positive feelings were only reinforced by the pre-fight promos, in which the fighters spoke about their motivations. 

Vera told the heartbreaking tale of his daughter, born with a rare neurological condition which paralyzed her facial muscles. Photos flash across the screen. Here was this beautiful little girl, whom Vera clearly loves with all his heart, full of all the bright emotions of childhood and incapable of expressing them. Vera moved from his home country of Ecuador to the US in order to get his daughter the medical treatment she deserved. And this was—aside from the obvious pleasure of beating people up for a living—his reason for fighting. He fought for his daughter’s smile.

Who wouldn’t root for that man? 

Cut to Sean O’Malley, a 25 year-old kid with a head of curls dyed in ludicrous shades of yellow, blue, and red, sitting in a corny, gold-painted throne, wearing a faux-luxury bathrobe without a shirt. He looks into the camera, mouth smirking through the sparse foliage of a frat boy’s first goatee, and answers the same question. Why does Sean O’Malley fight? 

“When I was a young kid,” he says, “I knew I was gonna be famous.” 

It goes without saying that this viewer enjoyed the humiliating defeat O’Malley endured that night with a big, idiot grin plastered across his face. And I know I was not alone in hoping to see that pattern continue. 

But it didn’t. Sean O’Malley lost badly to Vera, but then proceeded to rattle off three straight wins, all by knockout. A less phenomenal showing against Pedro Munhoz was aborted by an unfortunate eye poke, but at least me and the rest of the O’Malley-hating world were relieved by the matchup he got next. 

Sean O’Malley vs. Petr Yan was supposed to expose the hype

Petr Yan would have been champion in 2021 if not for a single, catastrophic brain fart that saw him foul Aljamain Sterling straight onto the throne. A rematch against Sterling did not go his way either, likely due to an understandable abundance of confidence based on their first encounter, but otherwise Yan was secure in his status as one of the best bantamweights on the planet, with wins over the likes of Jose Aldo, Urijah Faber, Jimmie Rivera, and perennial contender Cory Sandhagen. 

And Sean O’Malley was next. Rejoice! For surely this was the man to finally put paid to O’Malley’s childish aspirations. Surely this was one test the cocky kid from Montana could not and would not pass.

Whether or not O’Malley did pass the test is a question of some contention. Two of the judges gave him the nod that night, but all but one of the publications polled by MMADecisions.com gave the win to Yan. Anecdotally, the majority of fans did as well. If there is a debate as to the decision, it’s largely one-sided. 

But the same could not be said of the fight itself. 

By the time the last of three action-packed rounds was done, there was no longer any room for doubt. O’Malley belonged here, at this level. He did exceptionally well. He hurt the almost-champ on more than one occasion, and showed off his own chin in the process. He tired out midway through the fight, but recovered to stage a daring comeback in the final frame. He fought his scrawny little ass off.

He was, it turned out, a whole lot better than I wanted him to be.

Testing, one one one

Sean O’Malley spent much of the fight on the back foot, and enjoyed considerable success despite the fact that Petr Yan is a terrifying force coming forward. O’Malley utilized lateral movement to keep Yan off-balance, making him change directions constantly in the effort to cut off the cage. Unlike so many MMA fighters, however, O’Malley did not simply skip side to side in long, loping steps. O’Malley’s lateral movement came with a threat.

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1. Yan pressures O’Malley toward the fence. Yan’s left foot is directly opposed by O’Malley’s: neither fighter has an angle on the other.
2. O’Malley takes a pivot step to the left, backing it up with a jab feint.
3. The back foot swings around, completing the pivot. Now Yan is square to O’Malley. Angle achieved.
4. Another pivot step, once again threatening Yan with a jab.
5. New sequence. Same neutral position, only now both fighters stand southpaw.
6. This time O’Malley fires an actual jab, stepping off toward the inside angle.
7. The full pivot. Yan is now square. O’Malley has a clear look at his center line.
8. For that reason, the next jab easily pierces Yan’s high guard, popping his head back.
9. And a third jab, furthering the strong angle. Yan has to extend a hand to check this one…
10. …and then bails entirely, even crossing his feet on the way out in his urgency to take O’Malley’s angle away.

MMA is a zero-sum game. Whatever move you make, openings are created. Every defense can be circumvented, and every attack countered with another. The best moves, therefore, are those which combine offense and defense. This is what positioning is all about.

Sean O’Malley wanted to keep Yan from cornering him, which meant he needed to move side to side. But he could not simply evade—doing so might keep him safe for a time, but in the end it would only encourage Yan to pursue, and Yan pursues a fleeing opponent like a dog chases a mail truck: instinctively, and with great excitement. 

The key was to make Yan respect each lateral move. He could not be given the luxury of sitting back and deciding which strike to run O’Malley into; he had to be made to think about his own defense, and that meant the angles necessary for O’Malley’s safety had to be threatening in their own right. Enter the jab. 

Take another look at the sequence above. Note that each sidestep O’Malley takes places his lead foot on a line with the center of Yan’s body, with his own body lined up behind it. That foot is like a gunsight, and O’Malley’s jab is the bullet in the chamber. Whether he feints the jab or throws it for real, the positional threat is one that demands a reaction.

The movements are precise. A larger step would square him up—effectively widening the target—while putting himself out of position to respond when Yan inevitably gave chase. By contrast, the smaller, tidier steps give the impression of O’Malley moving closer to Yan, while simultaneously getting out of his crosshairs. Yan has to respond by adjusting his own position, or else be speared by O’Malley’s lead hand and set up for something worse. 

Closing off the opponent’s openings while creating your own. Offense and defense together. Surprisingly good positional awareness for a tit like Sean O’Malley. 


Despite his appearance, Sean O’Malley is not a quiet, positional fighter at heart. He is a bombastic sniper, a fighter who grew up during the Conor McGregor era and clearly modeled himself after the man. 

O’Malley lacks McGregor’s natural athleticism. Where McGregor in his prime was nimble, O’Malley is more deliberate. Where McGregor found it easy to string together several fast twitch movements in quick succession, O’Malley does most of his damage on the first strike. The surprisingly savvy positional work we examined above goes some way toward making up the difference, but O’Malley will never have McGregor’s combination of explosive movement and smooth fluidity. 

What he does have in common with Mcgregor is reach, power, and exceptional timing. 

Also, balls. He’s a cocky little bastard, and it works in his favor. Hell, it worked against Yan. 

After a nip-tuck first round, O’Malley came out in the second with a more assertive approach. Yan responded in kind, backing O’Malley off with a nasty kick to the body. O’Malley got mad. He bounced a neat little right hand off Yan’s guard and evaded the counter. Next a double jab into a right hand that caught Yan just on the top of the head. O’Malley was feeling himself, clearly, but more importantly, he had found his range. 

And he asked himself: What would Conor do? 

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1. O’Malley pumps out a feint. Yan simply ignores it.
2. O’Malley steps back into southpaw, giving some ground.
3. Yan accepts the space, and changes his own stance to mirror O’Malley’s.
4. Now another feint, just moments after the stance switch. O’Malley uses the threat as cover, drives his lead foot forward, deep into Yan’s territory…
5. …and unleashes a ridiculous, bomb of a straight left from long range—smack bang on the chin.
6. The total commitment required to reach Yan’s chin destroys O’Malley’s stance, but it doesn’t matter. Yan is badly hurt, and turtles up to save himself.

Sometimes there is power in audacity. MMA fighters have access to all manner of wild techniques, but Sean O’Malley is mostly a boxer. And for boxers, there are few strikes more audacious than the lead right hand—or, in this case, the lead left. 

But that audacity is exactly why it works…

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Connor Ruebusch
Connor Ruebusch

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