Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Suga Sean O’Malley Era

Hello everyone, and welcome back to another MMA Squared. I hope you enjoyed the fights, feuds, and festivities at UFC 292 as much as I did. Along with some very good action there was so many moving pieces and stories evolving for young fighters, and none more so than ‘Suga’ Sean O’Malley. The brash young man from the internet stopped the champion Aljamain Sterling with a beautiful counter right hand that was remarkably similar to the strike that Conor McGregor used to dethrone Jose Aldo.

Sean O'Malley vs Aljamain Sterling by Chris Rini for FAOV:2023
‘I’ve made a huge mistake’ Sterling vs O’Malley by Chris Rini for FAOV:2023

This is huge news for the UFC both in and out of the cage. On a practical level it has hugely positive repercussions for most of the top ten ranked bantamweights, so let’s just go down the list. Merab Dvalishvili’s nine fight win streak and number one ranking place him square in title contention now that his friend and training partner Aljamain Sterling is no longer champion. It’s simple MMAth, The Machine from Georgia is the most deserving contender, however a hand injury sustained in his recent win over former champ Petr Yan may throw a monkey wrench in the mix.

The fighter who benefitted most from Sean O’Malley’s win is without a dobt Cory Sandhagen. The Sandman has been hovering at the edges of title contention for two years, but his definitive submission loss to Sterling has been a persistent hurdle in the narrative. Now with a fresh new face wearing gold and Sandhagen having notched three top ten wins in a row his path back to title contention is clear. We must wait and see though how severe Sandhagen’s tricep injury, sustained just two weeks ago, turns out to be.

With the aforementioned injured contenders, Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera may emerge from UFC as the cat who caught the canary. Vera and Sean O’Malley battled back in 2020, a scrap that accounts for O’Malley’s lone patch of pink wikipedia real estate. While ‘Suga’ has dismissed the TKO as not a real loss. This refusal to accept… reality can be either a sign of mental fortitude or a fighter’s lack of reslilience. I’m happy that Sean O’Malley has called out Vera. It’s an opportunity to keep the division moving and personally I think a grudge match is a great way to capitalize on the new champion’s existing popularity.

Zhang Weili vs Amanda Lemos at UFC 292 by Chris Rini
“Crucifix” by Chris Rini for FAOV:2023

Sean O’Malley is no Company Man

With all that said, let’s consider what type of relationshp Sean O’Malley may have with the UFC going forward. While his personality and branding is an acquired taste, I have respect for O’Malley’s awareness of the promotional and pay side of MMA. Earlier in his career when the UFC was obviously slow rolling his career, O’Malley was candid about wanting to take the easiest fights possible for the most money. In a world where most fighters offer to do whatever the UFC asks of them and then beg for a post-fight bonus, O’Malley is aware of that his financial success must be self-actualized.

Sean O’Malley is also keenly aware that the most common intermediary between a fighter and the UFC, their manager, is unlikely to help him realize financial indpendence. He has labelled MMA managers ‘scumbags’ and currently reperesents himself. Being a fan favorite in the cage and possessing a significant social media following outside, O’Malley has a better grasp of his worth than most fighters and immediately flexed that knowledge in a post-fight interview suggesting he box Gervonta Davis. This might be the fastest pivot to boxing in UFC history, and it was a brilliant move by O’Malley.

Ian Garry vs Neil Magny at UFC 292
“Swept Away” by Chris Rini, for FAOV:2023

On the same night where Dana White proclaimed him a star, Sean O’Malley took that shine and pointed it to a payday the UFC would normally never allow a fighter to sniff. It was a shrewd use of his time in the spotlight and perhaps a shot across the bow signaling a contract renegotiation. The UFC tends to love their fighters right up until they’re either no longer useful or start trying to get paid like professional athletes. I think O’Malley became aware of this at a much younger age than most fighters, and we should pay close attention to the negotiations, timing, and booking of his first title defense.

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Ian Garry and Neil Magny discuss the meits of corporal punishment. Chris Rini, for FAOV 292.

Thanks for all your time and support, these images are part of my book series The Fine Art of Violence, a collection of art & essays chronicling each year in MMA. Join my patreon to get a copy of the 2023 edition and support the art studio. Take care of yourself and I’ll talk to you Thursday at the BE substack and right here next Monday.


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About the author
Chris Rini
Chris Rini

Chris Rini is an artist and BloodyElbow’s editorial cartoonist. He has been an artist since 1996 and publishes an annual book called The Fine Art of Violence. Chris has worked in Mixed Martial arts since 2013 and in his spare time makes terrariums, plays keyboards, and trains BJJ.

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