Sean O’Malley: Dana White’s Golden Boy?

The common sentiment surrounding Sean O’Malley was that he was fed with a silver spoon directly from the table of the UFC’s headmaster, Dana White. He had the red carpet rolled out for him on the Contenders Series, where White eagerly awarded him an underpaying contract while failing to hide his desperation to find the next Conor McGregor.

The combination of flamboyance and perceived favoritism quickly made O’Malley one of the most polarizing figures in the sport. Perhaps despite the UFC matchmakers’ best efforts, O’Malley’s rise to title contention wasn’t as smooth as the aforementioned Irishman’s.

In just his second UFC appearance, O’Malley suffered a leg injury that left him hopping through the third round against Andre Soukhamthath. Failed USADA and NSAC antidoping tests resulted in a fight cancellation and a six-month suspension, during which he underwent hip surgery that amounted to a two-year hiatus from competition. Foot, hand, and rib injuries would plague him throughout his UFC tenure.

When it comes to matchmaking, it’s inarguable that he benefited from more a deliberate path through the division than most, but he was still given stiff tests against Marlon Vera and Petr Yan before most thought he was ready.

That’s not to say that O’Malley is in any way a victim or a supreme example of overcoming adversity like Francis Ngannou. While it’s probably true that the promotional dedication he received was disproportionate to his competitive status, O’Malley did his part to steadily improve every aspect of his game so that he could live up to those expectations.

It was clear to those paying close attention that Sean O’Malley was tough and that he was improving. He showed major strides in his contentious split decision victory over Petr Yan at UFC 280 and afterwards even his staunchest detractors found it tough to deny that he deserved a spot among the bantamweight elite.

Against Aljamain Sterling, the reigning champion and owner of a tremendously impressive nine-fight win streak, O’Malley needed to take another leap forward. Even opponents with stout defensive wrestling have found it difficult to avoid the checkmate back control of Sterling.

Sean O’Malley came prepared. He stifled Sterling’s usual paths to victory and forced him to make fight-ending mistakes.

Read Miguel Class’ previous breakdown, on Justin Gaethje vs. Dustin Poirier here.

The Cage is Lava

Being a 5’11 bantamweight, it’s no surprise that Sean O’Malley prefers to maintain a distance that allows him to take full advantage of his length and speed. Movement has always been an integral part of O’Malley’s strategy, but early in his career he often struggled to keep his back off the fence against opponents intent on getting him there.

Some of this was just due to a lack of positional awareness, meaning that as he was retreating he would be surprised to find his rear foot running up against the side of the octagon. This would sometimes result in him getting tripped up, but more often it simply limited the lateral movement options that were available to him. Exaggerated ducking movements and even turning his back and jogging away were his frequent last-ditch efforts to escape.

Against Aljamain Sterling, O’Malley treated the fence like it was lava. Sterling has never been a great open-space wrestler, so he has increasingly relied on pressing opponents against the fence where he can use his strength to drag them down or work his way to the back.

O’Malley showed fantastic positional awareness within the cage. Every time he felt himself getting too close for comfort, he would immediately start moving side-to-side to find an escape route back to the center of the cage.

There are various lateral movement options (L-steps, pivots, cross-steps, etc.) but O’Malley primarily relied on bringing us lead leg back to square up his stance so he could hop side-to-side. This has the advantage of making it harder for the opponent to predict which way he’s going to go, but a square stance makes him more vulnerable to strikes and limits his ability to transfer weight into his own.

To mitigate these risks, O’Malley was very diligent to use his feints to back Sterling up and give him the space he needed to escape safely. The somewhat paradoxical fact about cagecraft is that often the best way to move laterally is to first move linearly into your opponent. Sterling might have respected the feints too much early, but O’Malley is a lengthy sniper who is able to hit from ranges that most other opponents can’t.

Sean O’Malley demonstrated great positional awareness, keeping himself from getting backed up to the cage where Sterling would be able to work his takedowns

Leg Hunting

Fighters are commonly criticized in MMA for being headhunters, meaning that they target the head with a large percentage of their strikes while neglecting shots to the body and legs. Aljamain Sterling often falls into the opposite problem: relying too heavily on his leg and body kicks. Sean O’Malley has shown a vulnerability to low kicks so it made sense for Sterling to make them an important part of his offense in this fight, especially because landing them would impede O’Malley’s movement and therefore make it easier for Sterling to trap him against the fence.

Aljamain Sterling relied heavily on leg kicks due to Sean O’Malley demonstrating a vulnerability to them in previous fights.

O’Malley’s range and movement made it very difficult for Sterling to land his kicks consistently. Short hop steps back and retracting the lead leg caused most of Sterling’s kicks to either miss the mark completely or land only with the foot instead of the more damaging shin.

Sterling needed the kicks to slow down O’Malley’s movement, but the movement was making it hard to land the kicks in the first place. One advantage for O’Malley was that since he fights comfortably out of either stance, retracting his lead leg wasn’t too much of a problem.

Sean O’Malley managed the range well and quickly pull back his lead leg as Aljamain Sterling kicked, causing most of the kicks to miss or land with only the foot.

Sterling’s response was to just increase the volume of kicks. It sort of makes sense because if O’Malley’s primary defense is to retract the lead leg, that still leaves his other leg behind as a new target. However, the issue was that it made Sterling too predictable.

Halfway through the first round, after throwing four kicks in a row, Sterling attempted his fifth consecutive kick and O’Malley was able to time him with a teep to the rear leg. This is a particularly damaging technique because it compromises the knee right when all of Sterling’s weight is on it. The irony is that despite Sterling being the far more prolific kicker in this short fight, this one kick from O’Malley probably did more damage than all of Sterling’s kicks combined.

Aljamain Sterling tried to up his kick volume as Sean O’Malley continued to avoid them, but this just made him predictable and allowed O’Malley to land a painful looking teep to the rear knee.

If Sterling wanted to find success with his kicks, he needed to start setting them up with punches, or use the threat of his kicks to land punches. However, this had the added risk of entering boxing range with O’Malley.

A House Built on Shifting Sand

In the last thirty seconds of round one, Aljamain Sterling decided that it was time to make something happen. He rushed forward, shifting into southpaw to cover the distance, and forced a wrestling exchange with Sean O’Malley by taking a bad shot. He wasn’t able to get O’Malley to the mat, but the few moments holding onto his leg and landing shots against the fence were Sterling’s best moment of the round.

Sterling started round two with a renewed sense of urgency. He needed to close the distance and he needed to actually throw some punches, so he tried shifting into his right hands. But it was exactly what O’Malley was wanted.

To read the rest of this UFC 292 technique breakdown, including how Sean O’Malley landed the punch that would earn him the UFC bantamweight title, head to the Bloody Elbow Substack.

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Miguel Class
Miguel Class

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