From tears to triumph: Sean O'Malley's ascent from skinny Montana kid to colorful UFC champ

MISSOULA, MONTANA - SEPTEMBER 16: UFC bantamweight Sean O'Malley celebrates with the Montana Grizzlies after beating the Ferris State Bulldogs at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Missoula, Montana. (Photo by Tommy Martino/University of Montana/Getty Images)
UFC bantamweight champion Sean O'Malley celebrates with the Montana Grizzlies football team at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Sept. 16, 2023 in Missoula, Montana. (Photo by Tommy Martino/University of Montana/Getty Images) (Tommy Martino/University of Montana via Getty Images)

The first time Tim Welch invited Sean O’Malley to come train with some real pros outside his home state of Montana, things didn’t go so great. This was way before O’Malley was the UFC bantamweight champion, a title he’ll defend at UFC 299 in Miami on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV). It was before O’Malley was even anything that could reasonably be considered a professional fighter.

Back then he was just a skinny kid who’d gotten to be kind of a big deal on the local circuit in Montana and was looking to broaden his horizons with a quick trip to the MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona.

“As soon as he got there, he got beat up really bad,” Welch told Yahoo Sports this week. “I remember he was crying after some practices. Then he went back home to Montana, and I didn’t think I’d see him again.”

This was not necessarily surprising. Welch had come up in the Montana fight scene himself, so he’d witnessed this before. Fighters did well in local MMA events in places like Great Falls and Billings and Missoula. Then they left the small pond and discovered they weren’t such big fish after all — and the lesson stung. Such experiences have a way of making people rethink their career ambitions, and Welch assumed O’Malley was another one of these.

But O’Malley was different. He went home to Montana, all right. Then he packed up his car and drove right back down to Arizona to live with Welch and dedicate himself to becoming a professional fighter. A few years later, he made a memorable appearance on "Dana White’s Contender Series" to earn a UFC contract. A few years after that, he was a UFC champion.

Heading into UFC 299 this weekend, O’Malley very much seems like a fighter who has arrived in a spotlight all his own. His rematch with Marlon “Chito” Vera is the main event of a legitimately massive UFC pay-per-view card. He’s on the cusp of being one of those names people know even outside the MMA bubble, whether they follow the sport or not.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 15: UFC bantamweight champion Sean O'Malley is seen on stage during the UFC 2024 seasonal press conference at MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Sean O'Malley heads into Saturday's UFC 299 main event as a -275 favorite at BetMGM over Marlon Vera, who is +220. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images) (Cooper Neill via Getty Images)

Even for a guy like O’Malley, who’s been acting like he’s famous for much longer than he’s been anything close to it, this requires some adjustments.

“I’ve had some old ladies recognize me at the grocery store,” O’Malley said. “I’m like, how do you even watch fighting? But I also have a pretty strong following among the younger generation. … I also have the stoner fanbase that like to see that you can smoke weed and be successful. I think it’s a diverse fanbase, honestly.”

O’Malley’s home state hasn’t always known what to do with him. He grew up in the capital city of Helena, which sounds cosmopolitan until you realize it’s a town of only about 33,000 people. He left at 19 and wasn’t especially vocal about representing the Treasure State on his way up the UFC ranks. With his dyed hair and face tattoos, he doesn’t necessarily match up with people’s expectations of a Montana boy.

Still, for a lot of people in Montana he was the one MMA fighter they knew of who wasn’t named Conor McGregor. Montana doesn’t exactly have a ton of people to cheer for on the pro sports scene (I write this from Missoula, Montana, where I’m a longtime resident), so O’Malley was definitely better than nothing.

But something changed after he won the UFC 135-pound title last year. That seemed to be the moment when O’Malley went from a colorful MMA personality (with the colorful hair to match) to something approaching a genuine star.

Suddenly, Montanans were very eager to claim O’Malley. He was invited to attend a University of Montana Grizzlies football game this past fall in order to hoist the No. 37 flag before kickoff (a great honor in Montana sports culture, just take my word for it). His appearance on campus, with his pink hair and sparkling jewelry, was nothing short of a mob scene.

The thing is, O’Malley wasn’t really supposed to win that title fight. He wasn’t supposed to win the fight before that, either. His rematch with Vera on Saturday will be the first time in three fights that he’s not at least a 2-1 underdog. For whatever reason, many people just haven’t seemed prepared to believe in him as a championship-caliber fighter.

And as he headed into that Sterling fight with an undisclosed rib injury that had limited his ability to train, O’Malley would have had every reason to doubt himself just as much as oddsmakers did.

“I’ve been with him for 19 fights now, and that was the worst training camp we’ve ever had,” said Welch. “That was a fight camp where literally all we could do was hit mitts. Walking out there, I was worried that we were a lamb headed to the slaughter. But we really studied tape on (Sterling), and we knew we still had a few specific ways to win.”

One thing O’Malley had going for him, Welch said, was his ability to eradicate doubts and believe. Even injured, his confidence didn’t waver. When he dropped Sterling early in the second round and finished him with strikes shortly thereafter, he finally had the UFC hardware to match that belief.

For O’Malley, the rematch against Vera seems as much about establishing himself as the clear champ as it does about avenging his only professional loss. (Vera defeated O’Malley via TKO in 2020, during a fight in which O’Malley went down with a lower leg injury that had hobbled him in previous bouts.)

“I mean, the only reason he's getting a title shot, let's be real, is because I called for it,” O’Malley said. “I’m the champ. I called for it. He doesn't get a title shot any other way, at least not after beating Pedro (Munhoz). … He’s an experienced, durable dude. But that’s just not going to be enough.”

Still, even O’Malley can’t help but wonder why some segment of the MMA fanbase doesn’t seem to believe he’s good enough to be a UFC champ. Even now, there’s a sense that some are still waiting to find out if he’s the genuine article or an especially bright flash in the pan.

Maybe it’s because of the way he looks, more like someone you’d expect to see loitering outside a mall than beating world champions inside a cage. Maybe it’s because he’s a skinny kid from Montana with no serious athletic pedigree to suggest he ought to be an elite anything.

“I don’t know what it is,” O’Malley said. “I’ve wondered the same thing. … But maybe when I’m done fighting. They can rewatch my whole career, see it all unfold. Then they’ll say, ‘Wow he was as good as he told us he was.’ I’ve got a lot of work to put in before that, though.”