Given a microphone in front of his face, Sean O’Malley has a tendency to let his thoughts flow freely. Sometimes that kind of unchecked expressiveness can walk him into trouble, but occasionally it lands him at some fascinating insights as well.
In a recent interview with the No Jumper podcast, the MMA Lab talent revealed some of his thought process behind what bouts he gets in the UFC, and the kind of fights he’s looking to take. Notably that, given the opportunity, he’s not all that interested in facing off against ranked opposition.
“For me, I have a contract to fight a certain amount of fights and I only get paid a certain amount of money whether I fight Louis Smolka, the dude I was supposed to fight, or I fight Petr Yan, the number one bantamweight in the UFC. I get paid the same,” O’Malley revealed, adding that he’s therefore looking to take on lesser opposition atop high profile cards.
On the surface, that kind of thinking flies directly in the face of the bushido spirit upon which all MMA is supposed to thrive and function. Mixed martial arts, like all combat sports, is an expression of the desire to test one’s self, to carve out a reputation as one of the most dangerous and dynamic athletes in the world through a willingness to take on any and all comers.
Obviously that base ideology already gets diluted some by the inclusion of things like rules, weight classes, and other safety measures—but that’s what makes a sport a ‘sport’ and not simply fight. Those minor conceits aside, MMA thrives off the desire athletes have to prove themselves. And no one has taken more advantage of manipulating that desire than the UFC.
While classic tournament formats like the Pride Grand Prix – or Bellator & PFL’s ‘season’ construct – have formalized fighting ambition into strict gamesmanship, promoters who use them find themselves bound to the consequences. Put an athlete into a bracket system and let the chips fall where they may and you end up promoting the Cole Konrads of the world. That’s the kind of pitfall the UFC long ago learned to avoid.
Instead, the world’s largest MMA org. has an unwritten but commonly understood structure. Winners keep fighting winners, slowly climbing their way from the bottom prelims toward the main event—where title contenders are crowned. A panel of ‘respected members of the press’ sort the best fighters based on their perceived ability and record, helping add an extra layer of formality to a system that still otherwise has all the permanence of a whiteboard marker.
The end result is one where fighters’ drive and determination keep them motivated for rewards that while fairly clear, and often promised, are also easily manipulated—as is necessary to keep the UFC from becoming a promotion of Steve Jennums and Kenichi Yamamotos.
Which brings me back to Sean O’Malley and his realization that, the less formally a system is constructed, the more opportunities there are to redefine what success means. If the UFC is going to reward exciting winners with more prominent card placement, then there’s more value in fighting the kind of competition that can be beaten in thrilling fashion than the kind of battle hardened juggernauts that make up most divisions’ elite talents. Kevin Holland was a captivating finisher when he was fighting Charlie Ontiveros. But, Derek Brunson? That was a whole different story.
And as for getting a rankings slot of one’s own, time has already turned that process into an absolute slog. Fighters looking to climb to title contention tend to do so only by beating fighters ranked ahead of them. Something fighters ranked ahead of them know all too well, and try to avoid as much as possible. The result has been an increasing gridlock wherein everyone in the top 5 is waiting for the off chance that they’ll get a title shot. Or, if forced to take a bout through financial hardship (or that aforementioned competitive desire), are looking for the most exciting, high profile opponent they can get. Rob Font just might sign on the line to fight Dominick Cruz, but he’d be crazy to take on Merab Dvalishvili right now.
On the other hand, the fighter who keeps themselves on a long winning streak will always find themselves on the cusp of sudden and thrilling success. A series of victories like Anthony Hernandez, Joaquin Buckley, Darren Stewart, and Charlie Ontiveros catapulted Holland into a win over Jacare Souza (ranked #3 at the time). And, had Holland beat Brunson thereafter, very well could have had him in line for a shot at gold. Whereas a featherweight like Jimmie Rivera has been taking on ranked opponents ever since he faced Iuri Alcantara in 2016 and now has four losses in his last six fights for his trouble.
The UFC only ever rewards merit so much. And when, why, and how it decides to change the script isn’t all that easy to predict. What O’Malley’s saying may fly in the face of what fans hope to see out of their favorite fighters – and it’s certainly not what the UFC wants to encourage – but it’s a direct result of a system that makes a lot more calculations than just wins and losses to figure out who will reap the rewards it has to offer. Can’t blame a guy for trying to make that work for him.