Sean O’Malley discovered some things during his UFC 280 matchup opposite Petr Yan. Those things could change him as a fighter.
After his split decision win over the former UFC bantamweight champion, O’Malley was not the same fighter we had heard and seen in other post-fight interviews. His usual swagger was gone. The brashness we’ve come to expect was absent. The post-fight celebratory jump shot didn’t happen. Instead, Omalley seemed disoriented and a bit unsure of things, which, let’s be honest, should not have been a surprise to anyone who watched that fight.
O’Malley didn’t get knocked down, but Yan hurt him. O’Malley said as much after the fight.
“I had to go somewhere I’d never been before. You know, that’s what happens when you fight the No. 1 guy in the world,” O’Malley told UFC commentator Daniel Cormier.
“I was hurt more than I’ve ever been in a fight, considering I don’t usually get hit, but I definitely was rocked.”
We all know MMA is a mix of sport and entertainment, but at some point in the best fighters’ careers, that blend moves from a high level of entertainment to almost all sport. As an example, look at the career of current UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. Adesanya was once considered one of the most electrifying and entertaining fighters in the game. Today, Adesanya often gets labeled a boring or safe fighter.
During his march up the UFC ranks, Adesanya discovered that as the level of competition increased, the amount of entertaining he did during his fights needed to decrease. Had it not, Adesanya would have been playing with fire, risking his status as an elite UFC competitor. I suspect O’Malley learned that same lesson at UFC 280.
I don’t think we’ll see a “safe” O’Malley in his next outing, but I imagine we’ll see a smarter fighter the next time he steps into the cage. O’Malley found out that getting rocked is not fun. With that, his defense is all but guaranteed to become more of a focus. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, that approach might cost O’Malley some fans, but those fans aren’t the ones he — or any fighter — should be concerned with. Those are the fans who always put their short-term entertainment over the long-term success of the fighters they pretend to care about and support.
Before UFC 280, I thought O’Malley was more show than go. More style than function. He changed my mind with his performance against Yan. I didn’t change my mind because he won. Even if the decision had gone to Yan, I would feel the same about O’Malley. Over the 15 minutes he battled Yan, O’Malley proved he belongs among the elite of the bantamweight division. Is he a future champ? I’m not sure, but he should get the opportunity to fight for the title, and I know he will be a better fighter for what he went through at UFC 280.