Touching a nerve: Chito Vera and Sean O’Malley relive their first fight

UFC bantamweight champion Sean O’Malley and Marlon “Chito” Vera will meet for the second time on Saturday in the main event of UFC 299 in Miami.

The pairing is a rematch of a contest that took place in August 2020 (Watch on ESPN+). At that time, O’Malley was a young, rising, undefeated prospect in the UFC. Vera was a 23-fight veteran who had never quite been able to break into title contention. Vera was coming off a controversial split decision loss, while O’Malley was red-hot, fresh off two viral knockouts.

Vera won via TKO in the final minute of the opening round. That much, everyone agrees on; the result is officially on each of their records. What exactly happened, however, depends on one’s perspective. The key moment of the bout occurred when Vera landed a kick to the right leg that shut down O’Malley’s peroneal nerve, leaving him temporarily incapable of lifting his ankle and toes.

In other words, his foot went numb and he couldn’t really move. He eventually fell over and Vera hurt him with elbows that ended the fight.

There is a history of peroneal nerve injuries in MMA, but they are exceptionally rare. And due to the rarity of the injury, O’Malley has maintained he doesn’t feel like he truly lost to Vera. In fact, he has created an entire “Undefeated” clothing launch based on this notion.

On Saturday (ESPN PPV, 10 p.m.), O’Malley (17-1, 1 NC) gets to potentially “erase” the only blemish on his rocket ship of a career. Vera (23-8-1), who has won five of his past six, gets his first shot at a UFC championship. In anticipation of the rematch, here’s an account of what happened on Aug. 15, 2020, from O’Malley, his coach Tim Welch, Vera and his coach Jason Parillo.

Watch the first fight yourself on ESPN+.

Sean O’Malley: We got offered Chito in the co-main event on a big pay-per-view card [UFC 252: Miocic vs. Cormier 3]. He was coming off a loss to Song Yadong, in a fight I thought he had won. I liked the matchup. I went into it very confident.

Marlon Vera: He was the fresh name and I had been around for a few years. I feel the main reason I got this fight was because of the Song Yadong robbery. I believe the UFC was kind of like, “OK dude, we got it. We know the decision in your last fight was wrong. We’ll give you this opportunity against Sean, and it’s either he takes away your name or you take away his hype.”

Tim Welch, O’Malley’s coach: When we watched film on Chito, we were like, “Wow, this is a perfect matchup for us.” Chito is dangerous. He kicks hard and he’s durable, but this was a good, good matchup for us and the UFC knew it. If you’re a business, and you have a kid who is flashy, knocking people out every time he fights, you’re going to try to build him. So yeah, I think the UFC thought this was a very good fight for Sean.

Jason Parillo, Vera’s coach: I thought it was a perfect fight to shine a light on Chito, because of the notoriety O’Malley had. I was aware of Sean because he was starting to get some promotion, but I wasn’t really in tune to who he was at that time. I thought he was an athletic guy who is very rhythmic. He knows how to pull guys around the cage. For me, it was a matter of how much guts did he have? He hadn’t been tested yet, from what I’d seen.

Fight week between the two was relatively tame, although in perhaps a bit of a trolling effort, O’Malley dyed his hair the colors of the Ecuadorian flag. Vera is the first fighter to represent Ecuador in the UFC. The fight took place inside the Apex in Las Vegas, prior to the main event heavyweight trilogy fight between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier.

O’Malley: I did the Ecuadorian hair, maybe a little karma there. Probably shouldn’t have done that, probably won’t do that again.

Vera: A lot of people were upset about the hair, but it’s just social media bulls—. People just do things to get in your head or be cool or whatever. Those are the colors of my country. So, for you to do that, you’re bringing hype to me, right? Those colors mean Chito Vera right there. So, it was free advertisement.

O’Malley: I had both of my ankles wrapped because I was coming off a pretty bad injury on my right foot. I broke that foot in my second fight in the UFC and it required a pretty major surgery. So, I was having my ankles wrapped and I remember right before I walked out, I was asking my team, “Will you try to loosen these wraps? They feel so tight.” I didn’t have circulation. I couldn’t move my ankles, and I remember vividly, like, “F—, will you loosen these up a bit?”

Welch: I don’t like making excuses, but Sean was complaining about those ankles. Those wraps were too tight. We thought once he started bouncing around, they’d loosen up a bit, but they didn’t. I think once that nerve got hit, there was just no blood flow to the ankle. We were a little rushed getting out of the locker room. We were already warmed up and it had gone perfect. It was kind of this feeling like, “We’re warm, let’s just go f— this kid up real quick.” That was definitely a mistake. As the coach, I should have said, “I don’t care if everyone has to wait, we’re going to rewrap those ankles.”

The fight starts and O’Malley and Vera start to feel each other out from a distance. O’Malley lands first, with a handful of kicks to the leg. On the UFC broadcast, commentators Joe Rogan and Dominick Cruz each mention the early success of O’Malley’s low kicks.

Parillo: He did come out with that leg kick, but my biggest concern with O’Malley was the speed. The thing about Chito, he just doesn’t fight scared though. At this level, you’d think guys don’t fight scared, but you look at what just happened when O’Malley fought Aljamain Sterling, I thought Aljo looked a little frantic in there. Chito sits in front of guys who can really crack. The way he lives his life with all of the endurance and living clean helps him take those shots, but he’s just a tough son of a b—-. I can tell you that.

O’Malley: I’m kicking the crap out of his legs early. The whole narrative about this fight is that he chopped my legs down. He kicked my legs a couple times after I got injured, but yeah, this would have been a beautiful finish had it played out how it was supposed to.

Welch: Chito was doing a good job. He was super calm. He wasn’t reacting super hard to anything. But when someone isn’t reacting to your feints, that’s when you can open up and start firing down the pipe. That’s why, if this fight had gone longer, I think we would have knocked him out. Even though Chito has never been knocked out before, and that’s a fun challenge for us.

Vera: I wasn’t expecting to hurt him in the first round. I’m never expecting anything. I’m just ready to roll. I kept my legs loose, so when he landed that kick, the impact is not as hard as if I was planted on the ground. I’m talking to him during the fight, asking him, “Where do you want to go? Left? Right?” I was observing the energy, the power, everything.

Parillo: I had only been with Chito for a handful of fights and he was still a little shy about throwing punches. We were two minutes into the fight and hadn’t thrown a punch. I don’t love that. But he’s developed a lot since then. I don’t think he had full confidence in letting his hands go back then. But I’ve seen opponents put more volume and a bigger arsenal on Chito in the first round than what we saw early in this fight, and Chito has just smirked it off. I never felt at any time, “Oh, we’ve got a problem in front of us.” [O’Malley] was moving around just like we talked. He was basically exactly what we pictured. I wasn’t overly impressed.

At the 2:53 mark, Vera lands his first good shot, a left kick to the outside of O’Malley’s right knee. O’Malley backs up to the fence immediately and is stationary for the next several seconds. When he tries to move to his right, his foot slides on the ground and he stumbles.

“I’ve watched it slo-mo, zoomed in. It’s just crazy how that nerve got hit and boom, my foot went numb. I was like, ‘What the f—?'”

Sean O’Malley

O’Malley: I’ve watched it slo-mo, zoomed in. It’s just crazy how that nerve got hit and boom, my foot went numb. I was like, “What the f—?” I was trying to figure out what happened, like, “Come on motherf—er, come back to life.” It was damn near the exact same feeling I felt when I broke my foot. That injury instantly started running through my head. Every time I would walk forward, my ankle would roll.

I’m still calm. Freaking out and panicking isn’t going to help. I’m trying to be calm and find my shot, but I’m not sure what the f— is going on.

Welch: I was super scared it was that same foot injury he’d suffered. I know how hard Sean hits, so I was like, “Hopefully he’s able to just crack him here.” During a fight, I’m trying to stay present and focus on what we can control, but I knew his foot was f—ed up and I was nervous.

O’Malley: I don’t know [if Vera knew right away]. He seems pretty stupid. Maybe. I don’t think he knew. But yeah, I’m still on one leg, still confident I’m going to knock this motherf—er out. I just can’t move very well.

“When someone is hurt, you know. You just know that something is wrong. I knew the moment he fell to the ground. There was something in his eyes, his soul.”

Chito Vera

Vera: When someone is hurt, you know. You just know that something is wrong. I knew the moment he fell to the ground. There was something in his eyes, his soul, that I was like, “You’re worried about that.”

I was f—ing with him [after that]. I was playing games. It’s easy to grab your phone and go crazy and go after people’s families and other people [on social media], but it’s a different animal when you’re in there. You can be funny and cute online. I’m funny and cute inside the cage.

Parillo: I noticed it at first, and once he stumbled, I was like, “Yeah, that leg is gone.” I started screaming at Chito that the leg was gone. He’s missing a wheel, so we might as well pressure him and get his heart rate up. He knows he’s hurt, and he knows you know he’s hurt. Let’s get him out of there, because who knows, he might recover. That nerve is like a liver shot, it goes away over the course of time.

Welch: I was going to make a decision in the corner between rounds. I was going to sit him down and if the foot was messed up and he couldn’t move, I was just going to throw in the towel and call it for him.

With 30 seconds remaining in the round, O’Malley chooses to go after Vera after landing a right hand. Vera shells up and pushes back, resulting in O’Malley losing balance and falling to his back. Vera drops into his guard and lands two hard elbow strikes that immediately prompt referee Herb Dean to wave it off.

O’Malley: Right before the end of the round, I blitzed forward like an idiot. I shouldn’t have blitzed. I blitzed his ass and fell. If I just get to the end of the round and onto the stool, maybe that [nerve] comes back.

Welch: Sean lands and then he falls down. Just throws a right hand and then falls down. I’m super confident that if he doesn’t fall down, he’s still knocking Chito out in that fight. He fell down, and I think he was just so focused on his ankle — people talk about how once he fell down, he didn’t know what he was doing or how to protect himself. It’s like, “OK, he knows what he’s doing. But he’s focused and worried about that foot.”

O’Malley: He did land a good elbow that f—ing rocked me. In my head, I was thinking that my foot is broken and I have to have another surgery. There are football players that never come back from that injury. I was really f—ing upset. And I remember thinking his excitement was more surprise. He was surprised he did it.

Vera: I yelled at his coach to go f— himself. He was insulting me during the fight. If an opponent is insulting you, I’m cool with that. But a coach doing it is really weak. I’m not fighting you. I was like, “OK dude, keep talking s—. How old are you, 12? You think you’re going to intimidate me?” That’s why I gave him a little medicine after the knockout.

Welch: He did yell at me after the fight, and I did talk to him during the fight. I was just reminding him of what he already knows — that he’s way, way slower than us. He was just as slow as we were expecting him to be, and I was reminding him of that. When he missed a shot, I was just saying, “Holy smokes, you are slow.”

Parillo: I was focused on Chito, so I never heard anything from their corner. Sometimes, you’re waking up the lion with something like that. A guy can sit in the corner and think they’re being intimidating, but sometimes you’re throwing fuel on the fire.

O’Malley: Once I was standing up, I kind of realized, “OK, it’s not my foot. My foot is not broken.” The nerve kind of came back. I was able to walk. The UFC was like, “No, no, get him on a stretcher.” I was like, “F— it, carry me out like a king, I don’t care.” But I got a lot of s— for getting carried out on a stretcher [laughs].

Welch: The cameras were still trying to capture us, as they’re putting Sean into the ambulance. Trying to get an interview from him, from me. I was like, “Let’s just go to the hospital and see what’s going on.”

O’Malley: I sprained my ankle about four or five times, but the nerve itself came back and I was fine. It was those f—ing wraps, dude, they were too tight. It is what it is. F—.

Vera: I won the fight. Say whatever you want. Cry all you want. I don’t give a f— about your feelings. It seems like I won the fight, right? He’ll say he won and the athletic commission scored it for him, I don’t know. But the matter of fact is that the records say I won and I was paid double [show money and win bonus]. He can keep crying.

Welch: The lord really blessed him in that fight. He really, really did.

In the aftermath of that fight, O’Malley went on to knock out his next three opponents. In October 2022, he upset former champion Petr Yan in Abu Dhabi to earn a title shot against Aljamain Sterling at UFC 292 last August in Boston. O’Malley knocked out Sterling with a right hand in the second round. Vera won four consecutive bouts from 2021 to 2023 before dropping a decision to Cory Sandhagen. He rebounded with a win over Pedro Munhoz in August, but it’s safe to say he is getting a title shot now, in part, due to his victory over O’Malley four years ago.

O’Malley: I think it was a best-case scenario — me losing in a fluke way. I didn’t get pushed too fast after that. If I go out there and beat Chito in 2020, who was next? Would I have been ready for what was next? This fight slowed my career down. Had I beat Chito, I wouldn’t have fought Thomas Almeida next, and that fight is one of my favorite knockouts. A massive, viral knockout.

Chito made weight for that fight, showed up and kicked my nerve. It’s as simple as that. How many thousands of kicks happen in MMA every single year, and how many times does that happen? One, two percent? It was a fluke accident. Yeah, he threw the kick. I’m not taking that away. But the only time he did anything to me was after I was compromised. If he goes and kicks the nerve again and my leg starts limping out again, maybe I’ll just admit, “OK, this motherf—er knows how to do that.” I feel like it might have been a little lucky, but who knows?

Welch: That kid got lucky, but that’s the way fighting is. It’s such a flip of the coin, so you can never be overconfident in a fight. Anything can happen, and this was a good reminder of that.

Parillo: F—ing damn right there was luck involved. Are you trying to kick that leg and hurt it? Yes, that’s exactly what Chito is trying to do. Is he trying to kick the back of the knee to cause that exact injury? Is it a rare occasion that you see a drop foot like that? Yes. At the end of the day, Chito’s body held up in the fight and Sean’s didn’t. But we’re looking at this fight like it was lucky. We didn’t get a chance to see the real Sean O’Malley, the guy everyone is hyped about. This guy who is going to be one of the best fighters who ever lived. We didn’t get to see any of that. We’re looking at it like we’re in front of him for the first time.

Vera: Look at my life. I’m a lucky person. I have beautiful things. I have all my dream cars. I hang out with people that I’ve looked up to. I’m a lucky guy. What can I tell you? I’m blessed. It’s facts. Look at me. I’m fighting for a world title, and I’m ranked No. 6 in the world. We keep talking about luck? God bless my luck. I’d rather be lucky than be nobody.

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