Gen Z, trolling and PPV buys: Sean O’Malley is the star the UFC has been waiting for

A LARGE MOTOR COACH bus pulled out from the side of TD Garden in Boston, and with it came a swarm of people. The oversized vehicle turned onto Causeway Street as security attempted to disperse the mob.

It was Aug. 18, 2023, right after the finish of the UFC 292 ceremonial weigh-ins. Several fighters competing on the card were riding the bus back to the host hotel. The assembled fans, many of them teens or college-aged, were there to see just one: Sean O’Malley. Some wore wigs matching O’Malley’s curly, Fruity Pebbles-colored hairdo.

A little more than 24 hours later, O’Malley entered the arena to Lupe Fiasco’s song “Superstar” and knocked out Aljamain Sterling to become the UFC bantamweight champion. The man who has long been considered the UFC’s leading-man-in-waiting finally had a title to match his hype. And he did it the way he predicted, with a step-back, counter right hand, reminiscent of how Conor McGregor — the man he could usurp as the UFC’s biggest star — won his first undisputed UFC belt.

The moment was not lost on McGregor himself.

“Look at O’Malley saying the exact same thing — ‘I’m going to be as big as Conor,'” McGregor said in a voice note on X after the KO. “And he goes out and does the f—ing same thing I’ve done to make me as big as Conor, if you get me. It’s just f—ing madness.”

For O’Malley’s next act, he’ll attempt to successfully defend the championship on Saturday in the main event of UFC 299 in Miami (10 p.m. on ESPN+ PPV) against Marlon “Chito” Vera, who handed O’Malley his only career loss in August 2020. It’s a victory he needs to give himself a chance to be the UFC’s next crossover star, the next McGregor.

There’s little doubt that O’Malley is the fighter most primed to be McGregor’s heir apparent. The facetious, face-tattooed 29-year-old has amassed 1.8 million followers on TikTok, an indicator of his appeal to younger fan demographics.

But what does stardom truly mean in MMA, and can O’Malley penetrate the mainstream the way McGregor has? UFC 299 will take place during the same month in which McGregor will make his Hollywood film debut alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in Amazon’s “Road House” reboot. Furthermore, how much does the UFC need O’Malley to become its top seller with McGregor’s fighting future uncertain?

McGregor is expected to return to the Octagon later this year. O’Malley acknowledges that if and when “The Notorious” returns, he’ll still be the UFC’s top dog. But O’Malley also believes he’ll get the torch passed to him when McGregor, who has not fought in nearly three years after suffering a broken leg, winds down.

“I’m probably one of the biggest Conor fans,” O’Malley told ESPN. “I’ve watched every Conor interview, I’ve watched every Conor fight — just a massive Conor fan. So, it’s more of a respect thing than a disrespect thing. But yeah, I do think I’m going to be that next guy at the top.”

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SNOOP DOGG LEANED into the microphone and screamed “O’Malley!” seven times in a row, nearly knocking over a bottle of Tanqueray gin on the table in front of him in excitement.

O’Malley had just knocked out Alfred Khashakyan with a right hand on “Dana White’s Contender Series” on July 18, 2017. It was the second season of the show, where fighters compete for a UFC contract in front of UFC CEO Dana White and other brass. Snoop Dogg was doing an alternative commentary stream called Snoop Cast with UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber, and he shouted on the stream that White should grant O’Malley a contract after a spectacular performance.

That was the first time O’Malley, then a fresh-faced 22-year-old, found himself on the radar of UFC fans. He quickly began branding himself as “Suga,” an irreverent punk kid who trolled other fighters on social media, knocked his opponents out in the cage with flashy offense and enjoyed the consumption of marijuana.

“I’m looking for flashy. I’m looking for someone who has that thing,” Dana White said after O’Malley’s Contender Series win. “Sean O’Malley is that thing.”

Whenever O’Malley appeared somewhere, he declared that the “Suga Show” had arrived. And O’Malley made sure that fans remembered him, whether with sarcastic quips on social media or by showing up uninvited at the UFC 222 open workouts in Las Vegas. O’Malley popped up during the media and fan event in 2018 on the balcony of the MGM Grand sportsbook wearing a black robe adorned with marijuana leaves, a look inspired by mumble rapper Tekashi69. He then did an impromptu workout with his coach, Tim Welch.

“That’s an important thing for a brand like the UFC to have someone like me that resonates with the younger generation, because that’s who’s going to be consuming your content is that age group,” O’Malley said. “So, I think UFC saw that early on. I got in the UFC when I was 22, and I was resonating with those younger kids. I get older, they get older, and now they’re attending my fights in Boston, they’re buying the pay-per-view, they’re going to be in Miami.”

The UFC knew it had something in O’Malley right away, too. The only time he has fought on a non-pay-per-view card was his debut, when he was the co-main event of a Fight Night. O’Malley has fought on the prelims only once, a 2020 fight with Jose Quiñonez (Watch on ESPN+). His first eight fights for the promotion took place in the UFC’s home of Las Vegas. Six of those ended in O’Malley knockouts.

Others took notice of O’Malley’s skills and style, too. Like the Nelk Boys, a group of YouTube and social media influencers who are popular with Gen Z. O’Malley started doing podcasts with them, growing his footprint even more outside the world of MMA.

“[O’Malley has] brought in a new fan base or helped solidify this new fan base that the Nelk Boys … and all those guys bring in,” one MMA manager said under condition of anonymity. “He’s kind of the face inside the Octagon for that group. And timing works well with Dana pushing it. Dana has got a very good understanding of what sells.”

Imran Jawaid represents O’Malley in contract negotiations and is the CEO of Sanabul, a leading fight gear brand. Jawaid said O’Malley has generated “millions of dollars” solely with his merchandise based on the “Suga” brand. Most of that money, Jawaid said, has come from buyers ages 17 to 36.

“His site purchase conversion percentage and returning customer numbers would make most businesses envious,” Jawaid said.

O’Malley has drawn some comparisons to other 20-something social media influencers who compete in combat sports. The Paul brothers, Jake and Logan, have parlayed their legions of followers into an organic, captive audience for their exploits in combat sports. Jake has been boxing seriously for four years, and Logan has boxed and starred in WWE. O’Malley said he has taken some inspiration from the brothers regarding marketing.

“[O’Malley’s fans] actually care about him as a person and that’s thanks to his content and his personality, his attitude, being in the right places at the right times, doing YouTube, collaborating with the right people and working hard outside of the ring to build his brand,” Jake Paul told ESPN. “And he’s just such a likable person in general. So, I think that’s what the younger generation sees and they like the trolling, they like all the jokes, all the fun little videos, and that’s what makes people care. And it’s really that simple.”

O’Malley is the UFC’s representative face among the young influencer crowd. He has streamed video gaming sessions on the UFC’s Twitch account, and he is regularly interviewed by nontraditional media members like YouTube streamers No Jumper and his 4.7 million YouTube subscribers.

But can that popularity continue to progress with O’Malley becoming the next McGregor? Jake Paul thinks so.

“I don’t know who else there is that is young and already a champion, on top of all these other things, and his brand continues to grow,” the YouTuber-turned-prizefighter said. “So yeah, the sky is the limit for him.”

Some are not as confident and believe O’Malley has to evolve his persona and marketing — not to mention continue to win fights — to reach that level. McGregor is a celebrity unlike any the UFC has ever seen, with his own popular whiskey and beer brands and a budding Hollywood career. The Irishman is recognizable the world over. O’Malley has nearly 4 million Instagram followers, the third most out of active American UFC fighters (Jon Jones and Dustin Poirier have more). But McGregor has more than 47 million.

“Conor is able to navigate different scenarios and different groups of people and connect on a different level,” one MMA manager said under the condition of anonymity. “[O’Malley] doesn’t connect like that. … It’s not like Conor, who is a businessman who crosses over to a lot of different things.”


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Sean O’Malley on why he wanted the Chito Vera fight

Sean O’Malley tells Stephen A. Smith why he wanted to defend his title vs. Chito Vera.

WWE’S BECKY LYNCH was asked in an interview at the WrestleMania kickoff news conference last month which UFC fighter could effectively transition to professional wrestling. Lynch, who was part of the first WrestleMania main event featuring women in 2019, answered McGregor — and O’Malley.

“He runs his mouth, he’s got the charisma, he’s got the presence, he’s got the finesse,” Lynch told ESPN.

O’Malley clearly has the attention of people outside the MMA bubble. He’ll have to continue to reach them if he is to approach McGregor in terms of renown. Jawaid said he and O’Malley have had many conversations about whether they feel O’Malley is the next fighter to become the face of the UFC. One thing they both agree on is O’Malley is not McGregor, and vice versa.

“There are no comparisons between Sean and Conor because Sean blazes his own path and creates something that’s different, more unique, and just him,” Jawaid said. “It might have elements of what Conor McGregor did or will do, and might have other elements with other stars, and people will try to compare as much as possible. But ideally, Sean is just following his own journey, his path, and it leads to something we’ve never seen before.”

UFC 292, with O’Malley stopping Sterling in the main event, did a $7.2 million gate at TD Garden in Boston, breaking the building record for revenue from ticket sales.

“Bruce Springsteen just played here and did 5 million,” White said in the postfight news conference. “We did over 7 million. The Boston Garden … [in the] craziest f—ing sports town on Earth, other than their team that plays here, we’re the biggest thing that’s ever been here. So, what does that tell you about O’Malley?”

When asked what makes him a star, O’Malley said it’s his performances above everything else, his knockouts and highlights more than his social media presence or the podcast he started with Welch, which was launched before many other fighters started their own podcasts. It’s the little things behind the scenes, O’Malley said, that have gotten him where he is — from good sleep habits to strong recovery to his nutritionist Dan Garner.

But O’Malley also knows he transcends what he does in the cage. He’s a brand separate from that, someone who made more money with his ventures outside MMA than his fight purses in 2022 and 2023, he said.

Jorge Masvidal, who was one of the top-selling fighters in the UFC before retiring last year, said O’Malley will be a made man in the sport as long as he doesn’t “get f—ing murdered by the elite of the elite” fighters in the division, like Vera.

“OK, you beat that guy? That’s how you become a star,” Masvidal said. “You get by ‘Chito’ … and you [take] his head off, your stock takes off. Now people are buying that pay-per-view left and right.”

The UFC 299 main event has added meaning because Vera beat O’Malley on Aug. 16, 2020, after O’Malley came up lame following a kick to the peroneal nerve in the back of his right knee. There’s the revenge factor and the fact that O’Malley is defending his title for the first time. McGregor, though he won championships in two divisions, never successfully defended a UFC championship.

When asked if the UFC almost needs him to win this fight to further capitalize on his fame, O’Malley responded: “Humbly, yes.”

“I think it’ll help,” he said. “You want the UFC to be as big as the NFL, NBA, it definitely helps [with] me going out there and putting Chito’s lights out in a fantastic, spectacular fashion. So, yeah, I mean, it definitely wouldn’t hurt the UFC if I go out there and win.”

But does the UFC truly need O’Malley to win and become a massive mainstream name? The jury is still out. White, however, said he knew from the start what he had in his bantamweight champion.

“[UFC 292 had] the biggest bantamweight championship fight ever on pay-per-view,” White said after O’Malley’s win. “It broke the record. O’Malley isn’t going to be a star, he is a star.”

The UFC did release O’Malley’s knockout of Sterling on social media and YouTube channels in the moments following the fight, an uncommon occurrence since the event was on pay-per-view and the finishes of pay-per-view fights are rarely shared immediately. It’s clear the promotion wanted to get as many eyes on that as possible.

With that, it succeeded. Over the past six months, the highlight has more than 10.6 million views on YouTube, the second-most popular video on the organization’s channels, trailing only a re-release of Conor McGregor’s fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov. O’Malley gained more than 720,000 followers on his own Instagram following the Sterling knockout, according to the UFC.

“It’s hard to say need with a big organization,” an MMA manager said under condition of anonymity. “They do need stars, I would say. I would say yes, they need stars, and O’Malley is one of their best chances of that.”

The manager also named new UFC featherweight champion Ilia Topuria as someone not far off O’Malley’s level. Topuria was recently hosted by Real Madrid, one of the most prestigious soccer teams in the world, and honored for his title win before a game. White said after UFC 298 last month that he “100%” sees stardom from O’Malley and Topuria, meaning selling tickets and pay-per-views.

On the other hand, McGregor has not fought since 2021, and the UFC has still set revenue records in the past two years. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, when the UFC pushed through to be the first sport back, the promotion has been a money-making machine with dozens of sellout pay-per-view events on its balance sheet. In 2016, the Fertitta brothers, Lorenzo and Frank, sold the UFC to Endeavor for just over $4 billion. When Endeavor acquired WWE last year and merged it with the UFC under the publicly traded company TKO, the UFC’s valuation alone was $12.3 billion.

“I don’t think the UFC needs a next big star,” another manager said. “I think the UFC, they’re big enough that one person doesn’t operate the company anymore. I think if you’re at Conor level, sure.”

O’Malley is not there yet. Maybe he will eventually get there, with another rung on that ladder ahead on Saturday. And surely, the UFC would benefit if he did. But all those points could be moot unless he beats Vera, something he could not do the first time.

“I think UFC is going to be successful whether I’m here or not,” O’Malley said. “But I think as far as potential goes, I have the most potential in the UFC right now to be the biggest star UFC has ever seen.”

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