Inked Mag Staff
January 17th, 2023
The Life of the Suga Show
Sean O’Malley is a star in the making in the UFC, and a true contender in the bantamweight division. Best of all? He’s one of the coolest cats to ever step into the Octagon.
By Chuck Mindenhall
Photos by Joseph Cultice
Styling by Michelle “Mitch” Phillips
Grooming by Brianna Hovland
Petr Yan was supposed to bring Sean O’Malley down to earth. That was the hunch, anyway. Built like a cartoon wiseguy in a souped-up 5-foot-7 frame, the Russian Yan had crushed plenty of the top bantamweights before heading into the pair’s bout at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi. Why wouldn’t he snap a colorful string bean like “Suga” Sean O’Malley, who stands nearly 6 feet tall, right in half?
See, that’s the thing. O’Malley doesn’t go in for conventions. When Dana White said he had the “it” factor back when the then-23-year-old, frizzy-Fro’d O’Malley was on the Contender Series, you kind of understood. O’Malley had a certain look. A kind of joie de vivre. He was brash. Audacious. A fresh-faced hellion who seemed built for big moments. He won the Contender Series right around the time he smoked a fat J with Snoop Dogg. That high went viral.
And he beat Petr Yan, too. Now he’s next in line for a title fight, even though he wasn’t even ranked in the top 10 just a few days before Halloween. All of this, he says, is part of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“It’s inevitable that I’m going to be a world champion,” O’Malley says. “You can go back and watch the interviews during that Contender Series five years ago. I was saying everything that’s pretty much been happening. I’m going to go out, create a highlight reel, and just keep building. The ultimate goal is to be the pay-per-view king.”
In the five years O’Malley has competed in the UFC, he has put together a record of 9-1-1. The upset of the No. 1-ranked Yan in October was a narrow victory, a split decision that made for a lot of Monday morning chatter. He proved he can hang with the very best. And in conjunction with his previous triumphs, it became just the latest episode in an ongoing epic mini-series.
He peppered a spinach-haired fellow named Kris Moutinho with a sniper’s precision. For all intents and purposes, he knocked out Thomas Almeida not once but twice, mimicking a fadeaway jumper right after the second one. He ended Eddie Wineland’s career, and famously gave Joe Rogan a post-fight interview while lying on his back with a severely injured foot after beating Andre Soukhamthath.
His only loss during that time, suffered at the hands of Marlon “Chito” Vera, O’Malley has since refashioned as a victory. Wikipedia, shmickipedia—his record says he lost, but “Suga” says he won. And it doesn’t really matter, anyway, because O’Malley is the one holding the keys to that massive rematch. He has emerged as the A-side in any fight the UFC can make for him.
Should O’Malley beat the winner of current titleholder Aljamain Sterling and two-division champion Henry Cejudo, who are tentatively set to meet in the spring? Well, let’s just say that O’Malley’s vision of being the UFC’s PPV king will very likely come to pass.
All of which goes into that “it” factor in a game that rewards “it” like no other. It’s the ability to conjure success out of thin air. To tell people what you’re going to do, and then go out and do it. It’s in taking care of and acting as your own manager, because nobody can represent Sean O’Malley quite like Sean O’Malley.
“I enjoy sitting down with UFC and talking about what’s the next move, talking about why I deserve to get paid,” he says. “The UFC model is eat what you kill, and I’m killing a lot. I killed Petr. I should be eating big. So, I enjoy sitting down and negotiating on my behalf, and when it comes to sponsors and brand deals, I’m on the phone calls. I’m talking to them.”
O’Malley’s bright-hued individuality commands attention the way an exotic bird does in a mating ritual. Before a fight he will have his wife, Dani, create his look ahead of time, because he says “she is a black belt in hair.” He will then wrap his car in a matching color motif and create some merch—usually a jersey—that corresponds as well. Each event for O’Malley is a “Suga Show,” and it’s like nothing the fight game has ever seen. If Muhammad Ali was the soundtrack of boxing’s Golden Era of heavyweights, O’Malley is a one-man circus for his own.
“I didn’t watch fighting or boxing growing up. I watched football,” he says. “I mean, I just thought it was sweet that these guys were on TV every Sunday, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. But we didn’t have social media back then, so you couldn’t really follow someone’s career like you can now. I didn’t know how these athletes acted off the field or off the court.
“To be honest, I just wanted to be rich,” he continues. “That’s all I can remember as a young kid, I just wanted to have a lot of money for whatever reason. Probably because my mom was so stingy with money. She was the stingy one in the family, and it was always an argument about money. Looking back, that’s why I wanted to make sure I had a lot of money.”
As a young fighter in the age of social media, O’Malley isn’t relying solely on purse winnings in the cage to get ahead. His magnetism stems from a sincerity as a young guy coming into fame and fortune and figuring it out in real time—all of which he broadcasts to the whole world in a variety of ways.
“I’m just going with the flow, and I’ve got absolutely nothing figured out,” he says. “I just feel like everything’s just working out. I’m lucky that social media blew up as I was blowing up, because that’s where I make the majority of my money—through Instagram, YouTube and streaming. I definitely didn’t have a plan. When I was 20, I wasn’t like, ‘All right, I’m going to build a podcast. I’m going to sell merch, and then this or that.’ Going with the flow and just being myself is the easiest way.”
One of the things that strikes you about O’Malley’s look are his tattoos, starting with the looming pink-winged owl on his chest, which spans up over each shoulder. Over the years he has steadily added more on his arms, on his back, down his rib cage, along his torso and even along his cheekbones and hairline.
Like many lovers of ink, there was a rebellion in play at first that, as a teenager, he handled carefully… almost like a body art soft launch to reduce the shock value for those who might be disapproving. He started the safest way he knew how: By celebrating the Irish heritage on his grandmother’s side.
“My first tattoo, I was 18, and I got my last name and a shamrock on my back,” he says. “I knew my parents weren’t going to be happy if I got one, so I was like, ‘Well, they can’t be too mad if it’s my last name.’ So I got my last name.
“Then I got more. When I was 18, I got four or five tattoos,” he continues. “I had it in my head back then, I was like, ‘They can’t get mad if it’s about family or religion.’ So that’s what I did. I think on my chest I had, like, ‘Trust God, Fear No Man,’ or something like that, which isn’t a horrible quote, but at some point I was like, what the fuck? I don’t know why I got that.”
That was one of the first ones he covered up as he expanded, and he did it with the fierce trademark hooter across his thorax. “I got it covered up with the owl, which I still don’t even have any explanation for… I don’t know why it was an owl. Most of my tattoos are just random, for the most part.”
Most, but not all. O’Malley says that he likes to get ink to commemorate occasions or periods of his life, and there are a couple of distinct tattoos that carry a little more import. Sometimes they can be just little nuggets of self-expression that communicate everything with their placement.
“I got the word FREE on my knuckles. Of course, that was before I had a baby, so I should put ‘ish’ on the other side. Free-ish now,” he laughs. “But no, I like the FREE one, because I do feel free for the most part, as long as I don’t work 9-to-5. I do what I enjoy doing. I live a pretty free life. I like that one. The star I got under my left eye was right after my first pay-per-view I was on [UFC 222 in 2018], so my second fight in UFC I was already on a pay-per-view, and I was just feeling like a star. And I was like, ‘I’m going to get a star on my face.’ So that’s how that happened.”
O’Malley used a Snapchat filter to “try on” the tattoos he’s had done on his face, just to make sure he liked it before getting the work done. He did that before he got the one over his left eyebrow.
“I clicked on it, and I was like, ‘Okay, that one’s sweet,’” he says. “It had, like, ‘dreamer’ above the eye. I was like, ‘Oh, I like that one.’ So, I did that one. I got the one on my forehead that, when you look in the mirror, says ‘breathe.’ I got that one when I had a couple of surgeries and I was two years out of the cage, and it was a good reminder to do just that—to breathe.”
In most professions, facial tattoos can be tricky or downright taboo. In cage-fighting, where distinguishing yourself is one of the keys to prosperity, it can be a calculated risk, just as it can be a testament to self-belief.
“It can be self-belief—or I see plenty of people with face tattoos that are just stupid,” O’Malley says. “I would say that’s the majority of them. In those cases, it’s not self-belief.
“For me, it was more like I understand people want to see character,” he continues. “They watch TV. They’re paying 80 bucks for a fight. They want to watch characters, and I wanted to be a character for people to watch, but I didn’t want it to affect me in a negative way to where I’m like, ‘I don’t want to look in the mirror and see this.’ Mine were just, like, as long as I’m comfortable with them and I don’t think they make me look worse, then yeah, I’ll get them.”
The uncompromising sense of self might be the main ingredient in the “it” factor, which has always been difficult to pinpoint. O’Malley is one of the best strikers in the bantamweight division, and a rare showman at the weight class. With every fight there is a magnification of stakes, and a strutting, magnificent reminder that he’s right at home in the spotlight.
He’s flourishing in a sport that can chew you up and spit you out. He doesn’t have a manager, because he doesn’t like divvying up his earnings like so many “stupid fighters.” He’s an advocate for marijuana, a father, a husband, a podcaster, a gamer, a moneymaker for the UFC, a singular figure who stands taller than anyone else in his division.
Before it’s made into cornrows come fight night, O’Malley’s hair—a glorious snow cone of different syrups, and just as shocking as a mushroom cloud most of the time—catches your attention. It’s the way he handles that attention that distinguishes “Suga” Sean. In 2023, he will fight for a title. The star he had tattooed on his face was a clue to where things were headed. Perhaps the heart on the other cheekbone speaks just as loudly, because one can’t exist without the other.
“The star wasn’t bad,” he says. “I’m a UFC fighter, it makes sense. Then the second one came, and that was the heart. I was like, star, heart, those are pretty… they’re not too bad. And then I started getting more and more. If I can’t get a 9-to-5 job [because of my face tattoos], I’m glad. I don’t want one. Now I’m in a position where if I never fight again, I have my house paid off.
“My cars are paid off,” he continues. “I have money in my savings. I have money in my retirement. I have another house down the road. I have three houses in Arizona, one of which is now my mom’s. I have money in the right places to where if I never fought again, I still wouldn’t have to work.”
O’Malley has signed his name all over the fight game, and he’s done it all before the ink’s had a chance to dry.
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