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“I’m a Tall, Skinny Dude Knocking People Out Cold”

Does “Sugar” Sean O’Malley have the “it” factor to be the UFC’s next big star? It’s starting to feel like it.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

He’s undefeated in 12 fights in the cage. He’s got an instantly recognizable Jimi Hendrix Experience–style afro, which is occasionally painted in rainbow stripes and occasionally pulled back into cornrows. (More on that later.) He’s got tattoos galore and an affect in interviews that cuts against the usual MMA fighter stereotypes. “Sugar” Sean O’Malley—who fights Marlon Vera in the co-main event on Saturday at UFC 252—appears to have what it takes to be a star in the UFC. But what exactly does that mean?

One of UFC president Dana White’s favorite things to say about a fighter with transcendent qualities is that he or she has the “it” factor, a kind of godlike status in the industry that turns promoters’ eyes into dollar signs.

Former women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey had the “it” factor due to a number of unique traits and circumstances. Namely, she was first. She was the pioneer who sold the UFC on the idea that women could be stars in the octagon. In some ways, she was the Royce Gracie of women’s MMA, because she broke into the UFC, arm-barred a bunch of people in mere seconds, and inspired thousands of young girls to get involved with martial arts. She opened the floodgates for women in cage fighting.

She also excelled at her job. Given the short duration of most of her fights, she was frequently referred to as the Mike Tyson of MMA. It took a few minutes for the rest of the bantamweight field to catch up with her, and that gap distorted the public’s point of view. People lost their heads a little during the Rousey Era. Clay Travis even suggested that she fight Floyd Mayweather, because each could command upwards of $250 million for the exploit.

Conor McGregor, who holds the UFC pay-per-view records and actually did fight Mayweather to earn himself a cool nine figures, has the “it” factor, too. In fact, McGregor is the “IT” in all caps, having gone from a fun-loving brawler to a yacht-dwelling whiskey baron. He has completely transcended the fight game—and had already transcended it while in the thick of his career.

Fighters with the “it” factor are hard to come by. The brash middleweight champion Israel Adesanya might have it, but his transcendent qualities come in and out of focus and oftentimes feel inflated by the media. Amanda Nunes is the best women’s fighter ever, having taken out the full range divisional greats—Rousey, Holly Holm, Cris Cyborg, and Valentina Shevchenko—but she doesn’t have “it.” Neither does Daniel Cormier or Stipe Miocic, though a heavyweight bruiser like Francis Ngannou—given his otherworldly power—is on the cusp of “it”-ness.

Which brings us around to the latest addition to the “it” group: “Sugar” Sean O’Malley. The 25-year-old O’Malley broke into the UFC via Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series in 2017 and has done some incredible things since, including sparking up a J with Snoop Dogg. He has a lot of buzz on his name right now. Weird buzz. Exhilarating buzz. The kind of buzz that draws people in.

O’Malley was the first to refer to his own gravitational pull as an “it” factor. He’s been using that phrase since his UFC debut against Alfred Khashakyan, whom he knocked out in the first round. Yet through five fights in the UFC, even he has a hard time defining exactly what “it” is.

“What it is, I don’t know exactly,” O’Malley told The Ringer this week.

“It’s hard to … I don’t think anyone’s really ever been able to quite put a definition on it. I mean, for me it’s just when I go out there and perform and people want to see it. I want people to completely forget anything else that’s going on when I fight. They’re just glued to the TV, anticipating me knocking this dude out, just waiting to see what happens next.

“And that’s what that ‘it’ thing is. Just taking everyone’s thoughts away and turning them into complete awareness, observing what I’m doing at that moment.”

O’Malley certainly seems like a star. He’s undefeated through a dozen fights, five of which have been in the UFC. He wears paisley shirts with cool round-rimmed sunglasses. At 5-foot-11, 135 pounds, he cuts a wiry figure with his shock of curly hair and prolific tattoos. He has one above his eyebrow that reads “$uga,” another of a star on his cheek, and yet another just below his hairline that says “breathe” in reverse. Why in reverse? So he can see it properly when looking in the mirror, and therefore remind himself to take a breath.

Weird? Hell yes. He’s the first fighter the UFC has promoted as a psychedelic experience. His UFC apparel looks like a kind of fight-game Woodstock. And the UFC knows it has a star in the making. Some of the UFC 252 promos running on ESPN haven’t touched on the main event trilogy between Cormier and Miocic—they’ve featured “Sugar” Sean instead, the added attraction. Some might say the attraction. O’Malley’s clearly on the verge of breaking through.

But does he really have the “it” factor, like Rousey and McGregor? We made an “it” checklist to get a better idea.

UFC 222: Open Workouts Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Can he fight?

During his two-year absence from the UFC—and “absence” is a loaded word here, as the trace amounts of ostarine that got him suspended a second time felt more like a USADA hijacking—it was easy to view O’Malley as a flash in the pan. He had won three fights to that point, and was more of a character in the sport than a threat to the bantamweight throne.

Yet when he returned from those two years away to face Jose Alberto Quiñonez in March, his potential came into sharper focus. Quiñonez had won five of six fights and represented the toughest test for O’Malley by far, yet O’Malley plowed right through. He needed only two minutes. It was an eye-opening experience.

For his follow-up act against the veteran Eddie Wineland at UFC 250 in June, O’Malley showed up looking like Tekashi 6ix9ine’s long-lost cousin from the Fillmore West, with his hair dyed into a rainbow. This time he needed less than two minutes to score the knockout. The O’Malley of 2020 is far superior to the version that struggled to beat Andre Soukhamthath back in 2018.

Answer: Yes, he can fight.

Is there a “wow” factor to his fights?

Did I mention that the knockout of Wineland was a one-punch, walk-off home-run right hand that will most definitely be in contention for knockout of the year? It’s not a minor detail. O’Malley walked away from Wineland’s stiff body like he was flicking a cigarette butt and returning to his shift.

Better yet, he made it feel inevitable, which is the way McGregor’s early conquests felt. There was always a feeling that the man in front of McGregor was nothing more than a small hurdle on the way to some kind of untellably bright destiny. Every fight had a ceremonial feel.

Even when O’Malley isn’t at his devastating best, he still finds a way to steal the show. In the Soukhamthath fight, which was a battle of perseverance more than anything, O’Malley had to conduct his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan from his back. He’d injured his right foot and couldn’t stand, but he still answered all of Rogan’s questions with enthusiasm. In fact, that interview—especially when he yelled out, “Welcome to the ‘Sugar Show’ everybody!”—ended up being the most memorable part of the fight.

Answer: Yeah, there’s a “wow factor.

Does he have magnetism outside the octagon?

When a young McGregor tore his ACL against Max Holloway in 2013, he spent the next six months on the shelf calling out every featherweight on roster. O’Malley isn’t quite doing that, but he’s been egging on certain high-profile bantamweight customers like Cody Garbrandt and the recently “retired” Henry Cejudo, planting the seeds for future fights. The fight world is clinging to his every move.

O’Malley realizes all eyes are on him, but he says what distinguishes a fighter with the “it” factor from others—including great fighters and champions—is genuine expression.

“I don’t think you can go out there and fake being someone,” he says. “I mean, you look at Henry Cejudo, you can tell, and not just by his small fan base, that he’s just not authentic. It’s just gross. And you know he doesn’t have that ‘it’ thing, clearly. I think people resonate with me more. I’m just myself and people can see that. That’s why I’m getting this kind of response from the fans. That with the performances. I’m a tall, skinny dude knocking people out cold.”

It should also be noted that viewership numbers blow up wherever O’Malley makes an appearance. He was one of the top guests on Brendan Schaub’s “Food Truck Diaries,” and his introductory “Dana White’s Contender Series” appearance did 5.6 million views.

Answer: So far so good on the magnetism front.

Does he raise the profile of his opponents?

As tough as Quiñonez was, not many people were talking about him until he was booked against O’Malley. As wily as Wineland has been for a decade, the only reason he was on the main card at UFC 250 was because of O’Malley. And let’s face it—Marlon “Chito” Vera has never been a co-main event before. In fact, more than half of his fights have occurred on the prelims of whatever card he’s appeared on.

Perhaps a better illustration of how much O’Malley raises the profile of his opponents is in this anecdote: Vera is from Ecuador. Not many people outside of deep MMA circles would know that. But people are talking about his Ecuadorian heritage this time through. Why? Because the Montana-born O’Malley, who has an excellent troll game, colored his hair red, blue and yellow, the colors of the Ecuadorian flag.

“We’re having fun with my hair,” he says. “I was just thinking, how could we up from the last time [with the rainbow]? And then I have to go in and show the Ecuadorian flag, and show my support to my Ecuadorian fans. And my girl [Danya Gonzalez], she can do anything with my hair. So it makes it nice. We can just spitball ideas and you know that one’s stuck.”

Answer: Absolutely.

Does he sell?

This remains to be seen, as O’Malley has yet to headline a pay-per-view, but indications are that he might. This weekend’s fight card should give a better idea of that, given that he is in a high-profile spot and such a significant part of the marketing campaign.

O’Malley gave us a glimpse of his potential a couple of weeks ago when his new apparel brand released a limited edition $200 Boston Celtics–like basketball jersey that sold out in 39 seconds. The no. 69 jersey sold for $2,000, as did a special jersey with the number 420. Drugs and juvenile innuendo? That’s part of the O’Malley experience, and his fans can’t get enough.

Answer: All signs point to yes, he sells.

Is he culturally resonant?

For McGregor, there were certain movements within the movement. He was the embodiment of the caricatured Fighting Irish spirit, and the whole country of Ireland was more than happy to align with a pure winner. America loved him because he was audacious, happily materialistic, and bold. His “Mystic Mac” stuff spoke to the esoterics. His El Chapo tribute spoke to a certain sleazy spirit of a criminal in plain sight. Whenever he flew around in one of Lorenzo Fertitta’s planes, he spoke to America’s tabloid sense of awe.

To this day athletes in every sport do the McGregor version of the billionaire strut, which of course he himself lifted from Vince McMahon. The world got rich vicariously through McGregor.

For Rousey, it was female empowerment. When she said she wasn’t a “do-nothing bitch,” the pop world exploded. Beyoncé was playing clips at concerts and T-shirts were printed up by the thousand.

With O’Malley, it’s early yet, but there is a strong hipster/counterculture vibe beginning to blossom around him. He could easily be on the cover of High Times tomorrow. And really, given his charisma, his sense of humor, and his compulsion to speak his mind, he feels kind of like an aerodynamic Jim Morrison with sleeping pills in his hands, which can blow up in all kinds of fascinating ways.

Answer: People love him for his quirks and his ability to fight. But if he starts losing, will the quirks lose their shine? This question is buffering …

Is there a feeling in the air?

If you watch MMA long enough, you discover that your antennae is always on the lookout for the next big thing in the sport. Some fighters seem special from the beginning and appear destined to be superstars. Jon Jones came into the UFC in 2008 and has never really lost a fight (the Matt Hamill disqualification is the most deceptive piece of information on Wikipedia). He became the youngest UFC champion on the same day that he stopped a robber in New Jersey. He had “superstar” written all over him.

Yet Jones never truly had the “it” factor. He was so soft-spoken early, and he went through so many awkward phases socially (and publicly) that the genuine Jon Jones was hard to extract. Through all his legal struggles, Jones has been one of the better sellers in the UFC. But there’s a reason the UFC doesn’t make exceptions for Jones like it does for McGregor, as evidenced when Jones wanted to get paid more to move up to heavyweight and face Francis Ngannou. Jones is the best mixed martial artist in the world, but he’s not quite transcendent.

Is O’Malley transcendent? It’s far too early to say for sure, but there is a feeling in the air that we’ve barely scratched the surface with him. It’s the kind of thing that plays into a mania. There’s an urge to talk about him, to pay attention to his movements. People want to glorify him, which is a symptom of the “it” factor—when fans tether themselves emotionally to a fighter for reasons they can’t easily explain. People just know it when they see it.

“I feel like fighting me, it’s kind of like fighting Conor or fighting Floyd,” O’Malley says. “It’s getting there. I’m not as big as those guys 100 percent and I know that and that’s what makes me so dangerous—because I don’t think I’m that good. I don’t think I’m the best ever. I think there’s a ton of room to improve.

“But I’ll tell you what, I’m definitely raising Chito’s stock, and you know, he deserves it. He works hard. He has a family and he’ll thank me after.”