GLENDALE, ARIZONA — IT was March 2018, shortly before Sean O’Malley‘s first appearance on a UFC pay-per-view card, when he got a small, fake tattoo of a star just below his left eye.
A star, because that’s what O’Malley believes he’ll be when it’s all said and done. And fake, because, you know … tattoos are permanent.
“I’m stupid enough to get a tattoo on my face,” a grinning O’Malley told ESPN recently. “But I’m smart enough to get a fake one to see if I like it first.”
Today, O’Malley has three tattoos on his face. Real ones. He got the star done permanently after the unanimous-decision win over Andre Soukhamthath at UFC 222. He has since added his nickname, “Suga,” above his right eyebrow and the word “breathe” written backward just under his hairline.
The 22-year-old bantamweight is covered in tattoos, and most of them are little more than what O’Malley refers to as “random s—,” but the ones on his face have meaning — “breathe” in particular.
It’s the least visible of O’Malley’s body art, thanks to the luscious mop of curls atop his head. He has to consciously pull his hair back in order for anyone to see it, and even then, because it’s written backward, it’s not immediately clear what it is.
Which is fine. It’s not for anyone but him.
O’Malley, who returns from a 24-month layoff to face Jose Quiñonez at UFC 248 on Saturday in Las Vegas, got the tattoo to remind himself, basically, that it’s all good — that the other tattoos on his face still apply. The “Suga Show,” as he calls it, has not been canceled. And he’s still on track to become an MMA star.
It was important for O’Malley to remember that during the past two years, when it felt like he’d never get to perform again.
“Every time I look in the mirror and I’ve got my hair up, it reminds me to breathe,” O’Malley said. “I got it after I got suspended.”
O’MALLEY’S FATHER, DAN, is a retired narcotics officer still living in Helena, Montana, where O’Malley grew up. Last year, after Sean failed a drug test for the banned substance Ostarine — one of multiple positive drug tests he has submitted in the past two years — Dan went to Phoenix to visit his son.
“We were talking about not knowing where the Ostarine came from,” Dan said. “And I watched him open the refrigerator door and slam it shut, and he yelled, ‘I don’t even know what I can eat. I can’t eat.’ Just the unknown of where it came from — watching Sean go through that and knowing how conscious he is of everything he eats and drinks — that moment always stands out.”
O’Malley hasn’t made a UFC appearance since that pay-per-view debut due to the failed tests, which the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) ultimately ruled were consistent with unintentional use.
Despite two years of testing his food and supplements, O’Malley has no idea how a trace amount of Ostarine made it into his system in 2018, and still continues to show up in minute amounts. He is one of several UFC athletes to go through the same issue with the same substance. And even though USADA ultimately ruled O’Malley did not intentionally cheat, he couldn’t fight until the agency got a firm grip on the matter, which ended up taking over 12 months.
“I was depressed, definitely,” O’Malley said. “Like, it didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t make sense.
“Every time my manager calls me or texts me now, I get this sick feeling in my stomach. I’m like, ‘No, God.’ Because I remember the times he called me and told me I couldn’t fight, and I just started crying. So now, every time he texts me, he’ll say, ‘Don’t worry,’ before he tells me what it’s about.”
Not being able to compete was a hard reality for someone who fought six times as an amateur in 2013, five times as an amateur in 2014 and another four as a pro in 2015 and 2017. Ever since O’Malley found combat sports, as a high school dropout when he was 17, fighting held his entire focus.
And though he eventually did earn a high school diploma at his parents’ urging, his father admitted the family never knew what O’Malley was going to do with his life. And that the first time Dan watched his son fight, he felt a strong sense of relief. It was the first time Sean seemed to have a sense of direction.
“I was super excited that Sean had finally found his niche in life,” Dan said. “I had never seen a ton of confidence in him, so it was super peaceful knowing, ‘This is what Sean is going to do.'”
That sense of direction didn’t abandon O’Malley during his suspension. He fine-tuned his nutrition, and according to his head coach and mentor Tim Welsh, he added significant muscle mass. He also spent hours upon hours building his ground game on the jiu-jitsu mats, and perhaps most importantly, he believes he matured as a human being. O’Malley said he is far more ready to attack challenges inside and outside the cage after this time off.
“I started reading a lot of books and understanding certain things,” O’Malley said. “I’m like, ‘This ain’t so bad.’ There are kids that have no water, and I’m sitting in my shower with hot water turned on for five minutes thinking about not fighting. You learn to look at it from a different perspective.”
WHEN O’MALLEY FIRST began training in mixed martial arts — at age 17, in Helena — his coach had two rules. New students couldn’t wear the gym’s hoodie until they’d earned it by completing six months of training. They also weren’t allowed to have a nickname until that six-month mark.
“So, one day my coach said the time had come for me to get my name, and he said, ‘Sugar,'” O’Malley recalls. “And I said, ‘Why?’
“He said, ‘Because you’re so sweet to watch.'”
O’Malley is only two fights into his UFC career, but he has already made more noise than, frankly, the majority of the UFC roster ever will. And it’s because his first coach’s observation continues to ring true.
“Suga” is sweet to watch.
His knockout on the Dana White Contender Series, which earned him a UFC contract in 2017, excited UFC fan Snoop Dogg so much he invited O’Malley into his trailer immediately after the bout to smoke a blunt. Several blunts, to be exact. An offer O’Malley graciously accepted.
In his second UFC fight, against Soukhamthath, O’Malley won despite fracturing his foot in the third round and barely being able to stand. He conducted his postfight interview with Joe Rogan from his back. A clip of the interview has been viewed more than 1.2 million times on YouTube.
“I love this game,” O’Malley said as he grimaced in obvious pain. “I love the talk, I love the media. I love everything about this sport. And I f—ing love you, Joe Rogan.'”
“Well, I f—ing love you too, buddy,” Rogan responded.
Sean O’Malley impressed in his early UFC fights, and will look to pick up where he left off when he returns on Saturday. Order UFC 248 here on ESPN+ espn.com/ppv.
O’Malley’s quick rise, paired with this two-year absence, has created a unique buzz around his return Saturday. On one hand, he already has proven he can move the needle on YouTube and with nearly 500,000 Instagram followers, and there’s an expectation for him to keep climbing the ladder on UFC cards. But on the other hand, here is a fighter who, in reality, hasn’t proven much of anything beyond that. His resume is a long way from superstar status — and he knows that.
“It’s crazy, the two guys I’ve beat [Terrion Ware was the first] aren’t even on the UFC roster anymore,” O’Malley said. “I haven’t beaten anyone in the UFC. I have a lot to prove, even to the rest of the UFC roster. They’re looking at me like, ‘Why is this guy getting all the attention?'”
The answer is because O’Malley is a potential star, as his once-fake, now-real star tattoo suggests. And now, after a two-year layoff, he is eager to live up to that potential.
“I don’t think I was ready to become what I was gonna be,” O’Malley said. “Cause in my mind, I’m gonna be at that Conor McGregor level. I’m gonna be up there. I want to be more famous than that. Not necessarily that I want to be, but I know I’m going to be.
“If we can just make it to March 7, and I can get in there and show, show the world … reintroduce the world to the Sugar Show 2.0. … I’m a different animal now.”