Undefeated and unranked, a confident Sean O'Malley already sees himself as a champion

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS — Don’t waste time engaging Sean O’Malley on the UFC’s divisional rankings, because he’ll quickly tell you he doesn’t pay attention (even though he somehow knows that former featherweight champion Jose Aldo is ranked sixth in his division at bantamweight).

O’Malley, who will fight Eddie Wineland on Saturday in the pay-per-view opener of UFC 250 at UFC Apex, is focused on one thing when it comes to the rankings. He doesn’t care so much about having a number next to his name; he wants a letter.

The division is loaded with talent and several of them, including No. 2 Aljamain Sterling and No. 4 Cory Sandhagen, are fighting on Saturday’s card. No. 3 Petr Yan is going to fight Aldo for the vacant title later.

“I’ve never really cared about the rankings,” said O’Malley, who is unranked at bantamweight and facing his biggest challenge in Wineland, a former WEC champion. “You’ve got Jose Aldo coming off a loss and he’s ranked No. 6 and has never won in the division [and is] fighting for the belt. You’ve got Dominick Cruz. I don’t think about that. I don’t know who’s No. 1. I don’t know who’s No. 2. I don’t know any of their rankings.

“They’re all [expletive] high-level guys. They all could be champions, but I feel like I could be, too. I don’t feel like, ‘Oh, I’m not as good as this guy.’ I feel like I’m just as good as any of those guys.”

And so, even though he’s at the beginning of his career, he’s focused solely on getting to the top. The one thing he knows about the rankings is that there is no champion on top of the division since Henry Cejudo retired following his stoppage of Cruz last month at UFC 249.

Cejudo’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, said the retirement is no ploy and that he is done fighting, so that leaves a gaping hole at the top.

O’Malley is undefeated and, even though he’s yet to fight a ranked opponent, is brimming with confidence. It’s one of the things that sets him apart. In a sport like fighting, believing in yourself is well more than half the battle.

Have no doubt, O’Malley believes.

“Technically, there’s not a champion in the division right now so there’s no reason I can’t call myself the champ,” O’Malley said. “I feel every single fight I go into, I’m the champ. I’m the main event. I’m who people want to watch. That’s no different this fight except that there really is no champ.

“I know Petr and Jose is getting scheduled but neither of them is the champ now, so I’m going to keep that same mindset, ‘I’m the champ,’ and we’ll see what happens after the fight.”

Sean O'Malley poses on the scale during the UFC 248 weigh-in at T-Mobile Arena on March 6, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Brian Kelleher is a veteran who scored a brutal knockout of Hunter Azure at UFC 249. He immediately took to the mic and called O’Malley out, though O’Malley just rolled his eyes.

Kelleher is fighting No. 12 Cody Stamann on Saturday, though their fight is at featherweight because Kelleher took it on short notice. 

O’Malley, 25, was dismissive of Kelleher’s callout because he doesn’t see what it does for his career. While it can be debated whether he’s correct to be so dismissive of a veteran like Kelleher, there is no arguing that his mentality of always looking onward and upward is the correct one.

Kelleher is 33, almost nine full years older than O’Malley and he’s seen a lot of hyped prospects come and go. He wasn’t put off by O’Malley’s reaction to his callout and praised him as a skilled fighter.

But he pointed out that O’Malley hasn’t yet faced elite opposition.

“I don’t see a number next to his name but hype is a real thing and he’s got the hype train going hard for him now,” Kelleher said. “The thing is, when you get hyped so much, sometimes you get exposed. O’Malley has skills, and he’s definitely a skillful fighter. But he hasn’t beaten anyone that would prove he’s the best. It’s easy to talk and to have all of this confidence, but let’s see if it is the same when you’re going up against all the beasts in this division, of which there are many. He has the star power and potential, but this is a performance business.”

That it is, and O’Malley has done nothing but win. He is 11-0 with eight finishes and is one of the most creative strikers in the sport.

A victory over Wineland will probably lead to him being ranked, and then the fun will begin.

O’Malley knows he has a lot of growth to do, and said he’s proud of how he’s been able to develop his ground game. He respects Wineland and believes he’ll learn from the fight, but he’s beloved so much because of his attitude.

“Every fight is a learning experience and you can learn something,” he said, before delivering the punch line. “But it’s going to be more a learning experience for him.”

He’s brash, irreverent, filled with confidence and armed with crazy moves. If he’s right, get used to seeing him because this guy has the potential to blossom into one of the game’s best attractions.

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