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Early amateur losses in Montana helped drive Sean O’Malley to UFC stardom

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Posted at 8:28 PM, Mar 05, 2024

GREAT FALLS — Helena native Sean O’Malley (17-1-0) will defend his bantamweight title against No. 5-ranked Marlon “Chito” Vera (23-8-1) at UFC 299 in Miami on Saturday. For O’Malley it’s a chance to avenge his only loss as a professional. Vera recorded a controversial TKO over O’Malley at UFC 252 in 2020 after the Helena native injured his leg late in the first round.

But the loss to Vera wasn’t the first defeat of his career.

Before he was the “Suga Show”, O’Malley was an up-and-coming amateur in Montana who took his lumps and learned lessons against the best the Treasure State had to offer, including two losses.

There is no sanctioning body for combat sports in Montana, so fighters could take as many fights as they pleased. That enabled O’Malley to fight six times in 2013, including a stretch of three fights in less than four months.

Staying busy and grinding through live fights made O’Malley a better martial artist.

“It was a little sketchy in a sense, but we could fight all the time,” O’Malley told MTN Sports back in August. “You don’t see it from promotions anymore, but I gained a ton of experience and a ton of confidence. I had 14 amateur fights and when I moved to the MMA Lab, people were trying to get their second amateur fight.”

MTN Sports spoke with three of O’Malley’s former amateur opponents including the two men who handed him his only amateur losses.

The College Wrestler

Luis Carranza is currently the successful head coach of the Great Falls High School wrestling team and a tireless advocate for the sport. But before he started his career as a coach and educator, Carranza was an accomplished wrestler at the University of Great Falls (now Providence).

He qualified twice for the NAIA national tournament before graduating in 2012. But competition is in his blood, so he gave mixed martial arts a shot and amassed an amateur record of 4-0.

“To me wrestling was super serious and you had to be dedicated,” Carranza said. “But fighting was just so much fun. I had a great experience.”

In August of 2013, he was matched against an 18-year-old O’Malley, also an undefeated 135-pound amateur. The fight took place at Intense Championship Fighting 10 at Centene Stadium in Great Falls.

Carranza used his wrestling to score a takedown in the first round and controlled the action for most of the period. But O’Malley caught him with an arm bar right before the bell, forcing Carranza to tap.

“It was fast. It was quick. Like two alley cats in a bag, really, is what it was,” Carranza said. “It was a good fight. And yeah, I was beating him. And right at the end he caught me in an arm bar. I knew he was an up and comer. He was a tough, tough kid at the time. He got the best of me.”

The fight was pivotal for O’Malley’s career. Great Falls MMA veteran Tim Welch was serving as a color commentator for the pay-per-view broadcast and was impressed by O'Malley. Welch offered O’Malley a chance to train at the MMA Lab in Arizona afterward, and has served as his coach and trainer ever since.

“(Carranza) took me down and beat me up but then I arm barred him,” O’Malley told MTN Sports in August. “I literally only knew one arm bar off my back. Just a basic arm bar. Afterwards, Tim approached me at the after party and asked me to come train at the Lab.”

Carranza doesn’t talk much about his MMA career these days, but occasionally some of his students or wrestlers will find out about the fight and offer some good-natured ribbing. A few students even created a Change.org petition calling for a rematch.

“I don't like to bring it up. I mean, I just kind of keep that in the past. But once my kids figured out that I fought Sean, there was a number of them that started that petition and they asked me, ‘hey, can we get a rematch going?’,” Carranza laughed. “And I jokingly said, ‘Yeah, that's not going to happen in a million years.’ But I just went with it just to have fun with them. And I think a couple them actually reached out to Sean, which is kind of funny.”

Carranza has coached several wrestlers who are in the early stages of successful MMA careers like Tommy McMillen and Dre Coles. He sees O’Malley’s example influencing young fighters and athletes in a positive way.

“Just watching his career go big and him representing Montana at that high level, it's awesome. It's really good for the fight scene here in Montana,” Carranza said. “His career started here in Great Falls and now he’s the best in the world. It's been really cool and really fun to watch him get to that level.”

Man of Steel

Shea “Man of Steel” O’Neill is a mixed martial arts pioneer in Montana.

He currently owns and operates Copper City Combat Club in Butte, one of the premier training gyms in the state.

“I couldn't ask for a better community for fighting than Butte,” O’Neill said. “It’s in their blood ... and the gym has blown up organically. I haven't done much (marketing).”

In addition to coaching and training other fighters, O’Neill is an accomplished martial artist himself. He’s undefeated in 13 MMA fights as a pro and amateur and also competes in boxing and kickboxing. Knee injuries and work on the family ranch near Deer Lodge have kept him from competing in recent years, but at just 30 years old he plans to return to fighting in the future.

His combat sports connections extend to his personal life as well. O’Neill is married to Butte native Ariel Beck, who was the first Montana woman to compete in the UFC.

Back in October of 2013, O’Neill fought O’Malley at a Fightforce event in Helena.

“I was only like six months into training and my coach told me this kid is a stud,” O’Neill said. “He’s knocked out some people, I think Sean was 4-0 or maybe 5-0 at the time and it was going to be a tough fight.”

O’Neill was the superior wrestler and took O’Malley down early in the first round.

“Once I got a hold of him the first time, I just knew immediately that I was going to be able to control him. I could tell like he wasn't adjusting correctly,” O’Neill said. “We did some scrambling and then I got the arm bar and and submitted him, but he was super respectful afterwards.”

It was O’Malley’s first career loss. But O’Neill knew he had a bright future.

“And I went talk to him in the locker room and just said, 'yeah, man, keep your head up, like, we're the two best in the state,'” O’Neill said. “You know, just keep doing what you're doing. You work your way back up.”

As an MMA coach, O’Neill has watched O’Malley's career take off with interest.

“In addition to Sean, you've got a couple of guys from Montana that are kind of starting to make a little bit of a splash in the regional scene,” O’Neill said. “And I think they're doing more for MMA in Montana than MMA in Montana is doing. And it helps build interest. And it’s awesome seeing Sean do what he's doing. I’m proud of him. He's doing everything right in and out of the cage.”

The Marauder

Less than two months after his loss to O’Neill, O’Malley suffered another setback at a Fusion Fight League event in Sidney, Montana.

This time he was up against another former Argo wrestler in Havre native Myles “The Marauder” Mazurkiewicz, a high school state champion and an NAIA All-American. The fight was contested at 145 pounds, though O’Malley is a natural 135 pounder.

Today Mazurkiewicz is a communications specialist for Energy West in Great Falls with a wife and two young kids, but he still vividly remembers his fight with the current UFC champion in November 2013.

“I remember seeing a big right hand that happened to miss and really just being aggressive in the fight moving forward, taking him down,” Mazurkiewicz recalled. “A couple leg kicks were thrown in the exchange from there. I had a little couple pounds on him so I started some ground and pound. He bellied out and I finished with the rear naked choke.”

That was O’Malley’s final amateur loss before he started training full time at the MMA Lab in Arizona and blasted off to UFC stardom. He didn’t lose again for seven years.

Mazurkiewicz has seen him make strides and fill any holes in his repertoire since their fight over a decade ago.

“He’s active, he’s an engaging fighter. He moves a lot and he's got some dangerous hands. I think everybody has discovered that power he has in his hands,” Mazurkiewicz said. “So I’m very glad I didn't get hit by that right hand. I really think that he found the right people to go and learn from and credit to him for developing his own wrestling skills because they're definitely there now.”

The fight between O’Malley and Mazurkiewicz has over 30,000 views on YouTube, and people still bring it up whenever Suga Sean fights.

“I get it a lot. I try and focus on my own career, but I do get it a lot. People joke that I have a win over a UFC champ,” Mazurkiewicz said. “It was about a decade ago now. And it was a lot of fun then too. It's great to watch Sean succeed and get the recognition I always thought that he deserved.”