MISSOULA — The biggest fight of Sean O'Malley's career appears to be inching toward reality.
The Helena native and mixed martial artist has been tabbed by Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White as the next in line for a shot at the UFC's bantamweight title. Bantamweight is the 135-pound title in the UFC.
At UFC 288 this past weekend in Newark, New Jersey, the current bantamweight champion in Aljamain Sterling put his title on the line against former UFC flyweight and bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo. Sterling won the five-round fight by split decision to retain the title.
Sterling was interviewed in the cage after the fight where he called out O'Malley as the next competitor he wanted to defend his title against. O'Malley — who was in attendance for the fight — was then brought into the cage and the two began jawing with each other in a defacto promo for the next fight.
"You better hope you look better than that," O'Malley said when he entered.
"You had a whole year to work on your jiu-jitsu," Sterling responded. "Now daddy Dana ain't going to babysit that (expletive) no more."
The two were ultimately separated as Sterling's interview continued. Afterwards at the post-fight press conference, O'Malley said he thought Cejudo won the fight and that he wanted to fight him more than Sterling.
"That was the first time I was really face-to-face with (Sterling)," O'Malley said. "I've had confrontations with him with our clothes on. But seeing him, he's jacked. That dude's jacked. But he's not big. He fights with his chin up a little bit. I was letting him know to tuck that chin in a little bit or I'm going to find it.
"The way I beat (Sterling) is focused, 25 minutes, disciplined, straight punches. I don't want to give away too much but (Sterling) is beatable. He's very beatable. I thought he lost tonight. Very excited for this."
In his post-fight presser, White said they were targeting for O'Malley to fight Sterling on Aug. 19 at UFC 292 in Boston, Massachusetts at the TD Garden.
"He's next," White confirmed about O'Malley.
Even Cejudo weighed in after the fight on who he thought the winner of those two would be, and how it would play out.
"If (Sterling) can't take (O'Malley) down he's in trouble, because Sean does have good striking," Cejudo said. "Sean does go to the body very well. He does have those kicks up the middle. But being in there with Aljamain too, I think he's a gamer. So it all depends.
"I think, obviously having a close fight with (Sterling) I got to go with him. I think O'Malley hasn't fought now the competition that (Sterling) has fought, and now I can shake his hand."
If and when O'Malley, 28, and Sterling, 33, meet, it'll be an interesting clash of contrasting styles. O'Malley (16-1, 1 no contest, 8-1, 1 NC UFC) is primarily a striker and holds 11 knockout wins in his professional MMA career. Meanwhile Sterling, a native of Uniondale, New York, is a decorated wrestler and grappler, and holds a 23-3 professional record in MMA and 15-3 mark in the UFC. In his professional MMA career, Sterling has eight wins by submission and 11 victories by decision.
After winning the UFC's bantamweight title in March of 2021 by disqualification, Sterling has defended the belt three times ever since.
O'Malley — nicknamed Suga — has blossomed into one of the most popular and highest-profile athletes to come from the Treasure State, and has seen his career bud into superstardom in the UFC. O'Malley has won four of his last five fights, with a no contest against Pedro Munhoz in there from last July. O'Malley's win over top bantamweight Petr Yan back in October cemented him as the top contender in the division coming into 2023.
"The Suga era is about to start. It starts with (Sterling)," O'Malley said. "Very excited. I'm not running low on motivation."