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'Look at him today': For former coaches and teammates, Sean O'Malley's rise in MMA is no surprise

Posted at 12:11 PM, Aug 13, 2023

Editor's note: Helena native Sean O’Malley is fighting for a bantamweight world championship at UFC 292 on Saturday in Boston. MTN Sports will be on hand for the “Suga Show” and is providing updates throughout fight week. 

O’Malley is a superstar in and out of the octagon, and at the moment is likely Montana’s most high-profile athlete. MTN Sports spent time in Helena visiting Sean’s family and the people who played a role in his upbringing and were there at the beginning of his mixed martial arts journey. This is Part 2 of a four-part series leading up to fight night. For Part 1, click here.

HELENA — Everyone knows "Suga" Sean O'Malley as the exhilarating, styling and profiling mixed martial artist whose striking is some of the best in the UFC. That ability and the success that has come with it has resulted in a UFC title shot for O'Malley next Saturday in Boston at UFC 292 against Aljamain Sterling.

But, it wasn't always that way.

In fact, those who know O'Malley well, will tell you the violence of combat sports used to be too much for the future fighter to stomach.

"Daniel and Mykel (Sean's brothers) and I would sneak downstairs, I had DVDs of old UFC fights, because his mom despised the fact that we'd watch violence," Sean's father, Dan O'Malley, told MTN Sports. "So Mykel, Daniel and I snuck downstairs, big screen TV, watching these fights.

"Sean runs downstairs, he's wild and crazy and probably in his underwear, just being nuts and he's like, 'What are you watching?' And I said UFC and he's like, 'How do you watch that, that stuff is disgusting.' Ran upstairs, dimed me out, wife came back down, made us turn it off, took my DVDs and I'm like Sean.

"And now he's No. 1 in the UFC."

O'Malley finds MMA

As he grew up, O'Malley's interests began to change.

Frustrated by high school, O'Malley needed direction.

Enter Johnny Aho and Steven Jimenez — also known as Steve Chai — two former fighters and current coaches, who took the young, energetic athlete under their wing at their gym, Team Proven Grounds.

"I was familiar with Dan, Dan and I knew each other. And he came to me one day at practice and pulled me outside and said he had a son who was he was worried about he might be going down the wrong road," Aho told MTN Sports.

Team Proven Grounds coach Johnny Aho (left) poses for a photo with Sean O'Malley after a win.

"He wanted to prevent that if possible. So he said I'd like to put him in your hands, see what you can do. And the next day he had brought Sean to practice and I pulled Sean outside, one on one, and asked him really what what his goals were why he wanted to train. He said, 'I just don't want to end up going down the wrong road and I need focus in my life. I need discipline. And I'd like to learn to fight.'"

And thus, the fighting seed was planted, and away, O'Malley went.

"In the very beginning he was kind of lazy and wanted to do everything his way, and he got beat up a lot, all the girls were tapping him out, choking him out," Aho said. "He got frustrated you know, always going home bloody, always blood all over his face. And it was shortly after that when he started to listen to us that he went leaps and bounds over everybody."

Eventually, O'Malley began to excel, and when the gym members would get together to watch UFC events, his coaches made sure to let O'Malley know his potential.

"You're better than half of the guys that are up there already fighting, you're gonna be there one day, you know, just just keep working hard, and we knew it," Jimenez said. "We knew he was going to be that special, superstar, you know, in the works. It was just a matter of time, you know, before he was already getting there, so we knew he was always gonna be there."

Fighters from Team Proven Grounds pose for a photo. (O'Malley back row, second from left).

O'Malley's work ethic was second to none according to his coaches, both in training, but in the little details as well.

"He was a first in the gym. No, get there cleaning up the mats, sanitizing, getting everything ready, all laid out," Jimenez said. "And then he was the last one to leave to help us get everything all put away nice and neat. I like to say he was probably one of the hardest working fighters I've ever had a chance to work with.

"Even if he had back problems. He had some lower back issues, you know, sit down, give him a little massage, boom, start training. I mean, he didn't come up with any excuses. He'd show up to train even if he was sick."

His smooth, unorthodox style soon took on a life of its own in his fights, and his coaches, rather than change it, let him run with it.

With the team, came traditions that suited — and began — O'Malley's style.

"I used to paint his nails before every fight, we'd be in the hotel room, and there's pictures of it," Aho recalled. "I'm on my hands and knees on the floor, and he's sitting back on the couch, and I'm painting his toenails hot pink."

He added with a grin, "Because that really is the last thing you want to see before you get kicked in the face."

And then there's the history behind the nickname.

"I watched him for a while. And yeah, he was just so sweet to watch," Aho said. "Sugar, just had to be sugar."

"Oh, he just smoked everybody. It was incredible. And I I would tell him every time, and he'll tell you this, as the truth. I would tell him you could knock out Georges St-Pierre, Sean, you can knock out anybody. And he believed me. And then he would just go in there and do it. Never questioned himself. I only had two fighters in my whole career where I wrapped their hands for their fights. They never shook and Sean was one of them. Just steady as a rock. Never shook."

"I realized as a coach, you can't take somebody's style and change it. So that was one of the things that made me different in the sense that Sean had his own style. And we did the techniques and stuff that I was showing him modify it for what he was doing. He was just stronger than most men that he fought," added Jimenez.

"That was the incredible thing about he was so quick. The way that he fights now, it's just a better version of what he was doing when he was an amateur and he has the same style. He hasn't really changed at all. Just his own style that people just can't duplicate. You know, it was just his power, his quickness, the things that most fighters didn't have coming up. He had it."

Sean O'Malley (left) and Christopher Smith pose with their championship belts.

Christopher Smith was a long-time training partner of O'Malley's in Helena and a decorated fighter in his own right. Smith and O'Malley trained together for years, and as the bigger fighter, Smith put in a few beatings on O'Malley.

But even then, he saw what the up-and-coming fighter was capable of.

"I remember one distinct time in training, you know, and he was talking about, 'I'm going to be as good as you,'" Smith told MTN Sports. "And this is when he was less experienced, you know, and I was pretty experienced. And I said, 'No, you're going to be better.' I knew that without a doubt that he was going to be much better and that he was going to be a champ, you know? And I mean, look at him now. You know, he's, he's doing it big, you know, he's doing exactly what he said he was going to do, and then some.

"I know that every one of us, even though we're not together from the team, we're all watching, you know, and we're all rooting for him. And the people that ain't rooting for him are just haters. Every one of us, we're screaming, we're yelling, we're in the background saying, 'Get some,' you know, because we know what he's capable of, you know, we're, we know what he's willing to do.

"I trained side-by-side with them for a long time, you know, we did a lot of the same things together, we trained with all the same people, and I know exactly what he's capable of. So, I mean, I don't think this is going to be, you know, that hard of a deal for him. I really think he's going to get out out there, and he's going to do what he's got to do to go home and pay the bills, you know, baby need shoes."

Taking the next step in Phoenix

Eventually, the day would come where O'Malley had to leave Montana to fully pursue fighting and find the high-level training he needed.

While understandable, it was tough for the team to see him go.

"That was one of the saddest days of my life was to say goodbye to him, let him go," Aho said. "You know, it's almost like a parent. I was more like his high school teacher. Now he's got to go see a professor in college. So that was that that was the next step in his evolution. And I knew it was going to have to happen. It was really sad. And he was the star of our team, plain and simple. He shined and everybody knew he was the man and everybody knew he was going to be the man.

"And he went on to be the man."

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Joe Riggs (left) poses with Sean O'Malley while the young fighter was living with him.

O'Malley found his way to the MMA Lab in Phoenix, Arizona, where he linked up with his current coach in Great Falls native Tim Welch. But he also met Joe Riggs, a UFC veteran who also currently resides in Great Falls and owns Deisel's Counter Punch Gym.

O'Malley lived with Riggs as he began to ramp up the training in MMA.

"He was very good with my kids which is huge to me. He was very respectful of my wife which is huge to me," Riggs told MTN Sports. "I remember when I first met him when he came down, he had a Nissan Altima, I think he still has it, and he had $5,000, that's it and he wasn't planning on getting a job or anything because he was still an amateur at this time, and then he said that this money will last me a year.

"I'm like what? But he is frugal man. When he was living with me he didn't have to pay for anything because that's just paying it forward, you know? Helping people make it. He probably did make it stretch a year, he really did, and yeah it's unbelievable.

"Sean just looks very unassuming. Especially back then, I think he just had the chest tattoo, and a little afro and then he was really skinny. He was gangly. I didn't see him move or do anything for the first two weeks then I saw him spar, and then I saw the kid had talent."

The growing pains were there, but O'Malley never quit.

"He went to Phoenix, he was going to be there for two weeks. He called me a week into it crying," Dan O'Malley said. "And he's like dad these guys are tougher than I thought. I don't know if I'm cut out for this. And I'm getting concussions and I'm getting beat up, they're true fighters down there at the Lab in Phoenix.

"I said, 'Come home Sean, you just went out and tried it. Who cares? You give it a try.' And he's like, 'No, I'm gonna stick it out.'"

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An early picture of Sean O'Malley (left) and his coach/trainer Tim Welch.

The rest, as they say, is history.

"I see him as a role model every day in my gym. You know, everybody talking, I want to be like, Sean, I want to be like Sean O'Malley, you know, I want to be that champion in Montana," Jimenez said. "You know, and we're starting to see some champions. We got a BKFC champion out of Great Falls (in Kai Stewart).

"I mean, it's phenomenal to see that people are putting in that kind of work. And it starts with Sean O'Malley because everybody wants to be a Sean O'Malley."

Seeing O'Malley grow up from a kid to the man he is today has been the most special part of this journey for his former coaches.

Them, like the rest of the Treasure State, now have their sights set on Aug. 19 when O'Malley steps into the cage searching for UFC gold.

"I told him when he was 16 years old, I said, 'Mark my word, and you're hearing it here first, you will be a household name. Sean O'Malley will be a household name,'" Aho said. "And he said, 'You really think so, coach?' I said, 'I do.' "And he spoke it out and he said, 'I will be the best in the world at 135. I'll be the world champion at 135.' Look at him today."