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” with updates throughout fight week.
O’Malley is a superstar in and out of the octagon, and 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 1 of a four part series leading up to fight week.
HELENA — “Suga” Sean O’Malley is already a superstar, on the brink of megastardom. He’s famous worldwide just as much for his success in the UFC octagon, as his marketable persona and social media presence. His fights are exciting and he’s a bankable figure for the UFC.
He has millions of fans, but the majority of casual fight observers might not know his story. Or where he came from. But make no mistake, Montana and the people he grew up around are a large part of what makes the “Suga Show” a phenomenon.
“Sean loves Montana. People say that he never mentions Montana. But his daughter is named Elena,” said Dan O’Malley, Sean’s dad. “Throw an ‘H’ on that and it’s Helena. And that’s on purpose. And her middle name is Louise, which is my mom’s name. So he’s got a big heart and he does have a lot of love for Montana.”
How could he not?
Dan O'Malley gave MTN Sports a tour of the old house that Sean and his three siblings grew up in. It’s just north of Helena and features a spectacular view overlooking Lake Helena. There’s a deck, a fire pit, a trampoline, a volleyball pit. And it’s just a five minute drive from Black Sandy State Park, where the O’Malley family spent every free weekend camping, fishing and boating.
It was a paradise for active kids and teenagers.
“It was insane, the kids were always out here always running around and doing crazy stuff,” Dan said. “They played baseball out here. I’d look out the window and they would be doing double back flips on the trampoline. My youngest son Daniel broke a tooth on Sean’s head. Just every memory we have, every birthday, holiday party and gathering was out here.”
It might come as no surprise that life in the O’Malley household was competitive. All four siblings — Mykel, Sean, Daniel and Mashayla — were four years apart and all thrived in sports.
“I was lucky enough to have four kids that are just incredible athletes,” Dan explained. “Mykel was a great football player at Capital High, and then went on to play soccer. Sean was a three-sport athlete with baseball, football, basketball. Daniel was the same — baseball, basketball, football. Mashayla came along and it was basketball, volleyball.
“I'm sitting here thinking how fortunate I am to have four healthy kids, four super athletic kids, and four super neat kids.”
Sean excelled at every sport he tried, but he sometimes bristled at the structure of sports.
“Sean wasn’t a huge fan of coaches or organized teams,” Dan said. “Sean knew early on that he had to showcase his talents.”
Freak athlete, fierce competitor
Sonny Silverthorne was a longtime friend of the O’Malley family and coached youth football when Sean was in grade school.
“If you coach any sport, there's always one kid or one guy that stands out that you don't have to put as much effort into it because they have that natural, just God-given talent,” Silverthorne said. “I think if Sean wanted to be a ski jumper in the US Olympics, he would be there because it doesn't matter what you put on him in him, he's going to do it because that's how he is.”
Sean was much smaller than many of his peers and that gave him a certain chip on his shoulder that pushed him to try and dominate his competition.
“He wasn’t 65 pounds soaking wet but he played everywhere,” Silverthorne recalled. “He played punt returner, kick returner, safety, wide receiver. If he could have played on the line he would have but he would have been eaten up. And I think he would have just kept going.”
But Sean had an independent streak. Dan remembers a legion baseball game where Sean butted heads with his coach. In an act of protest he stepped up to the plate and switched sides in the batters box while his coach yelled at him in disbelief.
“He just looked at his coach, batted left-handed and smoked one out of the park,” Dan said. “And Sean just had this smart aleck look as he rounded the bases.”
Had Sean been more coachable, perhaps his athletic career could have gone differently. As a sophomore in high school, Sean was cut from the Helena Capital basketball team. Not for lack of height or skill, but attitude. That left Sean directionless.
He played a season of football at Hamilton where he had extended family. In his first junior varsity game against Anaconda, Sean scored seven touchdowns. But it became clear he wasn’t built for team sports.
“I think he knew he had something and wanted to showcase it,” Dan said “He was a little guy and he traveled with all of his friends for sports, but I think he always felt a little inferior to them because of his size. But he knew he was special. So I’m just going to go do this on my own.”
Trouble at school, blessing in disguise
Sean struggled at Capital High School. He spent a lot of time serving In-School Suspension and taking Credit Recovery classes which were both supervised by Nita Creach.
“Sean wasn’t a bad kid. He just liked to play pranks and do his thing. He got into mischief and that’s all it was,” Creach said. “Sean was very energetic and hyper. He had a great personality but he was over the top and hated sitting quietly in class. And it was hard for him.”
But outside of the structure of the typical classroom, Sean enjoyed his time in Creach’s room.
“Sean and I had a great relationship while I was there,” she said. “He spent a lot of time in my class and I think he trusted me because I didn’t give him a hard time. And he listened to me and talked to me and told me things. So many stories.”
Sean was still in high school when he started dabbling in mixed martial arts. When he found early success in Montana, an opportunity to live and train at the MMA Lab in Arizona presented itself. He told Creach what was on his heart and asked for her advice.
“He was a young kid and didn’t want to lose his friends and family which is understandable at that age. It’s hard to uproot and move away from the people that you’re connected to,” Creach said. “So I kept telling him that if he got there and he didn’t like it he could always come back. But if he didn’t go and check it out then someday down the road he might regret it.”
A few days later Sean returned to Creach’s classroom and told her he was making the move to Arizona to pursue a career in MMA.
“He had the biggest smile on his face and he was just the happiest I’d seen him in a long time,” Creach said. “He sold his car with the pink wheels, that was his favorite color, and never turned back. Even though fighting is not my thing, I’m proud of him.”
Outside of the octagon Sean’s charisma and star power carries podcasts, YouTube channels, sponsorships, clothing lines, social media and gains him fans from all corners of the globe.
He has a signature style and flair accentuated by a collection of colorful and vibrant tattoos, which started in Montana.
“I’m not a fan of tattoos but Sean is very smart,” Dan said. “The first one he got was of boxing gloves with my mother's initials while she was battling cancer. There’s no way I was going to be mad at that.”
Many more would follow. Sean became friends with Kyle Nelson, the owner Dermawerx Custom Tattoo in Helena. Dermawerx became one of Sean’s first fight sponsors.
“There's some people that you just hit it off with, you know what I mean?” Nelson said. “And me and him I feel clicked pretty good on that level, you know?”
Nelson designed and tattooed the sleeve of art on Sean’s left arm.
“Sean was so easy. When I tattoo, I have people tell me their stories and then I create something out of that,” Nelson said. “But there’s not a lot that Sean really, deeply cared about. So he just said, ‘Do something sweet,’ and I said, ‘I got you bro.’ So we gave him a sugar molecule on his shoulder for his nickname, and that was an original idea from me.”
The rest of the arm is covered in a biomechanical pattern which Nelson drew on Sean’s arm free-hand with a sharpie and then tattooed. The entire process took place over about 10 sessions of six to eight hours at a time.
“I make walking art,” Nelson said “To have my tattoo out there just makes me proud that I was blessed to put that on him and meet him for who he is, not who everyone thinks he is. He’s still Sean. It’s his personality, it’s his talent. How could you not be proud of him?”
For more information on UFC 292 and how to watch, click here.