BOSTON — On Saturday at the TD Garden, Helena native Sean O’Malley will step into the UFC octagon to fight current champ Aljamain Sterling for a bantamweight world title at UFC 292.
But he didn’t get to this level alone.
In Sean’s corner will be his longtime coach Tim Welch of Great Falls. With a level head and extensive knowledge of the mixed martial arts inside and outside of competition, Welch is a constant in the rise of the Suga show to the top of the UFC ranks.
The first time he saw Sean O'Malley fight, Welch was already an established fighter competing for UFC’s rival promotion Bellator. Sean was a 16-year old amateur at the start of his career.
"I saw him kickboxing, and I thought he was a pretty athletic kid and it looks like he's pretty comfortable in there’,” Welch recalled. “I’m like, we'll see if he sticks with it.”
Sean did stick with it. Two years later Sean was still an amateur, but fighting in the main event at Intense Championship Fighting 10 at Centene Stadium in Great Falls. Tim Welch was friends with the promoter, Cory Smith, and was at the event providing commentary for the ICF 10 broadcast.
O’Malley was fighting Luis Carranza, at that point a college wrestler at the University of Great Falls. During the first round, Carranza took O’Malley to the ground. But then Sean pulled off the most important comeback of his MMA career.
“The dude took me down and beat me up but then I arm barred him,” O’Malley recalled. “I literally only knew one arm bar off my back. Just a basic arm bar and I felt his elbow pop.”
O’Malley won the fight by submission. Later at the after part at the Sting Sports Bar, Welch was impressed by the effort and approached O’Malley and offered him a chance to train at the prestigious MMA Lab in Phoenix where Welch was making a name for himself.
“I saw (Sean) was super passionate about the sport. He was super active in Montana, so I invited him down just to give him the opportunity to train with a bunch of professionals,” Welch said. “And he took the opportunity and came down to train. He got beat up really bad the first week and I didn't think I'd see him again. And he went back home, saved up $2,000, packed his car and moved down.”
Tim and Sean got an apartment together. They trained together. And quickly became best friends, despite some initial differences.
Sean quickly rose through the ranks, signing his first professional contract with Smith and 221 Industries. He then moved on to regional promotions in the Phoenix area before breaking into the UFC with a standout performance on Dana White’s Contender Series and flying to the top of the bantamweight rankings.
And Welch has been there from Day 1, developing routines and keeping his fighter and friend focused. It was something that UFC Joe veteran Joe Riggs got to witness first hand while training alongside them at the MMA Lab.
“It's something that I've never seen done. I've never heard of it being done because you can't have a friendship with your coach,” Riggs said. “You just can't. Because when it comes time to get mean, a lot of times you hate your coach when they push you to do something you don’t want to do. But Tim has a great mind for the sports and has pushed Sean to the top.”
Somehow the dynamic partnership has worked for a decade. Both fighter and coach bring out the best in each other.
“We've known each other for ten years. We've grown up together and I've been training him a long time. So I know what he's thinking in certain different scenarios,” Welch said. “I can be brutally honest to him. And a lot of coaches can't be honest to their guys. And he's not afraid to open up with me. So I think the the friend and the coach mix, it works out perfect specifically for him.”
Outside of the octagon, Tim and Sean co-host a podcast, train other fighters at Tim’s jiu jitsu gym in Arizona. They live the life they always dreamed about when they were young up and comers in the Treasure State.
“We would we wouldn't be where we're at if we weren't weren't from Montana. We've gotten so much support through businesses in Montana, and they sponsor us coming up when fighters are broke and usually have to work,” Welch said. “And we had a lot of sponsors coming up to help us be able to train full time. And great coaches in Montana. So a lot of our success comes from being from Montana to get where we're at.”