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The rising 'Suga' Sean O'Malley faces toughest opponent yet in Marlon Vera at UFC 252

In this handout image provided by UFC, (R-L)

In this handout image provided by UFC, (R-L) Sean O'Malley punches Eddie Wineland in their bantamweight bout during the UFC 250 event at UFC APEX on June 6, 2020 in Las Vegas. Credit: Zuffa LLC via Getty Images/Handout

As Sean O’Malley develops his own reputation as a unique, free-flowing striker with finishing power and personality, the 25-year-old has some inspiration ahead of him in the UFC — Conor McGregor and Israel Adesanya.

“Obviously Conor’s career went well, Israel Adesanya’s career went well, and I feel like I’m on a similar path to that,” O’Malley said.

The Arizona-based O’Malley (12-0, 4-0 UFC) doesn’t command the audience of middleweight champion Adesanya just yet, and his general notoriety is far from McGregor levels, but with a kindred exciting fight style, “Suga” is building the foundation to what could be a similar platform. The next step will be against Marlon “Chito” Vera (15-6-1, 9-5) at UFC 252 on Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas.

Now the No. 14 bantamweight in the UFC, O’Malley is thriving after a two-year absence from the sport, winning two fights by knockout already in 2020 while continuing to carve out a fandom.

“We’re pretty similar in fighting styles,” O’Malley said of McGregor. "We knock people out in the first round and we aren’t afraid to say how we feel the fight’s going to play out. We have similar styles, we’re explosive strikers. I knock people out in the first round and he knocks people out in the first round, so there’s similarity there.”

O’Malley seemed on the cusp of stardom since a viral apperance on the Dana White Contender Series in July 2017, sending both White and guest commentator Snoop Dogg into a frenzy with a one-punch, first-round knockout. He won a pair of decisions upon entering the UFC, including a “Fight of the Night” against Andre Soukhamthath, only to miss the next two years because of anti-doping violations and hip surgery. When he returned at UFC 248 last March, he did so with a bang, using punches and a head kick to beat José Alberto Quiñónez by TKO. In his first pandemic-era fight in June, he delivered a walkoff KO against veteran Eddie Wineland, needing just one clean right hand to do so.

Facing Vera, O’Malley expects a step up in competition against a proven fighter but remains confident he’ll be up to the challenge.

“Marlon is an extremely tough opponent, he’s won his last six fights with five finishes, he’s never been finished, a ton of UFC experience. He’s been the distance a lot, he’s won decisions, he’s lost decisions, so he’s extremely experienced,” O’Malley said. “But he’s never fought someone like me. Any time I fight someone, they’re never going to have fought someone like me. I think I’m going to be too much for him. I really do believe there are certain levels to this game, obviously there is, and I feel like I’m on a different level than him and I’m going to go out there Saturday night and prove that.”

Vera doesn't seem quite sold on the hype, but sees enough skill to know he can't be unprepared.

“I’m going to be honest, I know the guy’s good. I know he has his stuff, he has his style of fighting," Vera said. "I cannot underestimate anybody at this point at this level because anybody can get shut down, so at the end of the day it’s as hard a fight as any other and I’m prepared for that. Saturday night I’m going to come as hard and strong as always.”

Saturday's contest is the biggest platform of O'Malley's career as the the co-main event ahead of a trilogy fight between heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic and former two-weight champion Daniel Cormier. Like his inspirations in the UFC, O’Malley has stepped up his showmanship as his profile rises. In June, that took the form of a clown-like dye-job to his messy head of hair, braided for fight night and as much a part of the discussion as his actual performance. This week, his locks have taken on the colors of the flag of Ecuador, the home nation of his opponent.

“The inspiration I got to color my hair I have to say was from ‘Chito,’ he gave me the inspiration,” O’Malley said. “I’m just showing my Ecuadorian fans some love. I think every fight we’ll do something different and have a nice little theme. It’s something I look forward to and it’s fun.”

Perhaps sooner than later, O’Malley’s theme will be gold.

New York Sports