Sean O'Malley

The head-scratching decision to have surging bantamweight prospect Sean O’Malley (14-1 career, 6-1 UFC) fight UFC newcomer Kris Moutinho (9-4) reveals how the UFC is taking on the Sugar Show experiment as carefully as possible.

This decision happened after various UFC bantamweights offered to fight the Montana native on short notice after the original opponent, Hawaiian Louis Smolka, pulled out of their UFC 264 main card bout due to staph infection. As baffling as it may sound, the choice to have one of its most prominent fighters fight a relatively unknown newcomer instead of someone already in the roster might very well shed light on the UFC’s insistence to protect the trending bantamweight slugger.

Since making Snoop Dogg wail out his name over and over again on national TV after his heart-stopping knockout win in Dana White’s Contender Series, O’Malley has run roughshod through unranked bantamweight opponents left and right from 2017 to 2021. He has the charismatic looks, the crowd-pleasing style, the brash persona, the social media presence, and of course the highlight-reel Octagon performances to be the next marketing cash cow for the UFC, akin to Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor of old.

I mean, the guy isn’t even ranked yet and he’s already trading Twitter fire with everyone in the top ten of his division, including the champion. He has more followers on Instagram than the current belt-holder Aljamain Sterling and number 1 contender Petr Yan combined. Even his setbacks caused by the pesky USADA violations and the “freak” injury causing his first pro loss to #13 ranked Marlon Vera didn’t stop Sugar’s hype train from barreling its way to MMA relevancy.

No doubt about it, O’Malley has a proverbial rocketship strapped to his back and the UFC is still keen on sending him to the moon– they just need to pad his record first to get him there. It’s a tale as old as time. Even the greatest champions in MMA and boxing history have had padded victories here and there. Since the attempt at pushing him to the top 15 failed with the Marlon Vera TKO, the UFC has been treading lightly as they chose relatively safe opponents for O’Malley, namely Thomas Almeida (on a three-fight losing streak) and the aforementioned Louis Smolka (traded wins and losses in his second run in the UFC). Both are known to be plodding strikers with sub-par grappling, playing well with Sugar’s calculated yet unpredictable stand-up assault.

As for Kris Moutinho, little is known about him other than what his manager Tyson Chartier told ESPN last Wednesday: he is “an aggressive striker with a solid wrestling base” who has a “very fan-friendly style.” Yep, that’s straight out of Sugar Sean’s can-crushing playbook. Taking on one of the bantamweights that initially offered to step in, the likes of Ricky Simon, Brian Kelleher, and even number 10-ranked Merab Dvalishvili might be too risky. Simon is on a three-fight win streak, Kelleher has the KO-power to end anyone’s night, while Dvalishvili has the bullying style that can nullify Sugar’s striking rhythm.

Nothing is absolute in this sport, however, and anything can happen. The UFC can sway O’Malley’s career trajectory to their liking but at the end of the day, it’s what happens in the cage that matters. If Moutinho really is another can to be crushed, then Sugar Sean has to crush him in dominant fashion. If Moutinho even puts on a relatively competitive bout (get close and explore the clinch and perhaps take the fight to the ground as well), it will cause a dent on the hype vehicle that is The Sugar Show. Whether that happens or not, we’ll just have to tune in to UFC 264 to find out.

Watch Sean O’Malley vs. Kris Moutinho and the complete UFC 264 fight card featuring Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier 3 only on ESPN+ this Saturday, July 10. Order PPV here.

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