Sean O'Malley photo

Helena native Sean "Sugar" O'Malley celebrates his ninth MMA victory, and debut UFC win, in Las Vegas. 

HELENA — If you ask UFC bantamweight fighter Sean O’Malley how he spends his day, he won’t sugarcoat it.

“I have been a pro for five years and I learn something new every day,” O’Malley said. “It starts with training twice a day where I study jujitsu, boxing and wrestling. For me, it’s basically going to school.”

It makes sense, because a fighter’s focus can determine his or her future. One wrong move can derail momentum or possibly end their career.

But even with a mind focused on an upcoming fight, O’Malley never forgets his roots.

He returns home on Saturday to stand in Helena’s Dylin Drivdahl’s corner during his bout at Fightforce’s Helena Havoc Mixed Martial Arts event at the Lewis & Clark County Fairgrounds.

It’s a chance to support a friend he has known for seven years.

“He has a good mindset as far as training goes,” O’Malley said. “I’ve never had to get on him. I just told him to worry about yourself and everything will happen when it happens.”

The two fighters crossed paths in Helena while on the same local amateur team with Johnny Aho at Team Proven Grounds.

They never met in the cage, but O’Malley, being a few years older than Drivdahl, became a mentor of sorts.

“He’s been like an older brother really,” Drivdahl said. “He invited me to live with him down in Arizona and he’s been a huge part of my career.”

O’Malley didn’t grow up with the intention of being a UFC fighter. He just grew up loving sports.

It didn’t matter if it was basketball, baseball, football or soccer; he craved the competition.

“I’ve always wanted to compete,” O’Malley said. “I wasn’t good enough to sign with the NBA or NFL or anything, so fighting was the avenue to stay competitive, perform in front of people and make money.”

When he realized traditional schooling wasn’t for him, he found his way into a kickboxing studio and discovered what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Kickboxing turned into mixed martial arts two years later when he compiled a 7-2 amateur record and soon caught the eye of professional fighter Tim Welch, who invited him down to Arizona to train.

But what would his parents think?

“He saved up $2,100, jumped into his Nissan Altima, took off and we cried like hell,” O’Malley’s father, Dan, said. “He had never been out of Montana.”

While training in Glendale, just northwest of Phoenix, O’Malley’s success continued.

But it wasn’t easy.

“I started getting my ass kicked pretty early on,” O’Malley said. “I knew I had to train even harder, and even today, there are times I still get my ass kicked down here in Arizona. If I didn’t get my ass kicked, I wouldn’t be at the right gym.”

By the time May 2017 rolled around, he knocked out David Nuzzo with a spinning hook kick that earned him a spot in Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series on UFC.tv. After that, he knew his career would never be the same.

It took O’Malley just 10 months to get billed on his first pay-per-view fight during UFC 222 in Las Vegas, where he defeated Andre Soukhamthath in an unanimous decision.

“With UFC, if you are winning fights your career is going up,” O’Malley said.

His father cheered him on from the stands, but his mother sometimes can’t bear to watch.

“When your son steps into a UFC octagon, it’s a whole other level of intensity,” Dan O’Malley said. “The stress level is absolutely outrageous.”

O’Malley suffered a minor setback after undergoing surgeries on his hip and foot, and served a six-month anti-doping suspension by the Nevada State Athletic Commission for having ostarine, in his system.

He hasn’t competed since UFC 222, but he looks to get back into the octagon on July 6 when he faces Marlon Vera at UFC 239.

Coming home to Helena just reminds him of when he stepped into the cage for the very first time.

“You have to start somewhere right?” he said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

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