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When the Ultimate Fighting Championship put together its card for UFC 252 this Saturday, it put in a contingency plan as it often does for big pay-per-view events. Since Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier were scheduled to fight for the heavyweight title in the main event, the UFC booked a pair of top heavyweight contenders on the same card to be ready in case something happened to one of the main eventers late.
In one corner would be former heavyweight champion and No. 5 contender Junior dos Santos, one of the greatest heavyweights of all-time. In the other corner would be brutal knockout artist and No. 6 contender Jairzinho Rozenstruik. With both men in the top mix at heavyweight and needing a win after respective setbacks, dos Santos-Rozenstruik was far and away the bout with the highest stakes on UFC 252 apart from the main event. It seemed like a natural co-feature for the card, but when the advertising started to come out, it was evident another fight was a much higher priority for the UFC.
The chosen co-main event will instead feature unranked bantamweight Marlon Vera taking on The Sugar Show: No. 14 bantamweight contender Sean O’Malley. There’s nothing wrong with this; every individual sport is going to market young competitors it perceives to be potential superstars. However, it’s worth noting how rare this sort of move is for the UFC. It almost always picked established stars for pay-per-view main event and co-main event slots: current champions, former champions and top contenders.
Over the past five years, there have only been two UFC pay-per-view events featuring a co-main event without established top contenders or champions. Both were accidental, and oddly, both involved Lando Vannata. First, there was UFC 209, where Khabib Nurmagomedov had to pull out of his bout with Tony Ferguson the day before. This led to Vannata and David Teymur being bumped up. The second was UFC 234, where Robert Whittaker had to pull out of his fight with Kelvin Gastelum the day of, leading Vannata and Marcos Rosa Mariano to be moved up into the co-feature slot. A young fighter like O’Malley being chosen in advance for such a prominent slot so early in his career is unprecedented in recent UFC history.
That O’Malley is being fast tracked in such a bold way speaks to what high hopes the UFC has for the unique and charismatic young fighter. The instinct to run with him is understandable. His fight with Alfred Khashakyan was easily the most memorable in the history of Dana White’s Contender Series, and that show is UFC President Dana White’s baby. The UFC followed that by putting him in the co-feature of a television card, third from the top on the UFC 222 pay-per-view, headlining the ESPN portion of UFC 248 and kicking off the UFC 250 pay-per-view. In each instance, O’Malley won, and he did so impressively the last three times.
With his distinctive hairstyles and outspoken personality, O’Malley is a natural for promotion beyond just his fighting ability. Moreover, at 25, he has plenty of time to grow as a fighter. The UFC and Strikeforce saw with Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey that moving quickly on fighters with potential paid much greater dividends than if they took their time. Of course, this raises the big question with O’Malley: Will he be able to fight at a high enough level to be a genuine superstar?
This is the big reason why the UFC is reticent to move so quickly with fighters in the first place. The UFC is not a business built around protecting its assets. Instead, it prioritizes fan demand to see the best fights possible at all times. If a fighter can’t thrive at the top level, that fighter isn’t going to mean a lot over the long haul. Thus, the UFC attempts to make sure a fighter can truly go before putting its full promotional muscle behind him or her.
O’Malley to this point hasn’t been truly tested. The win over Eddie Wineland is the strongest win on his resume, and he did it emphatically, but the former World Extreme Cagefighting champion is on the downside of his career. Marlon Vera is a pretty ideal test for O’Malley at this stage. Vera is in the prime of his career at 27, and he has gone an impressive 8-3 in his last 11 UFC fights, with seven finishes. Beating Vera won’t prove O’Malley can handle Top 10 opposition yet, but it will be the highest quality win of his career and move him several steps closer to that next level.
On the flip side, if O’Malley loses, it seems likely that many fans will write him off as all hype, even if that isn’t a fair conclusion. That’s the danger in the UFC putting O’Malley in this spot. The spotlight will be bright, and fans will draw broader conclusions than they would under different circumstances. The UFC is running with O’Malley and his placement on this card could play an outsized role in the trajectory of his career, for better or for worse.