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'Suga' Sean O'Malley's two-year exile ends as he renews his ascendancy to UFC stardom

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS — Where to start with Sean O’Malley? It’s been two years — two long, confusing, excruciatingly frustrating years — since he was last able to fight.

It’s been nearly three years since he earned a spot in the UFC with a mind-blowing performance in a victory over Alfred Khashakyan on July 18, 2017, in Season 2 of “Dana White’s Contender Series.”

The video of that fight has been viewed more than 4.4 million times, and the UFC president still can’t stop talking about O’Malley’s performance that day.

The last time we saw him, March 3, 2018, he was systematically taking apart Andre Soukhamthath at UFC 222. O’Malley had the crowd at T-Mobile Arena in the palm of his hand that night as he battered Soukhamthath. It got even more behind him just 1:25 into the third round when he landed a kick to the head and landed awkwardly on his foot.

Pain shot up his leg and he spent the last three-plus minutes of the bout hopping on one leg.

He’d suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot, a common injury in the NFL that elite stars like Le’Veon Bell and Dwight Freeney have suffered. The prognosis for a return to competition from a Lisfranc injury is good, but a medical paper that examined the injury in NFL and rugby players determined they often weren’t the same when they returned to action. 

That 2018 study done by orthopedic doctors at Northwestern University found that “although professional NFL athletes return to play at a high rate (83 percent) following Lisfranc injury, their league participation and performance is significantly decreased on return.”

That is one challenge that O’Malley faces on Saturday when he meets José Alberto Quiñónez in the main preliminary fight at UFC 248 at T-Mobile Arena. Footwork is critical to the success of a fighter, particularly one with the striking heavy style of O’Malley, and he suffered a foot injury that has been shown to impact performance by some of the greatest athletes in the world.

Bantamweight Sean O'Malley fights Jose Alberto Quinonez on Saturday at UFC 248 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images)

It is, however, only part of the challenge that O’Malley, 25, faces as he attempts to rebuild a career that had been so promising not so long ago.

Oh, there was the 2018 hip surgery he endured, but something that is a major issue for the majority of fighters was just another in the day of the life of O’Malley.

O’Malley had multiple positive tests, in September 2018 and June 2019, for the banned substance ostarine. The United States Anti-Doping Agency on Jan. 9 announced he’d been given a six-month suspension, though it noted that it was as a result of a contaminated supplement.

The problem that O’Malley faced is that he was never able to find the contaminated supplement like Nate Diaz did when he was found to have a banned substance in his body prior to UFC 244.

Ostarine is the most commonly found contaminant in supplements, said Jeff Novitzky, the UFC’s senior vice president of athlete health and performance.

Two days after the USADA sanction was announced, O’Malley was tested and showed up negative on Jan. 11. On Jan. 20, he was positive, with 13 picograms per milliliter (pg/ml), a tiny amount that provides no performance-enhancing benefit. He was positive again, at 12 pg/ml, on Jan. 27. He was then negative on both Feb. 8 and Feb. 22. 

Since 2018, O’Malley was tested 31 times. He had 20 positives and 11 negatives, with no explanation for either why he was positive one day and negative a couple of days later and then positive again.

“You’ll see from test to test a positive and then a negative, a positive and then a negative,” Novitzky said. “And when you’re talking about that volume [of tests given], if somebody really was doing this on purpose, even at small microdosing amounts, you would expect to see during one of those 31 unannounced tests the levels spike up into the nanogram amount. It’s never more than a couple of hundred picograms. 

“So I’m very confident based upon what I know of ostarine and the volume of testing that Sean has undergone, that this is a contaminant issue and not a purposeful use issue.”

Novitzky said that while O’Malley had many of his supplements tested, they were never able to identify the source of the contamination.

Fighters who have this problem tend to test positive as they are getting closer to a bout, so Novitzky takes it as a good sign that O’Malley had two negative results 

“Those last two negatives, we were all really, really pleased because that’s a really good sign,” Novitzky said. “Because what we commonly see with ostarine and the M3 metabolite is as the athlete gets closer to a fight, to a competition, their body weight starts dropping, they get into a little better shape, they restrict their calories so the body is reaching into its fat deposits and that’s typically when you see it resurface. The fact that Sean’s last two tests, on Feb. 8 and 22, were this close to a fight is really, really positive.

“We’re hoping it’s gone forever.”

O’Malley has had his share of ups and downs, but he was enthused and positive as he spoke on the two-year anniversary of his last fight.

He hasn’t been able to make a living for the last two years, but he’s maintained his focus and chooses not to look at the negatives. Though he lost prime years at a time when he’s as athletic as he’ll ever be, he points out that he has many years of big fights ahead of him.

And unlike so often in the past, when he fought both of his previous UFC fights with a torn labrum in his right hip, he has nothing bothering him as he prepares to fight Quiñónez.

“I’m healthier than I’ve ever been,” said O’Malley, who is 10-0. “I’m stronger than I’ve ever been and I’m better than I’ve ever been. So the two years have really been a blessing. … Everything that’s worked out, it’s like someone is guiding me. Something is happening that I’m supposed to be here now and it’s working out perfectly.”

White struggled to come up with a reason for his popularity, but this hasn’t been seen in the UFC since Conor McGregor made his rise seven years ago. He’s got a chance if he continues to perform to become one of the faces of the next generation of this sport.

If he makes it to the top, he’s going to look back at these two years, which could have been so detrimental, as a turning point. The little tattoo of a star on his left cheek may turn out to be indicative of what he becomes.

“Some people have it and some people don’t, whatever that is, and he’s got it,” White said. “It’s hard to put your finger on, but he’s one of those guys that when you see him, you want to see him again.”

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