If Conor McGregor is the gold standard for success in and out of the octagon in mixed martial arts, then Sean O’Malley wants to be the pink or red or blue standard, depending which color his hair is that day.
McGregor, the former UFC featherweight and lightweight double champion who went 22-6-0, was the world’s highest-paid athlete at $180 million in 2021, according to Forbes.
Not only did the Irishman known as “Notorious,” who owns seven of the 10 biggest pay-per-views in UFC history, collect an estimated $22 million at UFC 257 in a loss to Dustin Poirier, but McGregor made an estimated $150 million from his stake in Proper No. Twelve when Proximo Spirits acquired a majority stake in the whiskey brand in a deal worth up to $600 million.
“He’s definitely someone who’s inspired me to want more and to be able to say, ‘This is possible,’” O’Malley says. “That’s what I’m after. He’s made the most money hands down in the UFC and he’s the most popular guy hands down in the UFC, so getting to that point and surpassing him is definitely the goal, respectfully. And someone’s going to do the same after I pass Conor. There’s going to be a young buck, an up-and-comer who wants to pass me.
“That’s definitely the plan—to become as big as Conor and then further. The UFC has grown a lot since Conor’s been the man, so that just gives me more eyeballs to sell more pay-per-views, sell more merch and just become bigger.”
Last year, the UFC recorded 21 consecutive event sellouts and record sponsorship sales volume while renewing 10 international media rights deals. The Endeavor-owned MMA organization boasts more than 220 million combined followers across social media after seeing TikTok followers grow 55% year over year.
For someone like O’Malley, whose personality is as colorful as his hair and canvas of face and body tattoos, the opportunity is for the taking.
Given the nickname “Sugar” by an MMA coach in his hometown of Helena, Montana because he is “so sweet to watch,” O’Malley has been hustling as long as he’s been training.
From selling “real shitty” branded T-shirts as a 17 year old to recording consecutive years of million-dollar sales from his Suga brand, O’Malley has leveraged his success in the octagon—the No. 1 bantamweight contender is 16-1-0—to just as much success outside of it. He has sponsorships with Sanabul, Monster and Timex, and has a Las Vegas residency with Zouk Group to host afterparties on properties including Zouk Nightclub, Aya Dayclub and Redtail.
“You definitely don’t know how many fights you have left,” O’Malley says. “You could have one fight that could be a career ender or you could have a career-ending injury in practice, so you don’t know how many more fights you have left.”
That uncertainty, despite recently signing a new eight-fight deal with the UFC, is what keeps O’Malley motivated to continue to provide for his wife Danya, their daughter Elena, and the rest of his family that depends on him.
Not only does O’Malley bring in additional revenue through the Suga Shop, but he also has a budding real estate portfolio because he says: “Why would you have a couple million dollars sitting in your bank when you can invest it in houses that you’re renting out and are paying the mortgage for you?”
O’Malley, who KO’ed his way to a UFC contract during Dana White’s Contender Series in 2017, has four properties in Arizona, where he currently resides and trains, and says he is exploring investment properties in Montana.
Working alongside Sanabul CEO Imran Jawaid, “who is like a mentor to me in business” and without a manager negotiating on his behalf, O’Malley also brings in additional revenue through streaming on YouTube and Twitch as well as two podcasts: The Timbo Sugarshow with friend and head coach Tim Welch, and The BrOMalley Show with brother Daniel.
“There’s so many avenues of making money that I have right now,” O’Malley, 28, says. “I didn’t like the idea of paying someone else to do something I knew I was capable of doing. I’m in a position where I feel I’m a good manager for myself—I can sell myself and I can do what they were doing what I was paying them to do.
“I have the time. I’m capable of learning. And I enjoy it. It’s fun for me.”
As he waits for the dust to settle between bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling and Henry Cejudo who are tentatively scheduled to square off on May 6 in Newark, N.J., O’Malley remains focused on growing his brand with his eyes set on the title.
Ideally preferring to fight twice a year on his new contract, O’Malley says he will potentially return to the octagon in July and December. A competitor at heart with an expanding business brain, O’Malley knows it doesn’t make sense to step into the octagon before he gets his title shot.
“As an athlete and competitor, I want to go in there and fight, but if I go out there, risk it and fight one of these top guys and lose, there goes my title shot,” he says. “As a businessman, I’ve navigated my career very strategically, so I’m in a position where I just need to wait for these guys to fight.”
While he says becoming champ is fittingly “going to be sweet,” it won’t define his legacy, simply based on the Suga brand and dynasty he’s built outside of the octagon.
An advocate for cannabis, O’Malley also hinted at potentially releasing the to-be-named Suga strain or Suga KO Punch once he has the title around his waist. And it isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
“Conor did his whiskey—$100 million or whatever he sold it for,” O’Malley says. “That’s going to be my $100 million venture: getting into cannabis with the Suga strain.
“My next fight, ideally, I’ll be headlining it and making the pay-per-view money, and walking away with the title at the same time.”