Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated's in-depth look at MMA. Every week, this column offers insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.
Sean O'Malley (15-1 MMA, 7-1 UFC) is one fight away from reaching the next level.
He has come close before, but a TKO loss to Marlon "Chito" Vera two years ago stalled his momentum. This past July's bout against Pedro Munhoz also ended in abject disappointment when it was ruled a no contest after an accidental eye poke. Yet O'Malley's talent is undeniable, and he now has a shot at former bantamweight champion Petr Yan (16-3 MMA, 8-2 UFC) later this month at UFC 280.
O'Malley is currently ranked No. 12 in the bantamweight division but has the potential to jump 10 spots if he defeats the second-ranked Yan.
"I'm going to surprise a lot of people in this fight," O'Malley says. "You're going to see how good I actually am. People know I'm a certain level, but I believe I'm a level even above what they expect. This is going to be my breakout fight, and who better to do it against than the guy that's looked at as the scariest bantamweight in the division?"
O'Malley matches up particularly well against shorter kickboxers, which favors him in this matchup. Yan, however, is dangerous in multiple facets, especially with well-rounded wrestling, jiu-jitsu and kickboxing. Yan is only a win away from re-entering the title picture. While he is also a slow starter, he gets stronger as the fight extends into the fourth and fifth rounds. That will not be a strength at 280, where his fight against O'Malley is set for three rounds.
"I keep hearing that Petr will start slow," O'Malley says. "We'll see. I'm not expecting him to be fast, I'm not expecting him to be slow. We won't have a fourth or fifth round, so he may start out faster – but he risks getting knocked out if he does. Whatever he does, I'm going to be better. I'm going to be the dominator."
An excellent striker, O'Malley would completely disrupt the upper echelon of the division with a victory. It would finally launch him to the next tier of stardom, and a win against Yan could even be enough to lead to a title fight in his next bout.
"If I beat Petr, the narrative switches, and I'll be looked at as a top contender," O'Malley says. "I have the most disciplined training camp, and I'm doing everything right. I'll be prepared and ready.
"My hair is going to be bright, it's going to be colorful, it's going to be f-cking awesome. I can't wait. It's time for ‘The Sugar Show' to reach a new level of stardom."
An injured shoulder interrupts Pico's title aspirations
Aaron Pico's championship trajectory is on temporary hold.
The 26-year-old Pico (10-4 MMA, 10-4 BMMA) separated his shoulder this past Saturday at Bellator 286 in his fight against Jeremy Kennedy, losing by TKO after the referee ruled he could not continue.
"It was the right call," conceded Pico. "I physically couldn't move my shoulder. I was preparing to keep my left shoulder down and swing for the fences. Who knows, maybe I would have got knocked down or taken down. I wanted to keep fighting, but the doctor made my safety the priority."
The defeat is by no means devastating, but the injury removes Pico from the title picture as he is likely sidelined for four-to-six weeks.
"It's not like I got beat up for three rounds, that would be entirely different," Pico said. "Thirty seconds into the fight, I lost my shoulder, but I was still able to do what I wanted. I wanted Kennedy to take my back. I knew he couldn't submit me. He got a body triangle, and I knew he couldn't choke me out.
"I was able to make good decisions in the midst of chaos. I was hoping we could pop my shoulder back in at the end of the round, but now I'll be even healthier when I'm back."
The goal for Pico remains the Bellator featherweight title, which was successfully defended at 286 by Patricio "Pitbull" Freire. He will most likely fight Kennedy in his return bout, but he is open to the top contenders, a list that includes A.J. McKee, Pedro Carvalho, Adam Borics and Mads Burnell.
"A lot can change between now and then," Pico said. "When I'm healthy, I'll be back and take out whoever needs to be taken out to get that belt."
The Pick 'Em Section:
UFC Fight Night women's flyweight bout: Alexa Grasso vs. Viviane Araújo
- Pick: Alexa Grasso
UFC Fight Night bantamweight bout: Cub Swanson vs. Jonathan Martinez
- Pick: Jonathan Martinez
UFC Fight Night flyweight bout: Brandon Royval vs. Askar Askarov
- Pick: Askar Askarov
UFC Fight Night middleweight bout: Jordan Wright vs. Dusko Todorovic
- Pick: Dusko Todorovic
UFC Fight Night welterweight bout: Neil Magny vs. Daniel Rodriguez
- Pick: Neil Magny
Last week: 4-1
2022 record: 115-64
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.