During this phase of his life, he’s spent most of it persuading people to let him get punched in the face.
In a fight on New Year’s Eve inside Madison Square Garden in New York City, there will be no shifting of that narrative. There he’ll be, fists balled up, ready to rampage, willing to accept the outcome, because when you’re Sean O’Connell, you’ve been used to such a scenario for, well, forever. Only this time, there’s a ton more at stake. Like, $1 million big. That’s the payout for this title fight, a matchup that, fittingly pits O’Connell, the smiley underdog, against a guy he calls, “a jiu-jitsu master.”
“He’s bigger, stronger, faster, better looking than me,” O’Connell said. “I have to make the fight ugly and draw him outside of his comfort zone, which is on the ground. I need to land some good combinations, make him feel my power, and I’ll get that $1 million.”
It is nowhere close to that easy, and O’Connell knows it. When the bell rings Monday night in MSG, the light heavyweight final in PFL 11: The Championship will be off. His opponent, Brazilian Vinny Magalhaes, stands between the former Utah football player and current in-state sports radio host and the payout of a lifetime, one that even just last year wasn’t even in the cards.
But that’s the thing about O’Connell — he’s learned quickly that even in pseudo-retirement, he couldn’t avoid the gloves for long.
His last fight with UFC was in December 2016. He lost by TKO in the second round. He’d been with the famed mixed martial arts company for two years. UFC went another direction. They went on without O’Connell. The 35-year-old went looking for where he might land his next punch under the bright lights. He looked at organizations in Poland, Japan and Malaysia. O’Connell prides himself on putting on entertaining fights. There weren’t nearly enough wins as he would’ve liked, but hey.
That’s life in the cage.
Time away proved tough. It’s impossible to stay in shape when there are no fights on the horizon. O’Connell’s grueling gym routines slowed. Then the newly branded Professional Fighting League extended an offer. PFL is the first MMA organization to present matches in a regular season format. Meaning, you win a fight, you move on. In 2018, when he returned to the ring, O’Connell kept on winning. He’s in the championship round now.
But his return didn’t stop there. O’Connell’s spent much of the past decade as a sports radio personality in Salt Lake City. He was a co-host on ESPN 700 for years before eventually moving on and joining up with Sirius XM radio. His pitch to PFL involved signing up for fights — and for calls on fights. O’Connell offered UFC the same kind of deal back when he was there, but powers-that-be balked. The PFL eventually agreed to let O’Connell serve as a commentator for some matches this season.
During one fight in June in Chicago, O’Connell called some undercard fights, then suited up himself and went to work. This is how he’s gotten to where he is: carving out his own niche, maneuvering his way “through a backdoor,” as he calls it, pleading with and pestering people to give him a shot. In the ring and on the headset.
“It’s hard to get people to take you seriously as a broadcaster when you’re a knucklehead fighter that bites down on his mouthpiece and punches until somebody falls asleep,” O’Connell said. “It’s really strange, like if you’re a Hall of Fame-level fighter, all of a sudden everyone wants to hear what you say, whether you’re good in media or not.”
O’Connell does most of his Sirius XM shows remotely in Salt Lake City. He broke in with the company by doing a combat channel with female MMA star, Miesha Tate. Soon after, he landed a five-day-a-week gig talking Pac-12 football on Sirius. After wading in MMA purgatory for a year, O’Connell is back where he belongs: a self-proclaimed underdog, prepped to avoid the mat which is precisely where Magalhaes will be aiming to take him.
“This is not a beauty pageant, it’s not a jiu-jitsu tournament,” O’Connell said. “If you turn a fight into a real nasty, gritty fight, that’s where I’m better than most people.”
These stakes are high and they’re rare. Instead of avoiding the stomach-churning nerves of a potential $1 million payday, O’Connell turns and faces it. “I ride the rollercoaster,” he said. There have been days in the lead up where he thinks about the money, about just how good Magalhaes is and then, very briefly, descends into second thoughts about the whole thing.
“Your emotions play with you,” he said. “Instead of trying to fight it and deny it, I embrace it. It is the biggest fight of my life.”