Utah MMA Fighter Has Sights Set On $1 Million New Year’s Prize
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Utah native Sean O’Connell is preparing for the biggest fight of his life, with $1 million and the PFL Light Heavyweight Championship on the line on New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
O’Connell had a three-year career in the Ultimate Fighting Championship – also known as the UFC – but is finding more success with the Professional Fighters League, a newer league with a tournament-style format.
Born in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, O’Connell’s family soon moved to Sandy, Utah, where he played football and wrestled for Jordan High School.
Struggling to find the right fit, he played football for Southern Utah University, Weber State, and the University of Utah where he made the team as a walk-on. It was when football stopped being fulfilling for him that he looked for something else.
After earning his degree from Utah, O’Connell found his passion in sports broadcasting and mixed martial arts.
He works full-time in sports talk radio, with stints at two Salt Lake City stations before taking a job with Sirius XM. He can be heard on the Pac-12 and MMA channels.
The broadcasting career has kept him busy, but it’s the chance at the million dollars that has kept O’Connell fighting.
He split his first two regular season bouts this year to get into the PFL Playoffs, and after two wins in one night, O’Connell has the opportunity of a lifetime ahead of him on December 31.
O’Connell talked to KSL Sports about his journey from near-retirement to fighting for a championship and $1 Million.
Listen to the full interview below:
Professional Fighters League
After a six-fight UFC career from 2014-16, O’Connell was ready to retire from Mixed Martial Arts. He has a 20-10 professional MMA record and 3-1-0 in the PFL. It was enough for him to feel accomplished.
“I figured, I was just going to walk away,” he said. “I didn’t want to go down to ‘the minor leagues,’ a step down in competition,” O’Connell added. “I was only training to stay in shape. I wasn’t pursuing any fights after my UFC career ended.”
In 2018, a promotion known as “World Series of Fighting” was revamped into the Professional Fighters League. PFL wanted a tournament-style format that awarded $1 million to the winner of each of the six weight classes.
When the organization became official, O’Connell reached out to President Carlos Silva and the head of fighting operations, Ray Sefo, to express interest in joining the league.
“I was making sure that the people at the top would know that if they were able to pull this off, I would be willing to talk about offering my services,” he said. “They had funding and a schedule, so they were ready to go.”
The catch was O’Connell wanted to both broadcast the fights and get in the ring. After signing him to fight, Silva eventually agreed to let him broadcast.
“Sean O’Connell has been a great partner this year. The guy not only went out there and laid it on the line every time he stepped into the cage but he also emerged as one of the great young play-by-play announcers in the sport. He is a true dual threat and we can’t wait to have him back in the cage as well as the broadcast booth for years to come,” Silva said.
PFL Playoff Format
In order for a fighter to qualify for a playoff spot, they have to finish in the top eight in their weight class. Each fighter has two regular season bouts, with a point system in place to get the fighter into the postseason.
A win gives three points, with bonus points being awarded if the fighter finishes their opponent by submission or knockout.
If the fighter finishes their opponent in the first round, they are awarded three bonus points. A second round finish is two bonus points, and a third round finish is one bonus point.
Regular Season Bouts
O’Connell knocked out Ronny Markes in the second round in PFL 2 on June 21 to give him five points in the PFL point system that guaranteed him a spot in the postseason.
On August 30 in PFL 7, O’Connell lost his regular season finale to Bozigit Ataev in the first round after being kicked in the liver, Ataev picked up the win over O’Connell. Fortunately, he had already solidified a berth in the playoffs – seeding was the only unknown.
Quarterfinal Playoff Fight
He entered the postseason as the No. 6-seed and faced No. 3-seed Dan Spohn in the quarterfinal of the PFL playoffs.
Spohn was able to win the first round, but O’Connell won the fight with a 10-8 score by the judges in the second round.
“He beat me in the first round, so it was kind of desperation mode and I was able to get the knockdown and was able to secure the victory,” O’Connell said about the fight with Spohn.
A normal MMA bout is three rounds, consisting of five minutes each, but the Athletic Commission only allows a fighter to fight a maximum of five rounds in one night, which in most promotions is used for championship or main event bouts.
The PFL set up is to have the first round playoff bout consist of two five minute rounds with the tiebreaker going to the winner of the first round.
The winner of the first round would have a three round fight in the second round with five minutes in each round later that evening.
Two Fights In One Night
O’Connell advanced to the second round to face No. 7-seed Smealinho Rama for the chance to fight for a championship and $1 million in New York City. After a two-round fight in the quarterfinals, O’Connell had to go prepare for a second fight in less than two hours. He said it was the biggest fight of his career.
“You go into the first fight thinking that it is a championship fight (five rounds). Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” O’Connell said.
“The thing you worry about going into a second fight after the first one, is the adrenaline dump where you could emotionally crash. We (Coach Jeremy Horn) went back to the locker room and had some water and electrolytes and made sure that I wasn’t going to cramp up,” he said.
“We had to wait until the excitement from the first fight wore off then it was back to warming up because we knew that there were four fights between my first fight and my next one,” he added.
O’Connell won the fight handily in the first round over Rama, with a knockout finish to secure a spot in the PFL Championship.
— #PFLmma (@ProFightLeague) October 14, 2018
“It was the most fun I have had in Mixed Martial Arts. Coming off of an MMA victory which is a unique feeling, the feeling of winning a fight is as great as you can get,” said O’Connell. “Then you get a chance to get back in when you are riding a little bit of that high with the nervous jitters gone.”
From Broadcast Booth To Octagon
O’Connell has a unique story that the PFL has capitalized on with the signing of O’Connell.
“I told them (Sefo and Silva) that the million dollars sounded pretty cool. I was willing to fight for them but also wanted to be a broadcaster,” O’Connell said.
After Sefo and Silva agreed to O’Connell broadcasting the undercard on Facebook, he wanted to do something that no other fighter has been willing to do. That is put down the headset and go get ready for a fight.
“It took some convincing (to management), but they were on board with my idea,” he said. “They said ‘it will be a good story, just don’t blame us if you lose,’ I told them that one has nothing to do with the other.”
“I can focus on my fight for two hours after I take off the headset,” O’Connell said.
He talked about what goes into changing his focus so quickly from broadcasting fights to actually fighting in the Octagon.
“I am going to show up to the arena four hours before the fight anyway, just sitting around being nervous in the locker room, why not let me broadcast before I go out to fight?” O’Connell added.
Up Next: No. 1-Seed Vinny Magalhaes
O’Connell’s final challenge before winning $1 million is Brazilian Jujitsu World Champion and No. 1-seed Vinny Magalhaes.
The Brazilian won all four PFL fights in dominating fashion with first round finishes, spending a total of 6:29 in the Octagon in those four bouts. He has an 18-9-0 MMA record and 4-0-0 in the PFL.
“He is one of the best Jujitsu practitioners in the world,” O’Connell said of his next opponent. “He has had a really hard time putting that together with wrestling and striking throughout his MMA career, but when you watch him in the PFL, it looks like he has figured it out.”
— #PFLmma (@ProFightLeague) December 4, 2018
O’Connell knows what he has to do to get the victory.
“The question about Vinny is can he take a punch?” He said. “Which makes an opponent like me a nightmare for him because a lot of times it only takes one punch. But a lot of people say that he just needs to take me down. I have some great coaches who have simulated and tested my ability to defend him.”
Another Local Fights For $1 Million
Provo native Steven Siler will be on the championship card in the featherweight division against Lance Palmer. Siler won his first fight of the regular season with a first round submission win over Magomed Idrisov and another submission finish in the first round in his second regular season fight against Alexandre Almeida.
He earned the No. 1-seed in the featherweight division and had a majority draw against Nazareno in the quarterfinals of the Playoffs but moved on with the judges giving him the better score in the first round. Siler secured a berth in the championship with a win over Almeida again but the fight was given to Siler after Almeida was disqualified for an illegal upkick.
Siler lost to Palmer in November of 2017 by unanimous decision on PFL: Fight Night. He has a 32-17-1 professional MMA record and 3-0-1 in the PFL. Palmer has a 16-3 professional MMA record and 4-0-0 in the PFL.
How To Watch
The PFL Finals will take place on New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden in New York City and the card will begin at 5 p.m. on NBCSN. They will have six weight classes that will fight for $1 million, with O’Connell and Siler competing in two of those bouts. Visit pflmma.com for more information.