Salt Lake MMA Fighter Talks About Decision To Retire After $1 Million Payout
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Salt Lake City mixed martial arts fighter who won $1 million over the New Year holiday announced his retirement just moments after the bout. Less than a week later, Sean O’Connell said his win still had not yet sunk in.
O’Connell won the inaugural Professional Fighters League Light Heavyweight Championship after a TKO victory over the top seed, Vinny Magalhaes at Madison Square Garden.
Over his 12-year career, which included a 3-year stint in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, O’Connell had 31 fights, and finished with 21 wins and 10 losses – 12 victories via knockout, 3 submissions and 6 by decision.
The biggest win of his career was his last – the upset victory over Magalhaes, the Brazilian jujitsu world champion that had spent 6:29 in the octagon in his last four bouts.
O’Connell and his wife Kendel talked to KSL Sports about his $1 million payout under the bright lights in New York City, his 12-year career and his decision to retire from MMA.
Listen To Full Interview
Nervous Emotions Turned To Confidence
As expected, O’Connell faced a lot of nerves and jitters leading up to the biggest fight of his career.
“I woke up on Monday (day of the fight) and I was really nervous,” O’Connell said. “Normally I don’t get too nervous on fight day but I woke up early and couldn’t fall back asleep, my mind was going through all of the scenarios that could happen throughout the fight. It was not an ideal start to fight day,” he added.
When the day progressed, he was able to find a way to relax before going to Madison Square Garden.
“I watched some college football throughout the day and calmed down a little bit.”
But he had a roller coaster of emotions throughout the day with his confidence leading up to the fight where he was a heavy underdog. O’Connell’s opponent had won all four of his PFL bouts in the first round with a submission or knockout finish to get to the championship bout.
“My confidence went from pretty low in the morning for whatever reason to super high as I was warming up,” he said. “We were finalizing the game plan, then I felt dialed in and knew what I needed to do.”
O’Connell had solidified his game plan with his coach Jeremy Horn and was ready to take center stage on New Year’s Eve.
His nerves could have reached an all-time high as he made the walk from the locker room to the octagon, but once he saw familiar faces in the crowd he felt calm and confident.
“When I walked out to the cage, seeing all of my friends and family who made the trip, it felt like I was fighting in my hometown,” O’Connell said. “It was such a cool feeling. With all of that put together, I was extremely confident that the fight was going to go how we needed it to go and thankfully it did.”
Magalhaes had the upper hand in the first round after getting two take-downs and getting on O’Connell’s back while spending most of the first five minutes in the Brazilian’s comfort zone, the ground.
“Vinny (Magalhaes) did a really good job in the first round of sticking to his game plan,” O’Connell said. “He spent the last half of the round on top and did some damage. But I was confident when we went back to our corners because I had spent a good majority of the first round in his world and I was never really in serious trouble. I felt like I didn’t have too much to worry about,” he added.
O’Connell made some tweaks to his strategy after the first round and kept the fight standing up and exchanging punches. He was able to wear down Magalhaes in the second and third round before the fight was called off by Magalhaes due to injury, giving O’Connell the Light Heavyweight championship belt and a cool $1 million.
“It was a surreal moment. I was in a little bit of disbelief, I thought I was dreaming,” he said. “I was looking around to make sure that the (New York athletic) commission and the referee were saying the fight was over. Then I looked out to all of my friends and family who traveled to New York and seeing my wife and brother in the cage,” O’Connell added.
All of that hard work from June to December had paid off in the PFL, but that was the goal all along for O’Connell.
“I couldn’t believe that we were here and we finally reached the goal that we set out when I signed with the PFL,” he said. “It was a fantastic feeling and immense relief because there is a lot of pressure when you go into those situations. I was just happy,” O’Connell added.
Training With Jeremy Horn
When O’Connell decided to give MMA a try after his college football career, he met Jeremy Horn. Horn is considered a legend in the sport of mixed martial arts, having had 119 bouts in his 19-year career and faced some big names in the sport. He owns his own gym in Sandy, Utah “Jeremy Horn’s Elite Performance.” Horn has been in the corner of nearly every fight for O’Connell.
“It’s really hard to describe how important Jeremy (Horn) has been to my career,” O’Connell said. “I am happy that this fight (PFL Championship) that proved how instrumental he has been.”
Leading up to the fight with Magalhaes, O’Connell was the biggest underdog because of how both fighters got to the championship bout. Magalhaes is more of a grappler and ground fighter while O’Connell wants to stand up and exchange punches.
“People asked me how I won the fight against Vinny,” O’Connell said. “I told them it was because I train with Jeremy Horn.”
O’Connell never wanted to change coaches because of what Horn brought to the table.
“He (Horn) is an absolute wizard when it comes to breaking down and formulating game plans,” he said.
O’Connell did just gain a coach from this experience, he and Horn are great friends.
“He is one of my great friends. He is like a big brother to me,” O’Connell said. “He is just awesome.”
O’Connell’s Long MMA Career
Known as “The Real OC”, O’Connell started his MMA journey in April 2007 with a local promotion, “Ultimate Combat Experience,” where he won his first three fights in two and a half total minutes.
“I immediately started searching for an agent. I thought I was going to be a big deal and I definitely needed an agent. I was ignorant to the details of what it took to be a high level fighter,” he said.
Before getting his shot in the UFC, O’Connell had a 15-4 record in the first seven years of his career.
He fought Ryan Jimmo with less than four weeks notice, replacing the injured Steve Bosse, who O’Connell would face in his second to last UFC bout.
After losing to Jimmo in the first round, he went to Auckland, New Zealand to fight Gian Villante in the first ever UFC fight card in Auckland. O’Connell lost to Villante on a questionable split decision.
With an 0-2 start in the UFC, O’Connell went on a two-fight winning streak with TKO finishes over Matt Van Buren and Anthony Perosh before losing his next three bouts, which ended his time with the promotion.
“I learned the hard way that it takes much more than and several ups and downs later, I finally got my big shot (in the UFC) and had more ups and downs after that. I am used to the roller coaster that comes with being an athlete.”
June 21, 2018 would be the start of a fantastic run through the PFL for O’Connell as he knocked out Ronny Markes, but would hit a minor bump by losing to Bazigit Atajev in his second regular season bout.
O’Connell faced Dan Spohn in the quarterfinals of the PFL Playoffs, winning by majority decision. Just 90 minutes later, he knocked out Smealinho Rama in semifinals to punch his ticket to Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve.
View From Cage Side
O’Connell’s wife, Kendel, had a front row seat to every fight of his time in the PFL. The couple got married in early June just before O’Connell would make his league debut on June 21.
“That was my first ever experience watching an MMA fight. I reacted differently than I expected,” Kendel O’Connell said. “I was really excited, getting into the fight and yelling at the cage telling him (Sean) to get up. It was really exciting to watch him win that fight.”
That was just the beginning of the emotional roller coaster she would take with her husband through his PFL journey. Kendel was cage side during the Playoff run that included winning two fights in one night, she was confident in her husband’s abilities to win the two fights.
“That was so hard to watch, but it was awesome that he won the first fight but he couldn’t celebrate knowing that he had to fight again,” she said. “But I was confident the whole time because I went to the gym with him a lot and watching him train and prepare, I was confident that he would win those two fights,” she added.
When Sean advanced to the Light Heavyweight Championship fight against Magalhaes on New Year’s Eve, Kendel’s emotions almost reached their limit. She was more nervous watching her husband walk to the cage just before his championship bout than Sean was.
“I couldn’t handle it, I started breaking down and I almost lost it. I was crying because I was so nervous for him and worried about the outcome. That first round was the hardest to watch.”
When her husband won the fight after the third round, she didn’t know that he was victorious until she was about to enter the cage to celebrate with Sean and his brother.
I didn’t see him (Sean) put his arms up like he won. I was brought down to the cage with his brother and at that point I still didn’t know that he won and I thought it was going to a decision. I asked someone if he won just as I was walking into the cage and they told me he did,” Kendel O’Connell said. “I was still in shock, I didn’t know how to react. I prepared myself more for him losing because I wanted him to win so badly,” she added.
While being interviewed after the fight while clutching a big $1 million check and the championship belt, O’Connell announced his retirement from MMA. He felt like he had a good run in the sport as an athlete and was ready for the next chapter of his life.
“I am done. I want to preserve my health and my brain,” he added. “I feel like I have been lucky to this point to not have any long term damage and I want to make sure that it stays that way.”
The long-term health was a concern for O’Connell and was a factor in his decision to hang up his gloves. Especially for his style, which is to punch and get punched in the face multiple times per fight.
— Sean O’Connell (@realOCsports) January 2, 2019
“The only way to guarantee that is to get out before you get a concussion or before you get hurt bad,” he said. “I have been really lucky over 30 fights to not have had significant injuries like others have had.”
O’Connell’s wife Kendel told her husband in the cage after the fight “don’t do that again,” after going through the emotions before and during the championship bout.
He now wants to focus more on his broadcasting career with the PFL, Sirius XM and other outlets while also writing the sequel to his book, Hellbound/Heavensent: The Angel War Book 1.
“My wife and I have talked about it and basically decided that this was it,” he added. “I hadn’t definitively said that to anyone other than my wife and my parents. I had to reassure my mom that I was going to fight just one more time,” O’Connell said.
Now that O’Connell is back in Salt Lake City adjusting to life as a champion and dealing with what the next chapter is for him. O’Connell after retiring from fighting, he reflected on his massive win and career but is happy to represent the state of Utah.
“It feels good to have represented my home state the way that I wanted to,” he said. “Hopefully I made some people proud and they follow what comes next.”
The couple is expecting a child in May and O’Connell says he is really nervous about becoming a parent.
“That is so much scarier than fighting,” he said. “I am really excited but I am more nervous about that than any competition.”