Like an old gunslinger entering a saloon for the final showdown, Sean O'Connell heads towards the 2018 Professional Fighters League Championship embracing the fact that it could be his last professional bout. Knowing this could be the end gives him motivation to produce a career-defining performance on New Year’s Eve, as he aims to secure a $1 million-dollar prize.
“I do feel I’m viewed as a marginal, journeyman fighter,” O’Connell told Sherdog.com, “and I fancy myself something better than that.”
The 30-fight veteran is well aware of the shortcomings he has had during his 11 years in the sport. After a 2-5 run with Ultimate Fighting Championship, he was released by the company and thought his fighting exploits had come to a conclusion.
“I felt pretty confident when the UFC got rid of me that was going to be the end,” he said, “and we know how that goes. I’m back here doing it again.”
O’Connell’s return to the sport after a year and a half away has not been without its setbacks. After splitting his two regular-season bouts in the PFL, he ended up as the sixth-seeded heavyweight at PFL 9. His quarterfinal matchup with Dan Spohn saw him overcome a first round some felt he lost and earn a majority decision over the former Cage Fury Fighting Championships titleholder. O’Connell followed it with a scintillating first-round knockout of Smealinho Rama in the semifinals.
The fortitude he showed to overcome obstacles throughout his Professional Fighters League season is something that O’Connell feels separates him from most other men in the sport.
“I feel like the one thing I have above most fighters is the willingness to keep going even when the odds are stacked against you or it’s not looking real good,” he said. “So many people in this sport are worried about looking cool that they are not willing to just keep going, and that’s something that I’ve been able to capitalize on a couple times in my career; and it worked even in these most recent playoffs.”
O’Connell’s mental toughness does make him unique. The ongoing story throughout the season for the 35-year-old fighter was whether or not this was his final run in the sport. For many, the thought of retirement can erode a fighter’s drive to succeed. However, O’Connell does not see it that way at all and wishes fighters would be more open about what they are thinking when it comes to retirement.
“I feel like people are discouraged about being honest with their plans. People don’t like to talk about it because for some reason it denotes some lack of focus or dedication to the sport in the public eye, and I just don’t buy that,” O’Connell said. “If anything, knowing that the end is near should motivate you to be better, to work harder, to put your best foot forward so that what people remember you for your best performances.”
O’Connell hopes to put that best foot forward against Vinny Magalhaes in the PFL light heavyweight final on Dec. 31 in New York. Magalhaes has enjoyed arguably the most impressive run through the PFL season, as he has finished all four of his opponents in the first round: three by submission and one by technical knockout. O’Connell believes this is the best version of the Syndicate MMA fighter we have seen yet.
“Vinny put something on tape for the playoffs that we have not seen from him before, and that was supreme -- almost disrespectful -- confidence in his own jiu-jitsu compared to his opponents,” O’Connell said. “To where he’s pulling guard in a high-level MMA fight with his opponent backed up against the cage. Who does that? Someone with his credentials in jiu-jitsu.”
O’Connell feels Magalhaes’ opponents panicked when they wandered into unfavorable positions and were defeated mentally because of the five-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion’s resume. O’Connell does not believe he will react the same way.
“People have never really seen my jiu-jitsu because it’s just not as much fun for me,” the Jeremy Horn protégé said. “I respect the hell out of Vinny’s jiu-jitsu game -- I really do -- but he’s not going to do anything that scares me.”
Because he is open and honest about his feelings, O’Connell admits he feels pressure heading into what is the biggest -- and possibly last -- fight of his career. Yet, just like notions of retirement, he sees nothing wrong with those thoughts.
“Anyone who tells you there’s not more pressure in a title fight or a million-dollar fight is lying. Why do people pretend it’s all the same? It’s not all the same. These are special opportunities,” O’Connell said.
The Utah native does not buy the false bravado some of his colleagues show heading into moments with such high stakes.
“When people try and fool you into thinking they’re macho and brave, [then] I guess you’re a better man than me because you’re not scared,” O’Connell said. “Well, I’m going against a multiple-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion and it freaks me out a little bit, but guess what? I’m going to fight my ass off anyway, and I’m going to knock him out.”
After the sweat and blood is shed on New Year’s Eve, O’Connell will still have to decide if the fight represents his dotting the period on the end of his career. “You know what? That is becoming the million-dollar question,” O’Connell said. He believes he still has more years left in him but understands he also has other priorities and passions he wants to pursue. “The Real OC” is also aware of the affect his career has on his loved ones. “The up-and-down rollercoaster when you’re married and close to people [as a fighter], they’re riding that rollercoaster with you to a certain extent.”
As one might imagine, O’Connell’s wife will play a major role in his final decision. In a best-case scenario, O’Connell hopes a win at the 2018 PFL Championship changes the perception that fans and the MMA media have about his career.
“[If] I beat Vinny Magalhaes in a championship bout on New Year’s Eve in Madison Square Garden [and] get a belt and a million dollars, maybe the conversation changes a little bit,” O’Connell said.
Either way, he hopes to make his last stand -- be it in the final or during a bout next season -- a memorable one: “I’m going to try and make people remember who I was as a fighter with that final performance.”