EXCLUSIVE | Sean O’Connell: A regular dude with a gold belt

Sean O'Connell, PFL
Image: Professional Fighters League

Sean O’Connell has two black eyes and a couple of scrapes criss-crossing his face. For now, The Salt Lake City resident still has the mug of a prizefighter, but as of a few days ago, he isn’t one.

O’Connell ended his fighting career on New Years Eve, moments after he thumped Vinny Magalhaes to win the Professional Fighters League (PFL) light heavyweight title and a million-dollar prize.

Now just days removed from his final fight, and back to work at his other job as a Sirius XM radio host, O’Connell admits that it hasn’t really hit him yet that his fighting career is over.

He expects that realization to take some time to sink in.

“When the next season of PFL starts up, or one of my training partners has a big fight coming, maybe I corner somebody, then it’ll probably hit me that that’s not my reality anymore,” The PFL champion told BJPenn.com on Thursday afternoon. “Every week after a fight I’m just eating a bunch of bad food and getting lazy… the retirement hasn’t hit me yet.”

O’Connell’s delayed reaction to his own retirement probably has something to do with the fact that he’s still riding the high of his huge victory over Magalhaes.

It was not an easy fight for him. Far from it.

After dodging several of the Brazilian’s trademark submissions in the first round, O’Connell surged back in the second. By the time the third round was underway, he was soundly in control, while Magalhaes seemed to be clinging to his consciousness with little more than his fingertips.

Despite O’Connell’s very best efforts, however, he could not put Magalhaes down in the third. The Brazilian survived to the conclusion of the round, and hobbled back to his stool.

“I thought I was going to finish him in the third,” O’Connell recalled. “I was impressed with how he gritted it out. I went back to the corner, I was just sucking some air like ‘just make sure you’ve got enough wind, because you’ve got to put him away in the fourth.'”

In the end, of course, there would be no fourth round. Sitting on the opposite side of the cage from O’Connell, Magalhaes and his corner decided to call it a night.

“He decided not to come out for the fourth round,” O’Connell said. “I love the knockouts and TKO finishes and things like that, but it’s oddly satisfying to have somebody as formidable as him go back to the corner and willingly say ‘no, I’m done because I can’t take this dude anymore.’

“I’m actually pretty pleased with it,” he continued. “I mean every fight could be a little prettier — I never fight pretty. There was moments when I was kind of sloppy. I would have liked to have taken those back and improved on those, but it’s the results that matter

“Like I said, I was impressed with Vinny’s durability and his chin. I didn’t think we’d see that out of him. I hit him really hard with a lot of stuff, and he just refused to stop. But ultimately it was too much. That’s one of the only things I’m good at in this sport. I can push harder, and doing that to someone as dangerous as him was very important.”

Sean O'Connell
Image: Professional Fighters League

Vinny Magalhaes’ simple failure to return to his feet made Sean O’Connell the first-ever PFL light heavyweight champion. After an MMA career spanning more than a decade, he had finally earned a major title.

It was a special moment for O’Connell, and one that makes his retirement that much sweeter.

“It’s satisfying to have that,” he said. “The belt’s important, but really just performing well at the end and going out on a high note is what I’m really happy about. If this was just a fight that wasn’t for the belt, I think it would have been ok, and I would have been happy with the performance. But this is icing on the cake, to be the Season One winner in a promotion I’m very proud to be a part of, to be the first light heavyweight champ in the PFL… I’m happy about it.”

The million-dollar check was a nice bonus too. Thanks to this mammoth payday, O’Connell can end his fighting career without worry — and he hopes other fighters have taken notice.

“It’s a really, really nice windfall,” he said. “Hopefully it’s something that other fighters are paying attention to. The PFL is treating everyone so well. They made six new millionaires on Monday night. How many fighters are millionaires in the history of the sport?”

“Six of us got that honor on one night,” he continued. “Hopefully people are paying attention, fans and fighters alike, and giving the PFL their due respect.”

Having closed out his fighting career with this hefty payday, O’Connell now has the resources — and perhaps more importantly the time — to focus on other ventures, such as his burgeoning writing career.

He’s already written one book, and hopes to pen another now that training takes up less of his energy.

“I’m going to keep doing my radio show, hopefully make some transitions into multimedia, into TV,” he began, outlining his goals for the coming years. “I’ve got irons in the fire with the PFL for the next season in broadcasting, hopefully that works out. I’m going to write as much as I can. I love writing, it’s just a very time-consuming thing when you’re training three, four hours a day. You don’t have time to write. You fall asleep as soon as you start trying to. So I’m going to put some of that energy into writing a sequel to the book I already have out and into maybe finishing a screenplay. I’ve got a couple of television shows I want to pitch to people at networks if I can get in front of them.

“I’ve got a bit of wiggle room and flexibility financially now because of what the PFL’s done for me, so I’m going to try to explore a few different opportunities in the next couple years.”

As he gears up for the next phase of his life, Sean O’Connell is very proud of the things he did during his time as a professional fighter, and with full permission to get longwinded if need be, he rattled off a few of his favorite moments.

He was one half of the first-ever UFC fight in New Zealand, kicking off the promotion’s debut in the country with a Fight of the Night winning scrap with Gian Villante. He remembers fondly how loud the crowd was, even for his fight, the first of the night.

He got to share the cage with the late, great Ryan Jimmo.

He picked up his first UFC win — a Fight of the Night winning TKO defeat of Matt Van Buren — on the undercard of a Conor McGregor fight, with thousands of frenzied Irish fans cheering him on.

Even in his days on the regional circuit, he was engaging in unforgettable scraps. His Showdown Fights 6 battle with Trevor Carlson, he says, was particularly memorable.

Yet he says none of those moments compare to his swan song in the PFL cage.

“There’s been a lot of really great ones, but none of them near the high that I experienced on Monday night, with the PFL, and getting this belt, and walking away from this sport — at least as a competitor — in front of over 100 people from my hometown,” O’Connell said of the best moments of his career. “My friends and family, they came out, spent the money to support me. It just meant a whole lot to me.”

While Sean O’Connell’s PFL title win was the crowning achievement of his long career, that’s not all he hopes to be remembered for. He hopes that, years from now, fans will remember him as a normal guy who overcame his self-admitted athletic and technical deficits to become a damn good fighter.

“The only thing remarkable about me as a pro athlete is that I’m just a regular dude,” he said. “You look at other people who have had careers in combat sports like mine, or [people] in any sport, where they’ve been able to do it as a pro for 12 years and as a high-level pro for five or six, most of those people are special athletes. They’re bigger, they’re stronger, they’re more flexible than the people around them. I’m just a dude, man. You can tell that by looking at me. The only thing special about me is that I’m willing to outwork you.

“I’ve always felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to compete with guys who are athletically superior to me and to be able to push past my own limitations and get a few good wins,” he continued.

“I hope people, first and foremost, think of me as a fighter they enjoyed watching, who was fun, who had fun with the weigh-ins, had fun with his career, had fun with the fans, was fun to watch, fun to listen to, all that good stuff.

“I know people don’t respect my martial arts game all that much, but I hope that people pay a little bit of attention and realize that, maybe I’m not the best martial artist in the world, maybe not the best jiu jitsu player in the world, not the cleanest, most technical striker in the world, but I’m a damn good fighter. I’ll probably never win a high-level grappling tournament, but if you needed somebody to win a fight for you, I was good enough to do that.”

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 1/4/2019.