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Sean O’Malley will be hoping he can send a lightning bolt through the bantamweight landscape when he steps up to takes on former champion Petr Yan in a fascinating clash between two of the division’s biggest names at UFC 280.
O’Malley has only shared the Octagon with ranked opposition once previously - his ill-fated no-contest against Pedro Munhoz in July - but now leaps up the ladder to face the man sat in the number one contender spot.
Having held both the undisputed and interim versions of the 135lb belt, Yan is undoubtedly the most credentialed opponent of O’Malley’s career and it’s a fight that made trainer Tim Welch “nervous” when it was first offered to the team.
Speaking exclusively to BTSport.com this week, Welch, O’Malley’s long-time coach and close friend revealed how the surprise match-up came to be made.
“We heard from the UFC about a week after the Pedro Munhoz fight, Sean Shelby texted Suga and said ‘Dana and I have an idea, we’ll call you tomorrow’,” Welch explained over Zoom from his Abu Dhabi hotel room.
I was a little nervous at first as we're both big fans of Petr Yan
- Tim Welch, O'Malley's coach
“So they called him and offered him Petr Yan in Abu Dhabi and he called me, we talked about it and said ‘f*** yeah, let’s do it’. We don’t usually like to travel for fighting but for the number one guy and this type of match-up, we were pumped up and said yes right away. Yan is the only guy in the top 10 of the division that didn’t have a match, so it seemed like the perfect fight.
“I was a little nervous at first because we’re both big fans of Petr Yan and we know pound-for-pound he’s probably skill-wise one of the best guys in the UFC, easily. He’s very gritty, he’s very technically sound in every area.
“But I know where Sean’s talent is. We have very good sparring partners, he’s been sparring with really good strikers, I’ve been finding the best people in every discipline to spar with. Sean’s been fighting for a long time, he’s been striking for a long time and his range, his athleticism, is really going to show on fight night.”
Yan’s appearance at UFC 280 will be the first time the 29-year-old has fought over three rounds since defeating Uriah Faber at UFC 245 almost three years ago.
Over four fights since, the Russian star has become notorious for setting a slow tempo over the opening rounds, preferring to build the fight with patience.
But some have suggested he may need to change his game plan ahead of a return to three rounds, particularly against a sharpshooter like O’Malley.
“I’m not 100% sure how Yan will approach this fight,” Welch added.
“He’s a super smart guy and he’s got a lot of smart coaches and they know it’s a three-round fight and he’s been a slow starter.
“Trying to figure someone like Sean out in 15 minutes is no easy task. He’s had very good sparring partners for a long time who still don’t seem to have him figured out. But we’ve prepared for a 15-minute sprint from the beginning bell to the end bell and we’re really ready for anything.
“If Yan really decides to come out and take risks and come forward, there’s a good chance he’s going to get knocked out doing that.”
But what makes Yan such a dangerous fighter?
“I think his best attributes are probably his durability and his meanness and toughness, wanting to break the other person,” Welch continued.
“But sometimes he does lunge forwards on his punches and I think he’s going to have a lot of trouble with Sean’s length and his height. He’s going to have to take a risk to get to Sean’s chin and that’s going to open him up for some clean shots.
“I’ve been around the sport a long time so I know crazy s*** can happen at any time but really when I sit down and think about it, I see Sean coming out and picking him apart at range, Petr Yan getting frustrated, starting to lunge and then getting cracked coming in.”
The bantamweight division might well be the most talent-rich of any in the UFC right now with any one of the top five conceivably considered a threat to the belt.
But Welch believes O’Malley could be in with a shout of gate-crashing the queue for title contention with a statement victory at UFC 280.
“A lot of it depends on the performance, if he knocks out Yan or finishes Yan in a nice fashion, I don't think you can deny Sean the title shot,” he continued.
“If it's a close split decision then there's a couple of guys in line that could get it. But going in there, the plan is to knock him out so if we can get that done, we're definitely ready for a title shot next.”
Speaking to Barstool Sports' Robbie Fox this week, Dana White confirmed the plan, effectively elevating the bout into an official number one contender showdown.
Make sure you don't miss it this Saturday night as UFC 280 comes to BT Sport Box Office HD. Click here for all the information you need to watch this unmissable event.