Ahead of every championship fight, UFC staff writer E. Spencer Kyte will sit down with some of the sharpest coaching minds in the sport to break down the action and provide UFC fans with insights into each championship pairing from the men that spend their days getting these elite athletes prepared to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.
For UFC 292, Kyte engaged in a one-on-one discussion with New England Cartel head coach Tyson Chartier about the fascinating bantamweight title fight between reigning champ Aljamain Sterling and popular challenger “Sugar” Sean O’Malley.
Best Trait of Each Fighter
Kyte: At a time in the sport where everyone is pretty solid everywhere, generally speaking, what is the one thing that each of these competitors do better than anyone else? What is the one element to their game that stands out the most?
Chartier: O’Malley, obviously, it’s his striking and his distance management, and Sterling, it’s his wrestling and his back-takes.
O’Malley is one of the best strikers in the UFC — he’s shown that. He’s creative, he’s got a frame where even if you don’t have great striking, but you have that frame, that’s tough to deal with, and now add in that he’s creative with it, he’s smart, he manages distance really well, he has good setups, he’s not over-throwing on anything, and he has power? It’s really hard to deal with.
He’s one of the best strikers in the UFC, but then you have one of the best grapplers in the UFC. This guy took down Henry Cejudo. He submitted Cory Sandhagen. He’s just so good at making you fight his fight.
He gets in on you, he gets to your back, and then you’re in a really bad place. This is a classic matchup — striker versus grappler.
Kyte: What is it about the movement and range management that O’Malley does so well that other guys don’t do or can’t do?
Chartier: I think he’s really quick — that two comes out so fast and straight that he surprises a lot of guys with it. They think “All right, I’m out here; I’m good” and then BOOM! He’s longer than you think he is and he’s able to hit you when you think you’re safe.
He’s pretty good at keeping you at the end of those strikes, so you can’t hurt him there. You can threaten with takedowns or whatever, but you’re kind of at the end of his range, which generally is past your range. He does a good job of keeping you at bay to where he can land devastating shots, and you can’t do a ton to him.
You don’t want to come in straight on him, so you end up out there, and then he waits for you to stop moving and goes.
On the feet, you’re playing his game the whole time, whereas on the ground, you’re playing Aljo’s game the whole time. They both have a really good ability to make you fight their fight.
Path to Victory for Each Fighter
Kyte: Everyone would love a 10-second knockout or a quick submission, but that’s not often how these things go, especially not at the championship level. Instead, it’s usually the competitor that has crafted the better game plan and did the better job of executing things inside the Octagon that comes away with their hand raised and the gold around their waist.
Given that it’s a pretty classic matchup, the path to victory feels pretty straightforward: one wants to get it to the ground, the other wants to keep it standing, and whoever wins, wins.
UFC Breakdown | UFC 292: Sterling vs O'Malley
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UFC Breakdown | UFC 292: Sterling vs O'Malley
Chartier: So I could see Aljo winning a fight even if he doesn’t get a takedown just because he could punch-punch-clinch, punch-punch-clinch, shoot a takedown; keep O’Malley on defense. I could see a path to victory for Aljo on the feet even if he doesn’t get the takedown because he’s freezing O’Malley with all the entries and the clinch, making it sloppy, making him play defense the whole time.
I don’t think that is going to happen, but I can see a path there. I don’t see a path to victory for O’Malley on the ground, so if it goes to the ground, we all think we know who should win.
Kyte: If there were one thing that was going to significantly impact how this fight plays out — that swings it in one direction or the other — what would it be?
Chartier: I think there are two things — O’Malley’s takedown defense and can he get up?
You’re gonna get taken down by Sterling — it’s a five-round fight; you’re gonna get taken down. But can he get up? Sterling has shown that when he does get people down, generally you’re not getting back up, so is O’Malley good at defending the back? Good at getting back to the feet? Can he defend the body triangle, get free, and get back up?
I’m really curious to see how his takedown defense holds up and how his get-ups are.
Kyte: For me, I’m almost looking at it from the other side — I know what Sterling is going to do, I know what he’s looking to do, and I want to see if O’Malley can force him out of that game plan.
I want to see if he can — Aljo is going to take him down, but I want to see what O’Malley can do going first and if he can get after Aljo, get into him early, and force him into more of a standup fight.
Chartier: Interesting. Be proactive instead of reactive.
Kyte: He’s gotta be careful because you can’t be throwing a ton of kicks…
Chartier: Can’t be throwing any big, loopy hooks because next thing you know, Sterling is in on a body lock.
Kyte: And, to me, the interesting thing about O’Malley is that he is really technical in that regard. It’s not big, loopy shots.
One Coaching Curiosity
Kyte: Coaches see the sport differently and look at the sport differently than anyone else, picking up on different things and paying attention to movements, habits, or intangible pieces that others might not notice, but that could have a significant impact on the action inside the Octagon.
Every matchup offers its own unique collection of elements that might pique a coach’s interest and get them paying a little closer attention to once the fight gets underway.
So what is that one thing in this matchup?
Chartier: I think it’s similar to the x-factor in terms of, is O’Malley able to defend any of the takedowns? Is he able to fight hands, break his grip, and get free? If he has that ability, it could be very difficult for Sterling to really get anything going offensively.
I’m interested to see once they get to the point where Aljo has his hands locked, is O’Malley able to separate his hands and get away? If you see that in the first or second round, it’s extremely encouraging for O’Malley because then you know it’s not a steal trap.
The other thing is can he do it for five rounds, because we haven’t seen O’Malley in five rounds yet.
Kyte: So one of my questions, one thing I’m curious about is that O’Malley has only beaten one guy that is still on the roster, Petr Yan.
It’s a no contest with Pedro Munhoz, who is still on the roster, and a loss to “Chito” Vera, who is still on the roster, but everyone else is somebody that is no longer on the roster and didn’t stick around too much longer after fighting him.
The other part for me is that while he can say all the things he wants about “I’m the superstar,” he’s never been in a five-round fight, he’s never main-evented; he’s actually never been “The Guy.”
Chartier: It’s always been “I’m gonna be the guy when I’m ready,” but now you’ve put all that pressure on yourself, but can you step up?
And if you molded a matchup for a guy that is meant to beat Sean O’Malley, it’s Aljamain Sterling.
Kyte: To me, from the outside looking in, the pressure here is all on O’Malley; this all sits on his shoulders.
He waited, then wanted to do it quick in Boston, and got his wish. He’s saying he’s the star, he’s the champ, now you get that opportunity and what are you gonna do? That being said, I can see O’Malley being one of those guys that we don’t really know just how good he is until he’s in there with elite competition.
He might be one of those fighters that gets to the biggest level, the biggest stage and shines. He may also be a balloon that is about to get popped.
I’m so fascinated by this fight. I can’t wait for Saturday night.