How Sean O'Connell formulated a plan to become an MMA millionaire – and why he walked away the instant he'd succeeded

By just about any standard, Sean O’Connell had a good life.

The year was 2017 and he was just starting to get used to the idea that his MMA career was over. He had a job he enjoyed, talking sports on the radio in his home state of Utah. He was engaged to the woman he loved. He hadn’t thrown a punch for money since the previous year, when he exited the UFC on a three-fight losing skid and then entered what he would come to regard as a “pseudo-retirement.”

It was fine. He was in his mid-30s, so it was probably time anyway. He always knew he wasn’t going to fight forever, just like he always knew he’d probably never be the UFC light heavyweight champion.

Then he started hearing rumors that the fight promotion known as the World Series of Fighting was rebranding itself. It was going to be called the Professional Fighters League (PFL), and it was going to kick off 2018 with a regular “season” of events, leading up to a tournament that would reward the winner in each division with a cool $1 million prize.

“I was skeptical, like probably everyone else was at the start,” O’Connell told MMAjunkie. “You hear that and you’re like, ‘A million bucks, really? For every winner? Come on.’”

But O’Connell was curious. He started asking around. He talked to managers and fighters he knew. He talked to PFL President Ray Sefo. The next thing he knew, he had a contract offer in his hands, even if he still had trouble believing that there would really be $1 million waiting for the winner in the end.

“What kind of convinced me was, they offered me a contract with a signing bonus,” O’Connell said. “I figured, well, if that check clears then it’s a good indication they’re actually serious about all this. And if it doesn’t clear, they’re in breach of contract and I’m off the hook. So I’m not risking anything signing a contract four months before the first fight would even happen.”

But once he finally pulled the trigger and committed himself to this comeback, O’Connell made a decision. All this – the training, the sacrifices, the physical abuse required to endure five fights in a span of six months – would only be worth it if he took home that million-dollar prize.

If he was going to do it, he had to win it all. Otherwise he simply couldn’t justify the risk.

“I wasn’t going to do it for the win and show money in my first regular-season fight,” O’Connell said. “I had to make it my goal the whole time to have this life-changing experience, the belt, the purse, the whole thing. Because at my age, with the damage I’ve absorbed over the course of my career, the risk-reward balance is all out of whack if you’re not talking about a serious payday in the end.”

However skeptical O’Connell was about the existence of that million-dollar prize, oddsmakers were similarly dubious about his chances of winning it. The only PFL bout in which O’Connell didn’t enter as a betting underdog was the lone fight that he lost – a regular-season scrap with Bazigit Atajev in August.

Entering the tournament in October, which required him to win two bouts in one night in order to advance to the finals, O’Connell was a 3-1 underdog. In the championship fight he faced decorated submission ace Vinny Magalhaes, who was a 5-1 favorite to take home the belt and the money.

Still, O’Connell had made himself a promise. He was going to win it all. It was the only way to make any of this seem like a good idea.

It wasn’t until Magalhaes’ corner called the fight off after the third round that he realized he’d actually done it. He’d won the whole thing. Which made it the perfect time to announce that he was officially retired from MMA.

In a way, O’Connell admitted, it was tough to do. He’d just won the biggest prize of his pro career. He felt like he was performing better than he ever had. He was finally on top of the mountain, and there was a natural urge to stay there, to see how long he could ride this feeling.

But then there was the other side of him, the side that knew the sports world as a fan and broadcaster. How many times had he seen athletes who stayed too long? How many times had he been right there with everyone else, wondering why this guy couldn’t see that it was time for him to quit?

“You think about a guy like Chuck Liddell,” O’Connell said. “He probably never thought he was going to go on a slide like he did. He probably felt invincible going into the first fight that started that downturn. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be that guy who sticks around too long and has everybody in the sport cringing and going, ‘Man, I didn’t want to see him get knocked out again.’”

A lot of it had to do with O’Connell’s awareness of the risks. He’d played high school and college football. He’d been a pro fighter for more than a decade. His headfirst slugging style meant that he often had to rely on his ability to absorb damage in the quest to do some of his own.

Now he had a wife and a baby on the way, and he knew he could only push things so far. Even if he hadn’t won the grand prize he would have still retired, only “more begrudgingly,” he said.

“It’s a harsh reality of being in a contact sport. You have to be careful with your future. It would be delusional for me to pretend that 15 years of contact football and then 12 years of fighting hasn’t taken some sort of a toll. You’ve got to be getting closer to a threshold that, if you cross, maybe you don’t come all the way back from. I don’t want to keep risking that, especially now that I have a family to worry about.”

So O’Connell did exactly what he told himself he’d do. He took the money, vacated the title, and then rode off into the sunset. He’s not sure just yet what he’ll do with his financial reward. His wife wants to build a house in Utah, he said, while he’s leaning more toward investment property in Hawaii.

Still, the one thing he’s sure of is that he’s not going to change his mind. He got a storybook ending to his career, and now he’s going to focus on the happily ever after part – even if he knows it won’t always be easy.

“When I’m announcing fights next season, I’ll probably feel like I want to get in there again,” O’Connell said. “But I’m not going to do it. I’ve got to stick to those guns. The cost of sticking around too long in this sport, it’s just too great.”

For complete coverage of PFL 11, check out the MMA Events section of the site.

Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie

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