(Photo courtesy of TheCageNews.com.)
When Sean O’Connell made his MMA debut in April of last year, he had no fight training outside of a few cardio kickboxing classes. Somehow, he knocked out his opponent in 36 seconds. Then, he knocked out his next two opponents, both early in the first round. By November, O’Connell was 5-1 and had earned the heavyweight title of the Ultimate Combat Experience, a local promotion in his native Salt Lake City. It was then that Sean decided he should probably join a gym.
Just being picked as one of the 32 hopefuls for The Ultimate Fighter 8 would be enough of a success story for the up-and-coming fighter — even if he did get eliminated in his first match by Shane Primm. But for Sean, his brief brush with the Octagon is only one stop on his journey as a fighter, of which there are many more to come. We recently chatted with Sean to find out what it’s like being on TUF, from the audition process to the moment when Dana White asks you to please get the fuck out.
How did you become involved in mixed martial arts?
I was a football player in college, and after I graduated I felt like I needed something to keep me in shape and keep me competing — I didn’t want to just be done and get fat like everyone else does when they stop playing sports. What really got me interested was probably the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. I’d seen UFC fights before, but that’s what turned me on to how intense the training was, and how much went into it. So I followed it for a few years, and then I decided to try my hand at it. I wanted to prove to myself that I was as tough as I thought I was.
I got in touch with the Ultimate Combat Experience, which does a show here every weekend, and they set me up with an opponent. I went in and knocked the guy out, so I figured I’d keep going. But I didn’t really join a gym officially until after my sixth fight. I got a sponsor to pay for my training at Jeremy Horn’s Elite Performance, and from then on I’ve been training with Jeremy and trying to make my game a little more well-rounded.
How did you come to the attention of the UFC?
One of the guys who trains at our gym, Nick Rossborough, was on the season before as a middleweight. He was still in contact with the producers and put in a good word for me, because the buzz was they were going to do a season with light-heavyweights. I felt like, hey, maybe I’m ready to do this, so I sent in the highlight reel of my fights, and I went out to the live audition in Boston after having several phone conversations with the Spike TV producers. I went through the process and ended up getting selected.
Had you ever competed as a light-heavyweight before?
My fight on the show was my second fight at light-heavyweight. I was always considered a really small heavyweight — I never fought at heavier than 225 pounds — but that was sufficient to be fighting here on a small show, and because I was a football player I was used to dealing with bigger guys. But Jeremy and the other guys at the gym told me that if I wanted to take this seriously and make a career out of it, I should be a 205’er, and I’ve actually had a lot of input that maybe I should go all the way down to 185, but we’ll see what happens.
How long did the tryout process take? When did you audition, when did you find out that you’d been picked, and how long after that did you have to be in Las Vegas for the taping?
I started talking to them about a month before the live auditions in Boston, which I believe were on April 10th. You’re out there for the weekend, basically, and if you make it through the live auditions they call you and say you need to come out to Vegas for medicals the next week. So I was in Boston on a Saturday and I was in Vegas that Monday. And you stay down for medicals for basically the whole week — they do a CAT scan, they do drug screenings, and you have more interviews with the producers. Then they said, “okay, go home, we’ll let you know within two weeks.” And of course everyone’s anxious as hell. Finally they give me a call. I think it was exactly two weeks later, and I was in Illinois training with Jeremy and a couple other guys from our gym at Matt Hughes’s camp, the HIT Squad. They said “you’re coming to Vegas, you’re gonna be on the show,” and that was how it went. Then two weeks after that is when I went to Vegas for actual filming.
Did they specifically tell you not to arrive more than five pounds over your weight limit?
They did. They told us they were going to pick us up from the airport and drive us to the gym right away to weigh us in, and they didn’t want us to weigh more than five or six pounds over. I had dieted down because I didn’t want to wear myself out with the weight-cutting, so I stepped off the plane weighing 210 pounds and I had no problem making the weight.
Tell me a little about the vibe in the gym when you arrived. Were the other guys friendly, or was there a lot of tension among the fighters?
It was cool, everyone was really friendly. Everyone showed up anticipating that we were gonna have to fight to get on the show, so it wasn’t a big surprise, and it didn’t really wear on anyone’s nerves, I don’t think. They give you a couple days to train and cut weight before you actually weigh in and fight, so we had a 48-hour period where we didn’t know who was gonna be on which team, or who was even going to make it into the house. They told us who was being matched up with who for the first fight, and then we kind of had to pick training partners from there. I landed with Ryan Lopez from Oklahoma, who’s a big tough kid, and we knew we weren’t going to fight each other, at least not right away, so we trained together a little bit. But I liked the vibe a lot — everyone had a lot of respect for each other, because we figured if you made it this far, you’re probably pretty good.
How much pressure did you feel during your fight with Shane Primm? It must have been strange fighting in front of Dana White, Nogueira, Mir, and 31 other guys who all wanted a spot in the house.
It was interesting, and I talked to a few of the other guys who felt the same way — you’re there with 31 guys, and you know that 50% of them are going home, but none of us believed that it was us going home. Every guy went in expecting that he was gonna win his fight, because everyone’s had a lot of success, they’d usually been the favorite in the fights they had back home or wherever, and the reality of the situation is that half of us are in for huge disappointment. I’ve always liked to look at every fight the same, but in this case it was pretty much impossible to just see it as another fight. I won’t use that as an excuse for the reason I dropped the ball, but the pressure is definitely a lot different, because so much hinges on that one fight.
What do you think went wrong in your fight against Shane? Do you think he was just a better fighter than you, or were there certain mistakes that you made?
I made a fundamental mistake in giving up my back to a good fighter. Jiu-jitsu’s always been my weak point — I’ve gone back to the well of wrestling so many times — and I heard he had really good Muay Thai so I wanted to take the fight to the ground. I didn’t realize what kind of jiu-jitsu background he had, and he immediately started working for submissions, which wasn’t something I expected. He’s probably the best fighter I’ve fought so far in my career, but I definitely feel like I should have beat him. In a scramble when I was trying to get a takedown and he was trying to get me in a kimura, I ended up in a bad position and gave up my back. He capitalized on my mistake and ended up getting a rear-naked choke.
I have a ton of respect for the guy, because he was going in to the same situation as I was, with a lot of pressure, fighting someone he didn’t know anything about. So hats off to Shane. He’s a tough guy and I hope for both of our sakes that he did a great job on the show, because obviously for him that’s a big opportunity, and for me if he ends up winning the show then maybe I’ll get a second look from the UFC, and they’ll say he did lose but he lost to the best guy. But yeah, I feel like I kinda gave him that fight. He’s a game opponent for sure, but if I hadn’t made a couple crucial errors I think I’d walk out the winner. Which is the case in every fight, so you can’t beat yourself up over it.
After you lose, what happens? Is there a car waiting to take you right back to the airport?
Pretty much. We waited around for a while, and they worked out some things with guys who were injured. That’s one of the bad things about fighting to get into the house, the risk that even if you win, you might get hurt and not be able to stay. So we waited around a couple hours, which was aggravating for me because I just wanted to either get back in the cage and fight again, or go home and not have to watch everyone else celebrate their victories. Then Dana White gathered everyone together and said “Congratulations to the guys who won. All you guys who lost, see ya later.” And that was it. They packed us into a bunch of vans, took us back to the hotel, and shipped us out that night. It was a very abrupt ending. I thought I’d have six weeks in the house, then hopefully several successful years in the UFC after that, but that’s not the way it panned out.
You seemed to take the loss pretty hard. Were there any sacrifices you had to make to go on the show in the first place?
I didn’t sacrifice anything that I wasn’t 100% willing to sacrifice in order to chase my dream. I quit a job that I didn’t really want to be at in the first place, so it wasn’t a huge deal for me. I had a great support system back here, with my family and things like that, so the sacrifices I made to be out there for the tryout process were worth it to me even though it didn’t work out.
What’s next for you? Do you have your next fight lined up yet?
Yeah, it’ll be in November, hopefully for a 205-pound belt here in Utah. And I’m just trying to get back on track, because on my first day back in training after the Ultimate Fighter, I tore my bicep tendon and I had to have surgery. But I’m stronger than ever now, and it forced me to expand my game a little more because I couldn’t just rely on a powerful left hand. I had to get my kicks in order and work on my ground game a little more. So I think it was a blessing in disguise.
Do you have a day job that you do to support yourself?
I’m working for an MMA radio show out here in Salt Lake City called The Cage. I’m trying to do a Frank Trigg thing where I can use my intelligence to earn a living, and my body to beat some people up and get paydays once a month or so. The show’s on every Thursday night, and we’re trying to get it nationally syndicated and push it into other markets. Hopefully my exposure on The Ultimate Fighter will help with that — people will take us a little more seriously if they see us associated with an organization like the UFC.
What was the most surprising thing about your brief time as an Ultimate Fighter cast member?
Probably the level of talent that was there. On past seasons, I felt like the UFC picked two or three guys they actually wanted, and the rest of them are just a reality TV show cast. But I think on this season they got back to trying to find talented fighters that had a lot of potential to make an impact in the UFC. Just judging from the small amount I saw in person, they really accomplished that goal. A lot of those guys have the tools to become UFC fighters, myself included, even those guys who didn’t make it into the house. Out of the 32 guys, I think 28 of them we’ll end up seeing in the future, whether it’s the UFC, EliteXC — some sort of nationwide stage.
Thanks so much for your time, Sean. Are there any people or sponsors you want to shout out before we sign off?
Obviously the TheCageNews.com and The Cage Radio. Also, LOFLive.com, Dr. Harrison at McKay-Dee Hospital, Lumpy’s Downtown, TruSoldier, Throwdown, and Jeremy Horn’s Elite Performance.