Sean O’Connell was done with the sport.
Following his release from the UFC in 2016, the light heavyweight veteran tried to seek out other options to continue his fighting career but he got a discouraging response when trying to find a new job.
“I put on some exciting fights and then when the UFC was done with me, I thought other organizations in Asia or KSW in Poland or whoever would be like ‘that’s a guy we like, he’s got a fun personality, he puts on great fights’ and I’ve said this a million times, it was embarrassing, hurtful, humbling, whatever that nobody wanted my services,” O’Connell revealed when speaking to MMAWeekly. “People had written me off. This guy, we’re done with him.
“It was embarrassing and it was kind of a sobering reality.”
At that point, O’Connell was resigned to calling it a career to focus on his work life outside of fighting where he had worked in radio and broadcasting for several years already.
That’s when he heard about Professional Fighters League (PFL) and the $1 million grand prize that was being handed out in several different divisions including light heavyweight.
O’Connell sat down with PFL executive Ray Sefo to see if the fledgling organization might be interested in him for their upcoming 205-pound tournament.
The two sides came to an agreement and now several months later O’Connell is the first ever PFL light heavyweight champion and he went home with that $1 million grand prize in his bank account.
Fighters often talk about ‘life changing money’ but O’Connell still hasn’t quite absorbed what it means to win $1 million after never seeing anything close to that previously in his mixed martial arts career.
“The most money I ever made before the PFL playoffs, I think I made $93,000 on a night that I won and bonused and had some good sponsorship in the UFC,” O’Connell explained. “This is more than 10-fold that and I don’t even really know what it’s going to mean but it just feels like an immense relief. I mean I’ve been smart with my money with my radio career and my fighting career so I’m not struggling by any means but this gives us another level of flexibility and comfort to explore things that wouldn’t be a possibility any other way.
“It’s an equivalent to working 10 years at a really good job or fighting 20 fights for a really good promotion. This is a huge, huge windfall for anybody and for a fighter in a sport that is very financially thankless and it’s more of a passion, this is a luxury.”
Immediately after he was handed the title belt and the $1 million check, O’Connell then declared that he was retiring from the sport and his win over Vinny Magalhaes on New Year’s Eve 2018 would be the last fight of his career.
MMA is not a sport that typically watches fighters walk away off a win much less at the peak of their careers. Often times the thirst for competition as well as financial stability lead fighters back to the cage typically at a detriment to their own health.
O’Connell knows that he’s probably better than he’s ever been in terms of his performances but winning this kind of money will allow him to walk away right now at his best and his healthiest.
“Yes I am done because the more I say it publicly, the more accountable I am to that statement,” O’Connell said about his retirement. “The more times I officially tell people that I’m done fighting, the more ridiculous that sounds if I renege on that statement and I go back and fight again. It’s hard because I feel like this representation against Vinny was the best version we’ve ever seen of me in the cage. It feels almost counterintuitive to walk away when I’m fighting better than I’ve fought before but the harsh reality and the flipside of it is, I’ve taken a lot of damage in my fight career.
“I’ve worn a lot of big shots and we have information now in athletics and in our sport about the real cost of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and what it means to sustain repetitive head trauma and I feel very healthy right now. I feel like I have not crossed that threshold of not compromising my memory or my personality or my moods or things like that. So it’s the perfect time to walk away.”
Obviously, O’Connell has seen legends of the sport retire with more money and more accomplishments yet still find a way to return but he’s determined to be done with the fight game before the fight game is done with him.
“It’s super rare to get somebody to walk away when they’re at their best,” O’Connell said. “I’d rather be on that end of the spectrum than somebody who sticks around too long.”