Sean O’Malley passes critical test with first title defense at UFC 299

Through 15 minutes, Sean O’Malley was on cruise control. And by cruise control, I mean the type the UFC bantamweight champion might have turned on in his pink Lamborghini in sixth gear.

He’d already banked enough rounds to all but ensure a victory on points. All that stood between him and avenging the only loss of his professional MMA career were 10 minutes and challenger Marlon “Chito” Vera, who’d been battered for three frames but notoriously comes on strong as the fight goes on.

We’d already seen how Vera handles those “championship rounds” in three non-title main events the last two years, but the actual champion O’Malley’s mettle in minutes 16-25 had yet to be tested.

Give “Suga” an A-plus.

O’Malley (18-1, 13 finishes) took the best Chito had to offer and dished it back in kind — and in surplus — on his way to a clean sweep of the scorecards in the UFC 299 main event on Saturday in Miami.

“Chito’s as tough as it gets,” O’Malley said in the cage after the scores (50-45, 50-45, 50-44) were read. “That one, it feels good getting that one back.”

This one meant something to O’Malley, who could not wait to wash the bad taste of Vera’s August 2020 victory in their previous meeting out of his mouth, a sour flavor he could hardly stomach days after and — by the time The Post had connected with him prior to his first title defense this weekend — still preferred not to dwell upon.

Sean O’Malley kicks Marlon Vera during their the UFC bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 299 event at Kaseya Center on Saturday in Miami. Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Even in the moments immediately after having his belt returned to his waist, he suggested, “I’m guessing you can all agree I’m undefeated still.”

Well, not everyone. When a legal kick pelted O’Malley’s peroneal nerve, shutting down his leg before a big elbow on the ground forced the first-round stoppage for a first-round Vera victory 3 ½ years ago, that cemented the setback on his ledger for eternity.

But there’s no need to dwell on the past, especially not for O’Malley after the colorful star in the new pink and golf shorts befitting a champion did just about everything he wanted on the feet save for forcing the referee to intervene.

Especially over those initial three rounds, in which O’Malley’s high-volume assault left the low-output Vera (23-9-1, 18 finishes) — though less so than usual — in the dust.

Then Fourth-Round Vera showed up, finally brining the fight back to the champ after being too content to leave offense unanswered. The pride of Ecuador, having been assured by coach Jason Parillo before the round that he wasn’t winning any rounds, came forward with a flurry punctuated by a flying knee that had O’Malley leaking from the nose, the first real sign of trouble for the champ all night that added some crimson above the lip to go with the cotton-candy blue and pink in his dyed braids.

But O’Malley never backed down as a back-and-forth stanza unfolded. He withstood flurries with his back by the fence. And then he took over again, smearing plasma across Chito’s face to win yet another round on the scorecards.

But Vera and his otherworldly chin — tested in the second frame by a punishing high kick he ate like a PB&J — looked likely to hold up after a grueling 20 minutes.

How would O’Malley’s chin fare? Pretty well, as it turns out.

Sean O’Malley delivers a knee to Marlon Vera during his victory in the UFC 299 bout. Getty Images

With Vera heeding his coach’s advice to “empty the tank,” it was O’Malley whose offense got a boost of NOS with a fight-high 61 significant strikes landed, per UFC Stats. The champ wounded Vera early, sending the challenger backing away to gather himself in what would be the closest the 29-year-old would come to adding KO victory No. 13.

And while the chin held up, it was the gut of O’Malley that nearly cost him the gold.

Needing a miracle, Vera snuck a nasty left hook to O’Malley’s body just before the final horn that clearly hurt. Even an extra 30 seconds might not have given Vera the win — although Chito said later he “ran out of time” there — but it was a reminder of how dangerous the No. 5 contender in the UFC’s rankings could be.

“Hoo! That was a nice shot,” O’Malley said of the body blow.

Take note: That was just the fifth man in line at 135 pounds. O’Malley told The Post this was the fight he wanted first, eschewing top contender Merab Dvalishvili and his teammate and former champ Aljamain Sterling, as well as Cory Sandhagen — who beat Vera nearly a year ago. The sharks surrounding Suga should respect what they saw Saturday, but it’ll only get harder for O’Malley from here out.

Every other man in the top nine at bantamweight has more experience in the championship rounds than the champ, but at least he can now say he’s got some. That’ll come in handy.

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