Casey O’Neill may only be 24 years old, but she is certainly gaining an incredible amount of wisdom that is beyond many of the up-and-coming contenders that preceded her.
O’Neill is now 3-0 in the UFC following her third octagon finish, this time against Antonina Shevchenko, at UFC Vegas 38, and has entered the official flyweight rankings at No. 14. Following her second-round TKO win over Shevchenko, “King” said in her post-fight interview that she wanted to take some time off and improve her skill set before getting back in there.
Around 72 hours later, the phone rang.
“So about three days after my fight, I got called to fight in December,” O’Neill told MMA Fighting on Tuesday. “As I said after my fight, I want to take some time off. I said it after my [previous] fight, too, and I ended up getting the call to fight Antonina and said yes. So now I think I have to take a little time to refine my skills and be ready for the challenges that are ahead because every fight is gonna be bigger and bigger from now on.”
It turns out the fight that was offered to her was a bout against Maycee Barber at December’s UFC 269 pay-per-view event. Barber’s original opponent Montana De La Rosa suffered an injury that forced her out of the bout and left an interesting opportunity for the flyweight division — which ultimately was taken by fellow surging upstart Erin Blanchfield.
When O’Neill got the offer, she admits that she wanted to take it. But after conversations with those closest to her in the fight game, she ultimately decided to stick with the original plan.
“I said I would take it in February if she wanted to wait,” O’Neill explained. “I battled with it for a couple of days, where I was like, ‘I really want to take it,’ but I know that I need to listen to the smarter people around me. My coaches and my manager were kind of saying, ‘Hey, you’re being fast-tracked. If we take this one and get another win, we’re talking big, big fights after that and you still want to get better and grow,’ and I do.
“I want to take the long road. I want to fight everyone in the division, I want to experience everything in this journey so that when I get to the top, I can be the next dominant champion. I think that’s where people go wrong — they get fast-tracked by the company and they love it, strokes their ego a little bit, they’re winning and they feel like they can do it, make money and all of that. Then they get pushed a little bit too fast, they run into somebody they’re not ready for and they end up getting taken out and they’re never the same again.
“I’m not looking to do that. I’m not looking to burn out early. I’m looking to retire as a fighter. I don’t want to do this for two or three years and get a job, I want to do this for the rest of my life. I know it’s a marathon and not a sprint. We’re gonna take our time, it still hurts a little bit [to turn it down] but I know opportunities will come and they’ll be better next year.”
O’Neill is ultimately content with her decision to play the long game, especially with it being so early in her pro career — which began a little over two years ago. She knows that shiny new ranking next to her name will now act as a target on her back and expects to hear her name said many times into live microphones moving forward.
“That was crazy,” O’Neill said. “I didn’t expect to be ranked because she wasn’t ranked when I fought her, but it got explained to me that because I got the three finishes, and being on a win streak, I was put in there. It’s really exciting and it’s something I’ve wanted to be. I wanted to be top 15, I want to be top 10, top five, the champ.
“Baby steps, but I’ve got the first one now, the first couple of bucket list items are checked off. I know that now that I’m in the top 15, I’m the one that people are gonna want to call out and I’m looking forward to that.”