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Sean O'Malley got pushback for predicting that he'll achieve Conor McGregor levels of popularity in 2024. It's a bold but consistent claim from a fighter who never lacked self-belief. Defending the UFC bantamweight title against Marlon Vera at UFC 299 in Miami on March 9 is a step towards O'Malley's true goal: becoming a two-division champion.

It's hard to believe any fighter will achieve McGregor's record-selling star power. There is not enough evidence to conclude that O'Malley will be that guy, but he arguably has the best chance. McGregor and O'Malley are brash and outlandish. Both are elite strikers. Both knocked out respected champions in eerily similar fashion. Both are business-savvy and have cultivated outside fanbases -- McGregor with the Irish and O'Malley with gaming and social media communities.

"I've been saying that since 2017 before I was even in the UFC. I've been saying that since before I was on the 'Contender Series.' The pushback from that slowly kind of dies out," O'Malley said. "When I said it in 2017 before I knocked out Alfred [Khashakyan], everybody was talking shit. Then I knocked out a few guys and I heard it a little less. Now I'm the champ. Now I'm defending the belt in Miami on probably one of the biggest cards of the year. 

"It just comes with the territory. It doesn't really bother me. I'm going to do it. It's going to happen. That's going to be a reality. If people don't want to see it that way I really don't care."

Check out the full interview with Sean O'Malley below.

O'Malley told ESPN last week that he "will be as big as Conor" with two beautiful performances in 2024. Step one is avenging his sole career loss. O'Malley still claims the loss to Vera is illegitimate after he suffered a leg injury early in the fight. It's an appropriate amount of denial from a fighter who built a reputation for talking big and almost always backing it up. 

Step two is becoming a simultaneous two-division titleholder, a feat first accomplished by McGregor in November 2016. O'Malley's plan is contingent on Ilia Topuria defeating Alexander Volkanovski for the UFC featherweight championship at UFC 298 on Feb. 17. O'Malley is hesitant to fight Volkanovski at this time but keen to settle his bad blood with Topuria.

"I guess I always said I didn't want that [Volkanovski] fight but you never know," O'Malley told CBS Sports. "That fight definitely could happen. But if Ilia wins I want it for sure. If Volk wins I think I stay down and defend my belt one or two more times. I need to get champ-champ status. If Volk's there in a couple of fights that's the fight we'll take. We'll go with the flow.

"Volk's such a cool dude. Ilia seems very, very easy to dislike... Fighting is a weird sport. I always looked at it like chess and never too fight-y, but you still got to want to f--- someone up and I want to f--- up Ilia so it just makes it easier."

O'Malley will pivot to racking up title defenses if Topuria falls short next month. The bantamweight champion identified the winner of Merab Dvalishvili vs. Henry Cejudo -- also taking place at UFC 298 -- as a likely title defense, as well as longtime contender Cory Sandhagen.

UFC 299 is a blockbuster card. The Kaseya Center hosts 18 fighters currently ranked by the UFC's official rankings panel. Dustin Poirier is featured in the co-main event, former champions Petr Yan and Rafael dos Anjos are on the card and Bellator fan-favorite Michael "Venom" Page makes his UFC debut. It currently stands as a better card than the milestone UFC 300 a month later. Some speculate the additional star power attached to UFC 299 is intended to maximize the attention on O'Malley.

"I heard some people say that they are trying to get behind me. Which could partially be true..." O'Malley said. "'The Suga Show' is next-level shit so you gotta go all out.

"Izzy knocked out Alex Pereira in their rematch [in this arena]. You know what I mean? So I'm just going to have to go out there and do the same thing in the rematch. Knock 'Chito' out in the rematch and rewrite history. It'll be beautiful."