For a top prospect in any other sport, it would have been a bona fide disaster. One moment, "Sugar" Sean O'Malley (9-0) was palling around with company executives, with an impressive minor league win having guaranteed him a shot at the big time.
He was filmed smoking cannabis with notorious, though grandfatherly, rapper Snoop Dogg.
But MMA is no regular sport. It's chaos in a cage. Mr. Dogg is not just a fan but a part-time commentator, and the smoke-out occurred on set in his trailer, cameras rolling. Smoking with Snoop wasn't a public-relations crisis for O'Malley. It was a marketing opportunity.
"I got to go hang out in Snoop Dogg's trailer," O'Malley said, sitting on the floor of the coaches' locker room at the newly redesigned MMA Lab in Phoenix. "Anybody that smokes wishes they could smoke with Snoop Dogg one time in their life. So it was awesome. It was something I'll never forget.
"It all came from winning a fight. And if I can go out there and keep winning fights, I'll be able to do everything I dream of. It's all about winning the next fight."
It's a mature answer for a 23-year-old kid who is a self-confessed pothead, both polite, perfunctory and pushing the interview back where he wants it to be: talking about fighting. In a few minutes he will be in the cage, taking on two of his teammates in full-contact sparring rounds. It's a subject he takes seriously, curly hair bouncing around as we talk, with his face almost ecstatic talking about triumphs past and especially those still to come.
"He's really still developing," MMA Lab head coach John Crouch, who has trained under champions like Royce Gracie and supervised UFC kingpins like Benson Henderson. "I think the sky is the limit for him. I love the kid. Super great kid. Super dynamic. Creative with his MMA. And he's getting good on the ground. I think by the time people test him there, they will find it isn't an easy test to pass."
That wasn't always the case. Like all fighters, the Montana native had to be humbled before he could be great, to see his every action as futile, eyes pure with pain as his hopes died in a barrage of punches and punishing holds.
When he came to the MMA Lab at 18, following the footsteps of fellow Montanan Tim Welch, a journeyman who almost made the big show and was a local legend in Big Sky Country, he thought he knew what fighting was.
An undefeated amateur back home, he had been in more than a dozen organized bouts. The story, though details differed, was roughly the same every time—even as a teenager, he was quicker, smarter and sharper than anyone else they could find to challenge him.
"My first coach, Johnny Aho, he believed in me," O'Malley said. "I could have been fighting Anderson Silva, and he would say 'You could beat him. You're going to knock him out. You're too fast. You're too good. You'll knock this guy out.' And I did. I had 14 amateur fights, and I went out there and knocked a lot of them out. Trainingwise, we would pretty much just spar."
That was before the MMA Lab, where a fighter with potential met fighters whose potential had already been realized—in this case UFC veteran Yaotzin "Yaddi" Meza.
"I came down for 10 days and got beat up real bad by Yaddi," O'Malley revealed. "Everyone on the team was whooping me. I didn't have any skill. I was just a fighter. There are different levels. I kind of knew that, but I had never experienced it. No one had ever beaten me up because I was the man at my gym.
"When I came down here I thought I would impress them. They would at least say 'Wow, this kid's tough.' But I just got worked. I got whooped and beat up bad. I was crying after practice."
The story could end right here. Most combat sports stories do. The local hotshot, a high school dropout drifting through his early adulthood, is humiliated and drifts back home to live an entirely uneventful life.
Instead, it lit a fire in O'Malley. He got a job at a group home for the mentally disabled, helping eight people navigate their daily lives, getting them showered and dressed and ready for their day.
"I went home, got a full-time job and saved $2,000," he said. "Then I packed my stuff, drove down. Now I've been here four years in April. Just being in the same room as Benson Henderson helps. He has this mentality of wanting to get better no matter what. One rep at a time, just getting better.
"Tim Welch, in his last fight, broke his jaw in the first 20 seconds and fought into the second round with his jaw hanging off. And I was there witnessing it. Being around people like that, I can only go up. You are who you surround yourself with, and that's the truth. I'm surrounding myself with the baddest dudes in the world. And I'm becoming one."
You can tell the fighters who still love it from those to whom it has become drudgery. O'Malley loves it, each moment, whether it's of beauty, happiness or pain. His face is almost joyous as he bounces around the cage, hands down, searching for an opening through which to put the powerful hands that belie his slim frame.
"Watching him spar is fun," teammate Lauren Murphy said. "A lot of times, the other fighters will kind of stop what they are doing and just watch him. You never know what's going to happen."
When he first came to the Lab, that unpredictability was a source of conflict with Crouch. While he didn't have a house style he insisted on, the veteran coach wanted to be sure everyone under his tutelage understood what they were doing and why.
"I don't want to change anyone's style," Crouch said. "But I do want them to have good fundamentals so they understand the consequences of what they are doing. 'If you stand like that, guys are going to do this.' If we figure out how to deal with that, you can do whatever the hell you want.
"He worked on strictly boxing for a while. And I wanted him to wrestle better. Because he's so upright and so quick, no one is going to want to stand there and mess around with him. If I were coaching against him, I know that's what I would do."
There are echoes of Lyoto Machida and other karate practitioners in his movements, hands down, darting, looking for the killer blow rather than an accumulation of points. But he denies any formal connection to the Eastern arts. This is just him, doing what comes naturally.
"I've always moved different than a lot of people move," O'Malley said. "I never thought of it as cocky, but I think coach did when I first came. It's not that we didn't get along, but he wanted me to be a little different. Later on, as he started to see me winning fights and doing something with this movement and it's not just me going out there and being a freak, he started to want me to do it and become better at it."
On Saturday, O'Malley's career will launch to the next level. He'll fight the tough Andre Soukhamthath (12-5), a veteran UFC fighter who has already beat teammate Luke Sanders and whose name draws a bit of a snarl.
"T-Mobile Arena—it's going to be fun," O'Malley said. "The more people there, the better. The more energy from the crowd, the more I like it. I'm excited for that."
He looked down at his hand, flexing it, getting ready for the combat to come as soon as we wound it up. The word "free" is tattooed across his knuckles.
That's what this fight, what every fight represents to him. Each victory is another step away from the kind of menial life most people live.
"I got it before my fourth fight," O'Malley said. "I was realizing that I was one of the few people in society who is really free. I can do what I want when I want to. I don't have to take orders from anyone.
"When I was an amateur, living off sponsors from back home who believed in me, I wanted to get to this point. I haven't had to work a job since I came from Montana. I was able to bring two other kids from Montana to live with me in my house. I can do what I want, both for me and other people. And that's why I feel free."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.