Dana White’s Contender Series swaggered onto the scene five years ago dangling in front of fight fans a tantalizing promise. It was right there in the show’s name. This on-ramp for developing UFC talent wasn’t simply assuring MMA followers of an influx of new names for the prelims. No, the show promised contenders.
It took a while for Contender Series to live up to its name, but there’s no denying it anymore. Within the past two years, Alex Perez has challenged for the UFC men’s flyweight title and Taila Santos has taken her shot at the women’s flyweight belt. Both are DWCS alums.
There soon could be more top contenders coming off the show, which launches Season 6 on July 26 (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET). Among those competing this season will be Bo Nickal, a three-time NCAA Division I national champion wrestler, who fights at middleweight in Week 3 (Aug. 9).
Similar to previous seasons, there will be 10 weekly fight cards at UFC Apex in Las Vegas, the final one taking place Sept. 27.
Beyond the two DWCS-discovered title challengers, several other fighters already have made their mark in the UFC — from fast-rising strawweight Marina Rodriguez to colorfully blustery bantamweight Sean O’Malley. In all, 156 fighters have earned UFC contracts on the show, and more than a dozen of them are now in the promotion’s rankings.
How does one land a UFC contract via Contender Series? There seem to be three avenues for success:
1. Make the judges irrelevant
Finishing your fight is no guarantee that you’ll secure a spot in the UFC, but it’s by far a fighter’s best shot. This show isn’t simply about winning, it’s also about trying to get White, the UFC president, and his matchmakers to jump out of their cageside seats. A flashy finish could do just that and leave a lasting impression.
Who fits the bill: Practically everyone who has walked away with a UFC contract did so following a finish. Some notable names from the UFC rankings: Perez (No. 6), O’Malley (12) and Geoff Neal (welterweight, 13) from Season 1; Maycee Barber (women’s flyweight, 10), Ryan Spann (light heavyweight, 12) and Sodiq Yusuff (men’s featherweight, 12) from Season 2; Santos (2), Rodriguez (3) and Augusto Sakai (heavyweight, 14) from the Brazil season in 2020; Jamahal Hill (light heavyweight, 10), Andre Muniz (middleweight, 10) and Tracy Cortez (women’s flyweight, 14) from Season 3; and Dustin Jacoby (light heavyweight, 15) and Adrian Yanez (men’s bantamweight, 15) from Season 4.
The rankings are still waiting on someone among last season’s record 39 contract winners to emerge.
Season 2 also produced light heavyweight Jimmy Crute and middleweight Edmen Shahbazyan, both of whom earned deals with first-round knockouts. While neither is in the UFC rankings, they were Nos. 1 and 2 in ESPN’s 2020 ranking of the top 25 MMA fighters under age 25.
2. Go for that (elusive) finish
This is different from what’s above, because this qualification is not contingent upon a fighter actually getting the finish. The UFC brass, more than anything, wants to see that a fighter is not willing to settle for a decision. In other words, don’t be a Brendan Loughnane. The British featherweight dominated his Season 3 bout with Bill Algeo, but in the final seconds, he shot for a takedown to sew up the win rather than flurrying for a finish.
Rather than a UFC contract, Loughnane instead drew the ire of the company president. “Unlike any other show you would fight on or whatever, I’m looking for killers, man,” White said that night. (Loughnane is now in the PFL, while Algeo has fought four times in the UFC.)
Who fits the bill: Johnny Walker had to go the full three rounds to earn a victory over Henrique da Silva during the Brazil season. But, Walker was striving for a finish the whole time and was rewarded with a contract. He’s now No. 13 in the UFC’s light heavyweight rankings.
Last season, White took his contract-winning criteria in an interesting new direction. After Carlos Candelario suffered his first career loss in an exciting flyweight fight with Victor Altamirano, the UFC president showed how deeply he believes that winning isn’t everything. “It was an absolute dogfight; much respect to both of you,” he told the fighters. “I’m gonna take you both.”
3. Pile up the style points
The UFC is in the business of selling fights, and the promoter’s job is made easier by fighters who sell themselves. From the prefight buildup to the postfight callout, there’s a lot more to a prizefight than the fight itself. The Contender Series can be a prime-time showcase for a fighter’s total package.
Who fits the bill: O’Malley and Barber are the most prominent examples of this, marketing themselves in a big, bold way. In their Contender Series appearances, they both showed that they have more in their arsenals than the knockout punches that led to their UFC contracts.
O’Malley, with his aggressive striking, his Technicolor hairdo and his no-less-colorful trash talking, has become a star while slowly building toward 135-pound contendership. Five years after joining the UFC, he finally had his biggest test earlier this month. It was unfortunate that the bout with top-10 contender Pedro Munoz ended prematurely as a no contest because of an incidental eye poke. Although O’Malley might have lost the first round, he was coming on and had momentum. A win would have given fans reason to believe “Suga Sean” is as good as he says he is.
Barber arrived in the Contender Series at age 20 with her eyes fixed not simply on a UFC deal but on making history. Before she’d even set foot in the cage that night back in 2018, she pointed to Jon Jones being the youngest UFC champ ever and set her goal. “I’m gonna beat that record,” Barber said. “I have just over three years.” She didn’t make it to the belt, but her confidence still bubbles over every time she fights. A contender? Not yet, but she’s coming.
How to watch the fights
All of the fights are on ESPN+ starting at 8 p.m. ET.
Don’t have ESPN+? Get it here.
There’s also FightCenter, which offers live updates for all fight cards.
Tuesday’s fight card
ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Middleweight: Joseph Pyfer vs. Ozzy Diaz
Bantamweight: Farid Basharat vs. Willian Souza
Light heavyweight: Anton Turkalj vs. Acacio dos Santos
Men’s featherweight: Dennis Buzukja vs. Kaleio Romero
Men’s flyweight: Alessandro Costa vs. Andres Luna Martinetti