There is a tendency in the MMA space to paint things with a broad brush — to find a sweeping generalization, apply it to the whole, and let that idea come to stand as the universal opinion about a group of competitors or how certain events should be perceived.
“It’s just a bunch of useless Contender Series guys no one knows or cares about…”
The above has become a more common refrain over the last couple of years, as the number of graduates from each season of Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS) continues to grow, both individually season-on-season, and as a whole when it comes to the UFC roster as a whole.
In seven season, there have been 234 contracts awarded, as well as 11 more during a three-event all-Brazilian run towards the end of summer 2018, with just over half of those new additions to the roster coming over the last three seasons, including a record-setting 46 contracts being doled out this year in Season 7.
While there has undeniably been an appreciable increase in the number of contacts being awarded each year, and the criteria for earning a contract is undefined, with occasional instances where decisions are difficult to understand, this idea that Dana White’s Contender Series largely adds generic, low-end talent to the roster year-after-year ignores the actual returns the ongoing talent search series has produced thus far.
More than 50 percent of the athletes that earned contracts in the first four seasons and the Brazilian mini-season remain on the UFC roster, with 25 percent of those athletes currently being ranked in the Top 15 in their respective weight classes, including bantamweight champion Sean O’Malley, former light heavyweight champ Jamahal Hill, and impending bantamweight title challenger Mayra Bueno Silva.
This week’s return to the UFC APEX — itself much maligned over the last year — stands as a clear example of the overall success of the series, provided one isn’t taking a Ricky Bobby approach to defining success.
Saturday’s 13-fight lineup features 16 competitors that matriculated to the UFC Octagon through Dana White’s Contender series, including two — unbeaten bantamweight Payton Talbott and heavyweight Caio Machado — from Season 7 that are set to make their promotional debuts.
Headliner Brendan Allen carries a five-fight winning streak into his clash with Paul Craig, having earned each of his last three victories by rear-naked choke. He currently sits at No. 10 in the middleweight rankings, and boasts a 10-2 mark in a dozen fights since defeating Aaron Jeffrey to earn his contract on Season 3.
Michael Morales is an undefeated 25-year-old from Ecuador that has earned three straight UFC victories to move to 15-0 overall. Coming off a unanimous decision win over game veteran Max Griffin and set to face Australian Jake Matthews on Saturday, Morales has an abundance of upside and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make a push towards the rankings in 2024.
Outside of the main event, the only other bout on the card pitting ranked opponents against one another is in the strawweight division, where Season 4 alum Luana Pinheiro looks to remain unbeaten inside the Octagon when she takes on fellow Brazilian Amanda Ribas. Pinheiro, who turns 29 on Saturday, comes into the contest ranked No. 9 in the 115-pound weight class after earning a split decision win over veteran Michelle Waterson-Gomez at UFC 287 in April.
In addition to those three athletes, there are three additional matchups where DWCS grads face off, and each of them should be wildly entertaining, with one carrying clear and immediate divisional significance.
As much as the lightweight contest between scramble-happy grapplers Chase Hooper and Jordan Leavitt should be fun, and the welterweight contest between Jonny Parsons and Uros Medic has explosive potential, the featherweight bout between Jonathan Pearce and Joanderson Brito that closes out the preliminary card is unquestionably a critical pairing in the 145-pound weight class.
Pearce was ranked in the Top 15 prior to being forced out of a matchup against Bryce Mitchell at UFC 288 earlier this year. He’s won five straight since returning to the division, turning in dominant efforts the whole way through. As for Brito, the 28-year-old Brazilian is compact finisher, having registered three straight first-round stoppage wins heading into Saturday’s clash with Pearce. His contract-winning effort in Season 5 has also aged like a fine wine, as the man he defeated by technical decision, Diego Lopes, has been one of the breakout stars of 2023.
Beyond that, Talbott looks like someone to keep tabs on at this point in his career as he just turned 25 and sports a 6-0 record, while Mick Parkin was sharp in his debut win over Jamal Pogues in London this summer, is unbeaten in seven pro bouts, and trains alongside new minted interim heavyweight champ Tom Aspinall.
Even if we just count Hooper, Leavitt, Parsons, and Medic as competitors like to fall short of the rankings, that’s still seven DWCS alums out of the 13 competing that are either already ranked, on the cusp, or worth tracking as they embark on their careers in the Octagon, which is a pretty strong rate of return.
Think of it this way: each year, there are an average of 255 players selected in the NFL Draft.
Using a seven-year sample from 2015 to 2021, inclusive, there have been 1788 player selected in the draft, with 175 of those men earning a spot in the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s version of the All-Star Game.
That means that 9.78 percent of the players drafted during that span have had at least one season where they were amongst the best in the league at their respective position.
If we take just the years that represent the first four season of Dana White’s Contender Series — 2017 to 2020 — we have a pool of 1020 drafted players, and 99 Pro Bowl selections, which is just shy of 10 percent.
While this certainly isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, that 10 percent rate of return on an all-star in the NFL makes the fact that 25 percent of DWCS contract winners from the same time frame are currently ranked look even more impressive.
There have certainly been a host of competitors to come through the show and flame out hard inside the Octagon, but more than 50 percent of graduates remain on the roster, and even simply adding quality depth to the ranks is a positive.
But that isn’t what has happened.
Two champions have emerged from the first four seasons, along with two other athletes that have already challenged for UFC gold, one set to do so in January, and a bunch of ranked competitors, along with a host of quality emerging talents spread across various divisions.
Saturday’s event is a perfect example of the success of the series, and it doesn’t seem like it will be slowing down any time soon.