By E. Spencer Kyte | Posted 1 year ago


Writer’s Note: I have been a freelance contributor to the UFC website for more than a decade, and one of my assignments each of the last six years has been previewing and recapping Dana White’s Contender Series.


I tell you this here, now, so that you don’t think I’m trying to hide it from you as you read what follows, which is wholly and completely my opinion, my perspective on the annual talent search series and nothing more.


Comb through MMA Twitter in the days leading up to a non-Pay-Per-View event, like this weekend’s show at the UFC APEX, and you’re bound to see a number of criticisms that center around the number of athletes set to compete that matriculated to the UFC through Dana White’s Contender Series.


For the record, there are eight such competitors competing Saturday, out of 24 fighters overall.


The generally consensus amongst the critical set is that DWCS, like it’s talent-search predecessor The Ultimate Fighter and to a much lesser extent Dana White’s Lookin’ for a Fight, has become a pipeline for cheap, ineffective talent to be brought into the promotion, largely at the expense of older, more veteran competitors, most of whom are on contracts that are far greater than the new class that arrives each fall.


I won’t deign to suggest that isn’t happening because that is precisely what is transpiring, much in the same way that every offseason in the NFL, teams draft and sign rookies, and add free agents to compete for roster spots, often in order to replace a veteran player that has either been deemed ineffective, too expensive, or both.


What often gets left out in those criticisms — in addition to the whole “this happens in every sport” understanding of things — is that over 59 episodes spread across six seasons and one three-event run featuring Brazilian talent exclusively, the program has produced a wealth of UFC talent.


While everyone’s mileage may vary when it comes to assessing the level of talent the show has produced, here are 50 athletes that have graduated from the series thus far, each of whom has either already enjoyed moderate success or better inside the Octagon or shows legitimate upside:

Sean O’Malley

Geoff Neal

Grant Dawson

Matt Frevola

Anthony Hernandez

Ryan Spann

Maycee Barber

Edmen Shahbazyan

Jimmy Crute

Sodiq Yusuff

Chase Hooper

Kennedy Nzechukwu

Mayra Bueno Silva

Taila Santos

Johnny Walker

Marina Rodriguez

Thiago Moises

Joe Solecki

Jonathan Pearce

Ode Osbourne

Brendan Allen

Jamahal Hill

Billy Quarantillo

Tracy Cortez

Andre Muniz

Tony Gravely

Phil Rowe

Dustin Jacoby

Adrian Yanez

Cory McKenna

Carlos Ulberg

Ignacio Baamonde

Luana Pinheiro

Azamat Murzakanov

Joanderson Brito

Jailton Almeida

Jack Della Maddalena

Jasmine Jasudavicius

Michael Morales
Kleydson Rodrigues

Mike Malott

Jake Hadley

Caio Borralho

Javid Basharat

Joe Pyfer

Cameron Saaiman

Gabriel Bonfim

Ikram Aliskerov

Raul Rosas Jr.

Bo Nickal


Included in this collection are one current champion (Jamahal Hill), a former title challenger (Taila Santos), an impending title challenger (Sean O’Malley), 18 fighters currently ranked in the Top 15 in their respective divisions, a handful of competitors that have already been ranked or could well be soon, some prospects that show promise, and a few folks that are solid “rotation players” in their given weight class.


This list doesn’t include folks that passed through the series, didn’t receive a contract, but have still made their way to the UFC and are thriving, like Christian Rodriguez, Dan Ige, Kevin Holland or Chris Curtis.


It doesn’t include former title challenger and Top 10 flyweight Alex Perez, simply because he’s only fought once since the end of 2020 and seems snakebitten when it comes to actually stepping into the Octagon. Same goes for Jeff Molina, who is 3-0 in the UFC, but currently suspended.


Nor does it include the myriad “too early to tell yet” talents that have graduated to the UFC and are still working on establishing their footing and adjusting to life in the big leagues, like Uros Medic (2-1 UFC), Daniel Zellhuber (1-1), Piera Rodriguez (2-1), or Season 6 alums Nazim Sadykov, Denise Gomes, Ismail Bonfim, or Farid Basharat.


Are there just criticisms that can be levied against the show?

Of course, the most obviousis that simply winning your fight all but assures you of a contract now, as only six athletes that earned victories failed to secure a contract last season, which includes three-time DI National champion wrestler Bo Nickal not getting signed after his victory on Week 3, but returning and securing his deal later in the season.


The number of contracts handed out each season has increased year after year, despite the fact that the depth of available talent isn’t as great as in prior years, as the UFC and other promotions constantly snatch up emerging competitors.


But to simply malign the series as a blight on the UFC and brush aside a large number of the fighters to come through the program as being unable to compete at this level is incorrect in my opinion.


Have there been contract winners that have touched down in the Octagon and quickly flamed out? Absolutely, but for every Kurt Holobaugh, Sarah Alpar, or JP Buys that have struggled to register a UFC victory, there is a Sean O’Malley, a Tracy Cortez, or a Jailton Almeida that have combined to go 17-1 with one No Contest while establishing themselves amongst the top contenders or emerging talents in their respective divisions.


Excluding the contract winners from last season, some of whom have still not yet made their promotional debuts, there are 24 athletes to come through the show that failed to register a victory inside the Octagon, a couple of whom are still on the roster and have been limited due to injuries.


There have also been 23 competitors that have earned five or more UFC wins, and I would argue that missing on those 24 fighters that have yet to taste victory is a reasonable tradeoff for finding the collection of graduates that have enjoyed a great deal of success since joining the roster.


While the best-case scenario would be finding elite prospects and quality divisional depth without adding an equal number of competitors that are unable to tread water in the UFC, a near one-to-one ratio is pretty damn good.


I would understand the waves of criticism if for every Grant Dawson, who has gone 7-0-1 in the UFC since appearing on the first season of the continuing recruitment series, there were two, three, or four names that came and went without any impact, but that hasn’t been the case.


Even if you want to cut the names at the two ends -- excising those that struggled and dumping those currently excelling -- and focus exclusively on the middle class, it’s not a bad assemblage of talent.


Rogerio Bontorin had a solid six-fight run, earning a place in the flyweight rankings before dropping three of his last four and departing the promotion. Sean Woodson still shows promise, each of Phil Hawes’ seven appearances have been eventful, and Cheyanne Vlismas is bound to have a solid run as a game, feisty member of the 115-pound weight class.


Are Luis Saldana and Natan Levy going to become contenders? No, but not everyone on the roster has to be a future contender in order to have utility and be entertaining to watch, and like a good number of their DWCS contemporaries, both of those things are true of them.


Some will say I’m defending the show and its graduates because I’m protecting my job.


Others will say I’m being protective of these athletes because I’ve watched the entirety of their careers and feel a certain kind of way about them as a result.


A few will probably suggest that I don’t believe any of this and I’m just out here firing off ideas for the hell of it, but I assure you -- it’s none of those things.


It’s simply that I see the elite talent that has come through the program — fighters like O’Malley, Santos, Hill, and Almeida — and the promising names that continue to flash upside, and I wonder, “Isn’t this the point of the exercise?”


This series is a talent search, and like it or not, you have to admit that Dana White’s Contender Series has unearthed a pretty good amount of talent over the years.



For more from E. Spencer Kyte, click here. (hyperlink this, please

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