When “Dana White’s Contender Series” launches its fourth season at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, the show will be seeking to build upon its past successes.
The season begins on Tuesday with five fights in three weight classes, featuring several young prospects, a former UFC roster member looking to return and a pair of undefeated fighters. The fights will be broadcast on ESPN+, starting at 8 p.m. ET.
In the weekly fight show’s first three seasons, there were 144 fights from which 80 fighters caught the eye of White and were awarded UFC contracts. That doesn’t account for those who initially received developmental contracts (such as Chase Hooper) or those who signed UFC deals later (such as Dan Ige).
Has the show lived up to its name and produced actual contenders? No DWCS alums have yet challenged for a UFC championship, and only two (Ige and Edmen Shahbazyan) have competed in main events. But there are prospects galore.
The best of the bunch? That’s a matter of opinion, and ESPN’s Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi are split on who’s No. 1. They each offer up a top five from the show’s three seasons — and we suggest a fighter to watch on Tuesday’s Season 4 debut.
Okamoto’s No. 1 ‘Contender’: Sean O’Malley
I mean, what more can the guy do? OK, sure, he could be doing it against tougher competition, but that’s obviously to come. The UFC is in the process of building up O’Malley (12-0, 4-0 in the UFC), and that’s not a bad thing. His competition hasn’t been stellar, but it’s getting progressively better. His fight with Marlon Vera at UFC 252 on Aug. 15 is a legitimate matchup.
O’Malley’s career was put on hold from 2018 to early 2020 after failing a drug test and then having trace amounts of the banned substance remain in his system. Though the time away from the cage was frustrating for him, it might have been a blessing, honestly. O’Malley spent that time in the gym and growing into his now 25-year-old frame. Impossible to say for sure, but I think he’s better off now because of that time off.
Thus far, I find O’Malley to be incredibly smart, incredibly confident, technically sound and more than athletic enough to be a real factor in the UFC’s stacked bantamweight division. Is he a future champion? I can’t say for certain. But I can definitely say he’s got a shot.
Raimondi’s No. 1 ‘Contender’: Dan Ige
Nearly three years after Ige’s fight on “Contender Series,” he was headlining a UFC card on Fight Island. It has been one heck of a run for the Hawaii native. To me, he is the most accomplished DWCS alum, having done more in his division than anyone else the show has produced. Ige (14-3, 6-2 UFC) fought Calvin Kattar on July 15 in a high-level contender bout at featherweight. Kattar ended up winning by unanimous decision, but Ige was extremely competitive.
There’s little doubt in my mind Ige is a top-10-caliber talent at 145 pounds — and still just 28 years old. Ige won six straight fights in the UFC going into the Kattar bout, including a victory over Edson Barboza in May. Call him “Dynamite Dan” or “50K Ige,” whatever you prefer. I’ll call him the most successful “Contender Series” alum so far, and he has by no means reached his ceiling.
The rest of Okamoto’s top five
2. Geoff Neal (13-2, 5-0 UFC)
Ceiling-wise, Neal and O’Malley are neck-and-neck for me. I see Neal as a legitimate threat to the welterweight championship. He’s an A-plus-plus-plus athlete. He’s got a great combination of size and strength, and I don’t think he’s going to be at a loss against some of the top wrestlers in this division (which, at welterweight, is a necessity if you’re going to hold a belt). At 29, Neal is not even close to being the youngest DWCS alum on my list, so he presumably has less time than the others — and I still think he might end up being the most accomplished one of them all when it’s said and done.
3. Dan Ige
Ige has, by far, accomplished the most thus far of any name on my list. He won six in a row from 2018 to 2020 in arguably the deepest division in the UFC. Last month, he ran into a buzzsaw in Calvin Kattar in his first main event, but I’m not sure Kattar won’t win a UFC championship sometime in the next two years. In other words, there’s no shame in losing to Kattar. Ige is going to have plenty of good nights at 145 pounds. He’s in a division in which it’s tough to reach the top, and it will take a pretty magical run for him to do it, but I wouldn’t count him out.
4. Maycee Barber (8-1, 3-1 UFC)
Barber wants to be the best fighter of all time and is very, very confident she will be. That confidence — and her willingness to say it over and over — has inspired some and turned off others. Don’t expect her to stop saying it. She suffered her first pro loss to Roxanne Modafferi in January, and tore her ACL in the process. She went from the spotlight to completely out of it in the blink of an eye, but that’s of little concern right now, considering she’s only 22. “The Future,” as she calls herself, is still very bright.
5. Edmen Shahbazyan (11-1, 4-1 UFC)
Last weekend was a rude awakening for the 22-year-old middleweight prospect. Something tells me Shahbazyan already knew he was not going to finish every fight in the first round — especially as he faces harder competition — but he did not adjust particularly well to adversity on Saturday. Despite the loss, the ceiling remains very high on Shahbazyan, but he’ll be facing some serious questions his next time out. How will he respond mentally to his first loss? And will he show the ability to make adjustments? Oftentimes, great fighters make some of the biggest leaps of their careers following a loss. Will Shahbazyan?
The rest of Raimondi’s top five
2. Sean O’Malley
Had O’Malley not lost two years due to issues with the United States Anti-Doping Agency — a pair of drug-test failures later deemed unintentional ingestion — he might be at the top of my list. Heck, he might even be bantamweight champion right now. But we can go only by what the in-cage product has been. For O’Malley, it has been incredible: two straight first-round finishes since his layoff. But he’s still lingering outside the elite at 135 pounds in terms of competition level. No doubt he will get to that rarefied air in the division. And his next fight, against “Chito” Vera, could be the one to propel him there.
3. Geoff Neal
I feel like people sleep on Neal, the baddest waiter on the planet. The Fortis MMA product has done nothing but win in the UFC and has three incredibly violent knockouts to his name, two of them coming over Mike Perry and Niko Price. Neal has a hard time getting fights, which is maybe understandable. He’s an all-around elite — the MMA version of a five-tool player — but doesn’t yet have a ranking next to his name that would make him a desired opponent. That time is likely to come. The welterweight division is stacked in the UFC, but Neal has as much talent as anyone, especially fighting on the feet.
4. Edmen Shahbazyan
I spoke to several top MMA coaches ahead of Shahbazyan’s fight with Derek Brunson. The words that kept coming up about the young prospect were “monster” and “real deal” and “problem.” Shahbazyan is 22 years old, is already making his way up the middleweight ladder and seems primed to have a long career as an elite UFC fighter. Yes, he was finished by Brunson, but he’s still young. Brunson has lost to only current and past champions over the past six years. Shahbazyan has all the tools. Coach Edmond Tarverdyan and Ronda Rousey, two of Shahbazyan’s longtime mentors, should be very proud of not just the youngster’s skills, but also his poise and composure.
5. Alex Perez (24-5, 6-1)
The Team Oyama fighter had some issues with his weight cut to 125 pounds early on in his UFC run, but he has absolutely figured it out. Perez has become a devastating force at flyweight and is a potential title challenger for new champ Deiveson Figueiredo. Of anyone on this list, he’s likely the closest to a title shot, which is why he deserves a mention in my top five. Perez is coming off a brutal leg-kick TKO of division stalwart Jussier Formiga. He has won three straight and six of seven. His only loss? To Joseph Benavidez, who has been the elite of the elite at flyweight for nearly a decade.
On to Season 4: Tuesday’s Week 1 schedule
Flores is 26 and from Denver; three of his wins are by submission, all by rear-naked choke. Jacoby, 32, is also from Colorado, fighting out of Englewood, just 20 minutes away from the Mile High City. Jacoby fought (and lost) twice in the UFC, the last time in 2012.
The 27-year-old Medic was born and raised in Serbia and now fights out of Anchorage, Alaska. Four of his five wins have been first-round finishes. This one might be over in a hurry, as Gonzalez, 34, also works quickly, with five finishes in Round 1. He was born in San Jose, California, and still trains there.
It’s Mexico vs. New Mexico. Rodriguez, who fights out of Veracruz, Mexico, is 21 and on a seven-fight winning streak. He’s a finisher, with five KOs and three submissions. Rivera, 25, has six submission wins and one KO. He’s from Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Thirty-two-year-old Flores, out of Mission, Texas, competed on the “Contender Series” in 2017 and was submitted by Matt Frevola, who went on to the UFC. Flores did not fight for nearly two years after that loss but has since won two in a row, both by first-round submission. Leavitt, 25, will be fighting in his hometown, Las Vegas, where he attends UNLV and trains at Syndicate MMA with coach John Wood. He has four submissions, each by a different technique.
Week 1 fighter to watch: Dustin Jacoby
What a wild journey Jacoby has been on. His bout with Ty Flores will be only his second MMA fight in five years. In the meantime, Jacoby has been competing in kickboxing with the elite organization Glory. He has been putting on size, moving up to light heavyweight from middleweight, and has refined his striking game under the tutelage of Muay Thai aficionado Marc Montoya at Factory X. Jacoby has become a really solid kickboxer, beating some Glory opponents who had much more experience in pure stand-up combat sports. In the early part of the decade, Jacoby fought in the UFC, Bellator and World Series of Fighting. He went winless in all of them. Yet, at 32 years old, he is a much different fighter now. –Raimondi