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Dana White's Contender Series: 5 best UFC fighters to emerge from the show

UFC President Dana White has unearthed some true gems on his Contender Series
UFC President Dana White has unearthed some true gems on his Contender Series
Scott Newman

Ever since it began in the summer of 2017, Dana White’s Contender Series has become the best way for a young fighter to graduate onto the UFC’s main roster.

For years, UFC President Dana White had spoken about running a show like boxing’s USA Tuesday Night Fights, and while Dana White’s Contender Series has only been running for a fraction of the time that that show did, it’s certainly been a massive success.

Numerous fighters have been awarded UFC contracts after starring on the show, while others who weren’t granted deals right away have also gone onto make their UFC debuts. And while not all of the graduates of Dana White’s Contender Series have gone onto success, others have proven to be a major hit in the UFC.

Here are the five best UFC fighters to emerge from Dana White’s Contender Series.

#5 Sodiq Yusuff emerged from Dana White's Contender Series

Sodiq Yusuff's punching power has made him a favorite with the UFC's fans
Sodiq Yusuff's punching power has made him a favorite with the UFC's fans

Nigerian-American Featherweight Sodiq Yusuff made his appearance on Dana White’s Contender Series in July 2018, where he outpointed Mike Davis. Davis – who also went onto compete in the UFC proper – simply couldn’t deal with Yusuff’s speed, striking power and raw athleticism.

In previous episodes of the Contender Series, Dana White had tended to hand UFC contracts only to fighters who were able to finish their opponent in violent fashion. However, in this case, it was clear that ‘Super Sodiq’ had too much talent to be ignored. And in the two years that have followed, White’s decision has been vindicated.

Yusuff made his full UFC debut just five months after his win over Davis, knocking out Suman Mokhtarian in just over two minutes. The performance earned ‘Super Sodiq’ a $50k bonus and immediately put him onto the radar of UFC fans worldwide.

Since then, Yusuff has reeled off another three wins, outpointing Sheymon Moraes and Andre Fili and knocking out Gabriel Benitez in ruthless fashion. With such an explosive fighting style – reminiscent of former UFC star Melvin Guillard – it’s unsurprising that he was able to make a fan of Dana White.

Injuries have prevented him from competing since January’s UFC 246, but when he returns, it’s expected that he’ll be given a fight that could potentially propel him into title contention at 145lbs.

#4 Greg Hardy emerged from Dana White's Contender Series

Despite his controversial past, Greg Hardy is a favorite of UFC President Dana White
Despite his controversial past, Greg Hardy is a favorite of UFC President Dana White

Arguably the most controversial fighter on the UFC’s roster right now, former NFL defensive end Greg Hardy made his professional MMA debut on Dana White’s Contender Series in July 2018. It took him just 57 seconds to dispatch of opponent Austen Lane by knockout, and despite a chequered past that had seen him convicted of domestic violence, it was clear that Dana White was impressed.

Hardy was immediately handed a “developmental contract” with the UFC and returned to Dana White’s Contender Series just a month later, picking up another TKO win. January 2019 saw him make his full UFC debut with a professional record of just 3-0, but things didn’t quite go to plan for ‘The Prince of War’.

Despite dominating opponent Allen Crowder early on, Hardy tired out and was eventually disqualified after stunning Crowder with an illegal knee. Undeterred, the former NFL man bounced back with three straight wins – although his victory over Ben Sosoli was overturned due to an incident that saw him use an asthma inhaler between rounds.

Hardy remained keen to fight and ended up taking his 5th bout of 2019 when he stepped in on late notice to face Alexander Volkov. And although he was defeated by the more experienced Russian, he acquitted himself excellently and showed a dramatic improvement in his overall skills.

The former NFL man’s past transgressions might mean that he isn’t the most popular fighter with fans, but it’s easy to see why Dana White is a fan. Not only does Hardy possess grade A athleticism, but he’s also shown a willingness to work hard to improve his craft.

Like him or not, ‘The Prince of War’ could well become a Heavyweight title contender in the near future.

#3 Edmen Shahbayzan emerged from Dana White's Contender Series

Edmen Shahbazyan is one of the UFC's hottest Middleweight prospects
Edmen Shahbazyan is one of the UFC's hottest Middleweight prospects

Thus far at least, Armenian-American Middleweight Edmen Shahbazyan is the only graduate of Dana White’s Contender Series to main event a UFC show. Sure, that fight – a clash with battle-tested contender Derek Brunson – didn’t go to plan, as ‘Golden Boy’ was knocked out in the third round, but that’s beside the point. The 22-year old remains one of the UFC’s best prospects in any weight class.

Shahbazyan’s appearance on Dana White’s Contender Series took place in July 2018, and it took him just 40 seconds to dispose of opponent Antonio Jones via knockout.

A training partner of former UFC Bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey during her title reign, ‘Golden Boy’ was just 20 when Dana White handed him his contract, making him one of the UFC’s youngest fighters.

It took Shahbazyan just five months to make his full UFC debut, a fight that saw him outwrestle Darren Stewart for a decision. In his fights that followed, ‘Golden Boy’ destroyed Charles Byrd, Jack Marshman, and Brad Tavares to find himself firmly embedded in the top 15 at 185lbs.

Despite his recent loss to Brunson, Shahbazyan is still a red-hot prospect. With incredibly heavy strikes, tons of aggression, ruthless finishing instincts and improving technical skills in all areas, ‘Golden Boy’ still has his prime years ahead of him.

When all is said and done, he could end up becoming the first fighter of an Armenian background to hold UFC gold.

#2 Alex Perez emerged from Dana White's Contender Series

Alex Perez has the chance of becoming the first graduate of Dana White's Contender Series to hold UFC gold
Alex Perez has the chance of becoming the first graduate of Dana White's Contender Series to hold UFC gold

November 21st, 2020 is set to be a special day for Dana White’s Contender Series. The date marks UFC 255, where – assuming the fight isn’t affected by injuries or Covid-19 – Alex Perez should become the first graduate of the show to attempt to win a UFC title.

In this case, the title is the UFC’s Flyweight crown, currently held by dangerous Brazilian Deiveson Figueiredo. ‘Deus Da Guerra’ has lost just once in his career, but Perez will be hoping to change that and claim the gold, shocking UFC fans in the process.

The truth is that although he’s only been given this title shot due to an injury to Cody Garbrandt, Perez has been a fantastic addition to the UFC’s roster ever since he arrived in 2017.

His appearance on Dana White’s Contender Series saw him defeat Kevin Gray via anaconda choke, and just four months later, he used the same move to dispatch of Carls John de Tomas in his full UFC debut.

Since then, Perez has won 5 of his next 6 UFC fights, losing only to perennial contender Joseph Benavidez. Along the way, he’s defeated tough opponents such as Eric Shelton and Mark De La Rosa and most recently took out highly-rated veteran Jussier Formiga.

That fight saw Perez destroy the Brazilian with a series of brutal leg kicks – becoming only the third fighter to stop Formiga in his 15-year professional career.

A dynamic, explosive fighter with incredible scrambling skills, great striking and cardio for days, Perez will almost certainly prove to be a tricky challenge for Figueiredo. If he can unseat the Brazilian and become the first graduate of Dana White’s Contender Series to claim UFC gold, it’ll be impossible to deny him his spot in UFC history.

#1 Sean O’Malley emerged from Dana White's Contender Series

Sean O'Malley has become a major UFC star since his appearance on Dana White's Contender Series
Sean O'Malley has become a major UFC star since his appearance on Dana White's Contender Series

Although he’s only had 5 UFC fights since debuting on Dana White’s Contender Series back in 2017, no other fighter to graduate from the show has received the hype that Sean O’Malley has. However, it’s safe to say that the skills he’s shown inside the Octagon have proven that ‘Sugar Sean’ deserves it.

Still just 25 years old, O’Malley stunned viewers with his striking skill when he knocked out Alfred Khashakyan in the first round of his fight on Dana White’s Contender Series. Upon entering the UFC proper, he outworked Terrion Ware for a decision, and then hasn’t looked back since.

O’Malley picked up his first $50k bonus from Dana White at UFC 222, winning the ‘Fight of the Night’ award for his war with Andre Soukhamthath. His career was then derailed due to a positive drug test – but upon his return in March 2020, he picked up where he left off by KOing Jose Quinonez to win another $50k bonus.

June saw ‘Sugar Sean’ claim his third bonus reward with a knockout of former WEC Bantamweight champ Eddie Wineland in what was easily one of 2020’s most brutal finishes. And while he was recently defeated by the underrated Marlon Vera, there’s no question that his future in the UFC is bright.

Already a favorite of Dana White’s thanks to his brash personality and exciting fighting style, it’s easy to imagine O’Malley as a future UFC poster-boy. To date at least, he’s been the most impressive graduate of Dana White’s Contender Series.

Edited by Amar Anand

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