Ever since its inception in 2017, Dana White’s Contender Series has been churning out prospects into the UFC. While there have been some misses, there have been plenty of hits too.
Who is the best fighter to emerge into the UFC from Dana White’s Contender Series? It’s definitely a fair question to ask, with a number of superstars coming from the show.
So with the seventh season of the show likely to air at some point this year, it’s time to take a look at the previous graduates and how they’ve done in the octagon.
Here are the five best UFC fighters to have graduated from Dana White’s Contender Series so far.
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#5. Johnny Walker – UFC light heavyweight contender
The Brazilian edition of Dana White’s Contender Series, which took place in 2018, didn’t receive too much fanfare from casual fans. However, it did produce a number of high-level contenders for the UFC.
One of those contenders is Johnny Walker. The exciting light heavyweight has quickly become one of the most popular 205lbers in the promotion, and this week has seen him move back up into the top 10 of his division thanks to his knockout win over Paul Craig.
Strangely enough, Walker won his fight on the Contender Series via decision. But since entering the octagon properly, he’s gone the distance just twice, losing both times.
That means that all of his six wins, as well as his other two losses, have come via knockout or submission.
More importantly, Walker hasn’t been taking out scrubs. With wins over the likes of Ryan Spann, Ion Cutelaba and Craig, he’s singled himself out as one of the most dangerous 205lbers on the roster.
Whether Walker can ascend fully into title contention in the near future remains to be seen, but after headlining two events in 2022, it’s likely that his popularity could put him in a similar spot this year too.
Therefore, there’s no disputing that he’s one of the best prospects discovered on the Contender Series.
#4. Geoff Neal – UFC welterweight contender
The first season of Dana White’s Contender Series produced some well-regarded UFC fighters, including Grant Dawson, Julian Marquez and a one-time title challenger in the form of Alex Perez.
However, more notable from that season is welterweight Geoff Neal, who has climbed into the top 10 in one of the promotion’s most loaded divisions since winning his bout on the show.
‘Handz of Steel’ needed just under two minutes to dispatch his opponent on the Contender Series, and that win has set the tone for his octagon career thus far.
Neal has quickly become renowned as one of the hardest hitters in the welterweight division, and he’s finished a total of five foes since his arrival. More to the point, he holds wins over some highly regarded opponents, including Belal Muhammad and Vicente Luque.
Currently ranked at No.7, ‘Handz of Steel’ is set to face hot prospect Shavkat Rakhmonov in his next bout. If he can win that one, then it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him challenge for welterweight gold in the near future.
#3. Taila Santos – UFC flyweight contender
Only a handful of graduates from Dana White’s Contender Series have challenged for UFC titles, and only one thus far has outright claimed gold in the octagon.
However, it’s fair to say that flyweight contender Taila Santos came closer than most to doing this in 2022. With different judges, she could well have been a reigning champion right now.
Santos defeated her foe on the Brazilian version of the Contender Series to take her overall record to 15-0, but she actually lost her octagon debut – albeit in a controversial decision – to Mara Romero Borella.
After that, though, the Brazilian reeled off four impressive wins, finishing with a rear-naked choke submission of the highly regarded Joanne Wood.
That was enough to net her a title shot against reigning flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko. While Santos went into that bout as a huge underdog, she actually dominated ‘Bullet’ on the ground at points.
Many fans actually believed that she deserved the nod when the bout went to the judges. Instead, she was handed a defeat via split decision.
Despite this, Santos remains the only fighter to really push Shevchenko during her title reign. If she can beat Erin Blanchfield next month, she could gain another title shot in 2023.
That alone makes her one of the best graduates of the Contender Series.
#2. Sean O’Malley – UFC bantamweight contender
It’s arguable that the biggest star outright to be produced by Dana White’s Contender Series is bantamweight contender Sean O’Malley.
‘Sugar’ impressed in his performance on the show back in 2017. He was then treated as a big deal upon his full UFC debut, as he was given a main card fight against Terrion Ware, winning via decision.
A suspension for a positive drug test threatened to derail him, but since returning in 2020, O’Malley has been fantastic. He’s won six of his eight bouts, and most recently outpointed former bantamweight champion Petr Yan in one of the best fights of 2022.
More importantly, though, ‘Sugar’ has one of the most outspoken personalities in the promotion. That’s helped him to become one of the most recognizable fighters on the roster.
Whether O’Malley can claim bantamweight gold remains to be seen, but his win over Yan means he’ll probably get a chance to do so at some point this year. Even if he doesn’t, his exciting fighting style should mean that he’ll remain a major star for years to come.
#1. Jamahal Hill – UFC light heavyweight champion
Given that he’s the only graduate of Dana White’s Contender Series to win a UFC title, it’s safe to say that Jamahal Hill should be considered the best fighter to emerge from the show.
‘Sweet Dreams’ stunned most fans by putting a beating on former champion Glover Teixeira at UFC 283 to become the promotion’s new light heavyweight king. He appears to have the tools to dominate the division for some time.
Whether Hill can defend his title against dangerous foes like Magomed Ankalaev and Jiri Prochazka remains to be seen. But it’s safe to say that thus far, he’s more than surpassed expectations.
‘Sweet Dreams’ won his contract with the promotion by stopping his opponent on the Contender Series via TKO. Since then, he’s won a further six bouts, with one loss and one no contest to his name as well.
It was clear from the off that Hill’s speed, long reach and striking ability would make him a tricky opponent for many fighters at 205 pounds, but few people expected him to climb to the top quite as fast as he has done.
However, it’s impossible to argue with his last three wins, which have come over Johnny Walker, Thiago Santos and Teixeira.
Therefore, regardless of how long his title reign lasts, ‘Sweet Dreams’ should, for now at least, be considered the best graduate of Dana White’s Contender Series.
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