Tuesday marked the conclusion of the second season of the wildly successful and tremendously entertaining Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, with three more competitors earning UFC contracts, bringing the total number of new roster additions for Season 2 to 23 and raising the number for the series to 39 in total.
By the way, that doesn’t include the fighters who earned developmental deals or athletes who competed inside the TUF Gym this summer or last and received a call to the Octagon despite not initially being awarded a contract.
Basically, this series has been phenomenal, and with the second season in the books, it’s time to look back at some of the top performances from the first two seasons delivered by the new members of the UFC roster.
This is The 10.
Please note: these are in chronological order, not rank.
Sean O’Malley def. Alfred Khashakyan (Season 1, Week 2)
Welcome to The Sugar Show!
O’Malley has been the breakthrough star of the Contender Series thus far and his ascension began with his first-round knockout victory on Week 2. The mop-topped bantamweight was loose and fluid, sniping home clean punches, talking junk and kind of toying with Khashakyan.
For a moment, you wondered if it his casual approach was going to cost him and then the MMA Lab product fired a right hand down the pipe that put Khashakyan on the canvas and brought the fight to a close. O’Malley proceeded to jump on the fence, declare it “his show” and rattle off his resume to Dana White and the UFC matchmakers as he walked to the back for his post-fight interview with Laura Sanko.
Since then, “Sugar” has added a pair of decision wins to his resume, running his record to a perfect 10-0 and establishing himself as one of the most promising fighters in the 135-pound ranks.
Hawes was a “can’t miss prospect” who garnered a ton of attention as a promising young talent on the mats of the Jackson-Wink MMA Academy. Even after getting denied entrance into the TUF house on Season 23 by eventual winner Andrew Sanchez and losing to veteran Louis Taylor, this Week 3 matchup was viewed as a chance for the athletic middleweight to bounce back and make an impression.
But Marquez had other ideas.
The bearded middleweight dealt with Hawes’ wrestling, weathered some first-round ground-and-pound and, as the second round began, Marquez started teeing off. After backing Hawes up with punches and failing to put him away with ground-and-pound of his own, it looked like Marquez might have burned himself out. But as they worked back to their feet, Marquez blasted Hawes with a perfectly timed head kick that brought the fight to a sudden, emphatic end.
The only performance on this list that didn’t earn the winner a contract, Espinosa used his initial appearance on the Contender Series to settle an old Albuquerque grudge and make an impression with the UFC brass.
Eighteen months after their first meeting, which ended in a no contest, Espinosa and Urso ran it back. Less than 90 seconds later, Espinosa had wrapped up a victory, putting Urso out with a slick Anaconda Choke.
While Benito Lopez and Joby Sanchez earned contracts that week, Espinosa ended up getting another look early in Season 2 and after outworking Rilley Dutro and putting him away in the final seconds, the talented flyweight was awarded a contract.
The second women’s fight in Contender Series history became the first fight to graduate a female fighter to the UFC roster as Mueller started quickly and never let off the gas in earning a clean sweep of the scorecards over McGill on the Season 1 Finale.
Entering with a 3-0 record, “Princess Tiger” put it on the Invicta FC alum, hitting her with a head kick less than 10 seconds into the contest to set the tone for the fight. While McGill showed a ton of heart and toughness to last through to the final horn, Mueller thoroughly outclassed her, showcasing a ton of upside.
The Alliance MMA product made her promotional debut back in April, collecting a unanimous decision win over TUF alum Shana Dobson to move to 5-0 overall and show that she’s one of the top female prospects to watch in the UFC.
What started as a battle of unbeaten middleweights turned into a one-sided drubbing that kicked off what became a history-making night inside the TUF gym.
Hernandez, who won the LFA middleweight in January, entered with a 6-0 record, while Wright had posted nine victories in as many fights, never venturing beyond the opening round. The latter part of that streak would continue for Wright, but not in a good way, as Hernandez uncorked a 20-second flurry where almost everything landed flush and knocked “The Beverly Hills Ninja” from the ranks of the unbeaten.
It was a tremendous performance for the talented 24-year-old, who spoke emotionally about the passing of his father in the pre-fight video package. Middleweight is currently undergoing some changes and while he’s still yet to make his promotional debut and has a long way to go, “Fluffy” certainly has the potential to be this season’s breakout star.
A collegiate wrestler training out of the MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona, Edwards is the next in a long line of up-and-coming fighters from the John Crouch-led fight camp that shows next level potential.
Strolling into the Octagon with a four-fight winning streak where all his conquests came inside the first five minutes, Edwards delivered a “one shot, one kill” performance in Week 3, sniping Tweedy with a straight right hand that ended the fight in a flash. As referee Chris Tognoni tended to Tweedy, Edwards pantomimed signing a contract.
After the final bout was wrapped and White had some time to ponder what had transpired, Edwards was selected to sign an actual contract and join O’Malley as another MMA Lab product graduating to the biggest stage in the sport by putting on a show on the Contender Series.
Lewis earned a developmental deal following his victory over Elias Urbina on the final week of Season 1 and returned to the TUF Gym midway through Season 2 for his second appearance on the Contender Series.
If he felt any pressure to justify his developmental contract or follow in the footsteps of previous returning talents Alonzo Menifield and Ryan Spann who had already punched their tickets to the UFC earlier in the season, Lewis showed no signs of it as he was calm, cool and calculating in putting away Cunningham midway through the opening round.
It gets said a lot because of the physical similarities and the fact that he trains at Jackson-Wink in Albuquerque, but pieces of Lewis’ game are reminiscent of his teammate Jon Jones, as he makes good use of his length, mixes his strikes well and shows a tantalizing amount of upside.
On a night where four fighters earned stoppages and three came away with contracts, Barber still managed to stand out; that’s how good she looked in picking up a victory over Colleen to close things out on Week 5.
Nicknamed “The Future,” the 20-year-old has her sights set on breaking Jon Jones’ record for being the youngest champion in UFC history, and if her performance against Colleen is any indication, she could very well get there.
Showing the kind of patient, fluid skill set you don’t often see from someone so young, Barber dictated the terms of the fight from the outset and refused to coast to the final horn, continuing to pressure Colleen and connect with powerful shots into the final minute, where she secured the stoppage with some vicious elbows from top position.
Now 5-0, Barber is set to make her UFC debut close to home as part of the 25th Anniversary event in Denver, Colorado on November 10 against Maia Stevenson. If she looks as good there as she did on the Contender Series this season, don’t be surprised if Barber gets a big push heading into 2019.
The only fighter from Season 2 to win a decision and earn a contract, Yusuff showed outstanding speed and a very mature approach inside the cage during his highly anticipated showdown with Davis in the middle of Week 6.
The 25-year-old, who has fought on UFC FIGHT PASS in the past under the Victory FC and Titan FC banners, beat up Davis’ lead leg with punishing low kicks and countered the striker exceptionally well from the outset. While Davis was expected to be the quicker, more polished of the two on the feet, it was Yusuff who routinely got the better of the exchanges while showing the kind of poise needed to excel at the highest level.
Although he did not get the finish, “Super Sodiq” dominated the action and earned a sweep of the scorecards to join Jim Crute and Jeff Hughes as Week 6 victors to get contract offers. Now 7-1 in his career, the talented Nigerian-born featherweight is one to keep an eye on going forward.
Winning middleweight gold under the LFA banner is a good way to get yourself into the UFC, as Heinisch, who claimed the organization’s interim title in May, joined former champs Eryk Anders, Markus Perez and Week 2 winner Anthony Hernandez in making the move from the LFA cage to the UFC roster with a blistering performance against Sumter in Week 7.
After getting taken down early in the fight following a flying knee attempt gone astray, Heinisch worked back into top position and uncorked a series of nasty, nasty elbows that put Sumter out. It was the third straight stoppage win for “The Hurricane,” whose only loss came to Perez in an LFA middleweight title fight when both were 8-0 last September.
While it probably didn’t have any factor on Dana White’s decision to award him a contract – his performance was proof enough that he deserves to be in the UFC – Heinisch gets bonus points for getting “suited and booted” following his victory. The Factory X Muay Thai product looked sharp and is definitely someone who could make an instant impact in the middleweight division.