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The 10: Dana White Contender Series Grads

Introduced two summers ago, Dana White’s Contender Series has been a pipeline funneling prospects into the UFC.

Introduced two summers ago, Dana White’s Contender Series has been a pipeline funneling prospects into the UFC.

Over the course of two seasons, the stripped-down, five-fight, early-week events have resulted in 39 athletes receiving UFC contracts, along with one competitor — unbeaten 19-year-old Chase Hooper — currently working on a development deal and another dozen fighters garnering a chance to compete in the Octagon after appearing on the show.

To put into perspective just how many quality up-and-comers have made their way from the Contender Series to the UFC, fighters like Roosevelt Roberts, Sodiq Yusuff, Kevin Holland and Dan Ige have all garnered multiple victories inside the Octagon following their time on the Contender Series and none of them cracked the list of the Top 10 graduates from the show.

That’s not a knock on them or their talents; it’s just a sign of the depth of talent that has already been filtered through the show. “Sugar” Sean O’Malley is arguably the most popular and well-known fighter to matriculate from fighting inside the old Ultimate Fighter Gym to competing on the biggest stage in the sport and the unbeaten bantamweight upstart didn’t make the cut either.

Here’s a look at the athletes who did.

This is the Contender Series Graduates edition of The 10.

Geoff Neal

The Fortis MMA product’s journey from the Contender Series to being an emerging threat in the UFC welterweight division is extra impressive when you consider that he took his fight on the Contender Series against Chase Waldon on short notice and up a division. Yet just 11 days after defeating Bilal Williams at LFA 16, Neal walked into the cage and took out a middleweight in under two minutes, earning his ticket to the UFC.

Since then, “Handz of Steel” has gone 3-0 and established himself as someone to keep an eye on in the 170-pound weight class. He made relatively quick work of Brian Camozzi in his debut, scored a second-round knockout win over Frank Camacho in his sophomore appearance and out-worked the resilient Belal Muhammad in a terrific fight in January to push his record 11-2 overall.

Welterweight is loaded with talent, but the 28-year-old Texan has the weaponry needed to continue making a push towards the top of the division.

Watch for free as contract winner Geoff Neal takes on Chase Waldon in week 3 of Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series. Watch the full first season exclusively on FIGHT PASS.


Ricky Simon

Appearing in Week 5 during Season 1, Simon earned a split decision win over Donavon Frelow and left Las Vegas without a contract. Four months later, he was back in action, securing a decision win over UFC vet Chico Camus to claim the vacant LFA bantamweight title and followed it up with a 59-second knockout of Vinicius Zani to defend the belt.

A month later, Simon was in the Octagon, earning a controversial submission victory over Merab Dvalishvili to extend his winning streak to six. Since then, the 26-year-old with the best mullet since Mike Pyle’s glory days has earned two more wins to position himself as one of the best emerging talents in the ultra-competitive 135-pound weight class.

Catch Season 3 of Dana White's Contender Series Beginning June 18th on ESPN+

Next up for Simon is a high profile showdown with the returning “California Kid,” Urijah Faber, next month in Sacramento. If the Gracie Barra Portland product can continue his run of success while beating Faber on his home turf, it should carry the talented prospect into the Top 15 and set him up for even greater opportunities over the final five months of 2019.

Grant Dawson

Dawson was a rising star on the Midwest regional circuit prior to his appearance on the Contender Series on Week 6 of Season 1 and he kept his momentum rolling by collecting a second-round submission win over Adrian Diaz to earn a call-up to the UFC.

All that momentum came to a screeching halt when Dawson was flagged and sidelined due to a USADA investigation into an anti-doping violation, only to have the case dismissed a year later. When he returned to action and made his official UFC debut, Dawson picked up right where he left off.

After defeating veteran Julian Erosa in his initial appearance in the Octagon, the 25-year-old featherweight who trains under James Krause with the Glory MMA and Fitness team in Lee’s Summit, Missouri scored the biggest win of his career, handing recent Ultimate Fighter winner Mike Trizano his first professional loss.

Featherweight is flush with talent at the moment, which means Dawson should be able to continue progressing at a natural rate without getting thrown in over his head anytime soon. What is going to be interesting to see, however, is how quickly the rising star puts himself in a position to face the more established names in the division because if he keeps on like he has through his first two UFC starts, it’s only a matter of time before he’s sharing the cage with a Top 15 fighter.

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 15:   Grant Dawson celebrates his submission victory over Adrian Diaz in their featherweight bout during Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series at the TUF Gym on August 15, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/DW
Grant Dawson celebrates his submission victory over Adrian Diaz (Photo by Brandon Magnus/DWTNCS)

Montel Jackson

The only fighter on this list to have suffered a setback in the Octagon, Jackson is another fighter who didn’t initially earn a contract, but has proven himself to be one of the top graduates from the Contender Series thus far.

“Quik” competed in the opening week of Season 2, registering a third-round stoppage win over Rico DiSciullo. Less than two months later, he made his short-notice UFC debut against Simon, landing on the wrong side of a unanimous decision verdict against the more experienced fighter from the Pacific Northwest. Since then, however, the 27-year-old Jackson has earned back-to-back victories over veterans Brian Kelleher and Andre Soukhamthath, pushing his record to 8-1 overall and positioning himself as someone to watch in the 135-pound weight division.

The New Season of Dana White’s Contender Series Streams Live on ESPN+ From the Brand New UFC Apex in Las Vegas Starting June 18

What really makes Jackson stand out is that he only made his pro debut in June 2017. In less than two years, he’s earned his way onto the biggest stage in the sport and shown that he belongs. With a little more seasoning, the Pura Vida BJJ/MMA product could become one of those guys other bantamweights avoid.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 12:  Montel Jackson celebrates after his TKO victory over Rico Disciullo in their bantamweight bout during Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series at the TUF Gym on June 12, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/DWTNCS
Montel Jackson celebrates after his TKO victory over Rico Disciullo (Photo by Jeff Bottari/DWTNCS LLC)

Ryan Spann

The second Fortis MMA representative to crack this collection, Spann landed on the wrong side of things in his first appearance on the Contender Series, getting finished in 15 seconds by kickboxer Karl Roberson early in Season 1. Although the setback was devastating for the quiet light heavyweight from Beaumont, Texas, Spann eventually dusted himself off and collected three stoppage wins under the LFA banner to set up his appearance on Season 2.

This time, “Superman” was the one finishing quickly, as he choked out Emilano Sordi in 26 seconds to secure a contract.

Following a good, but not great, debut win over Luis Henrique, Spann made a splash in his sophomore appearance in the Octagon, venturing to Rio de Janeiro and silencing the partisan crowd by knocking out Brazilian legend Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in just over two minutes.

Now on a six-fight winning streak, the 27-year-old should find himself sharing the cage with another Top 15 competitor later this year and is one of several new names who has helped make the light heavyweight division intriguing again.

'Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series' Week 2 contract winner Ryan Spann only needed 26 seconds to convince the UFC president that he's ready for the Octagon.


Maycee Barber

If I had to highlight one fighter coming off the Contender Series with the brightest future, I would select Barber without any hesitation. That’s not a knock on any of the other athletes on this list — it’s just that the 21-year-old has already collected a pair of stoppage wins inside the Octagon and is already poised to be a factor in the flyweight division going forward.

After mauling Jamie Colleen in her Week 5 win during Season 2, Barber got a home game for her promotional debut, squaring off Hannah Cifers in Denver, where the Fort Collins resident scored a second-round win. For her sophomore appearance, Barber moved up to flyweight and took on JJ Aldrich, who entered on a three-fight winning streak and was starting to build some momentum of her own in the 125-pound weight class.

Following a rough first round that saw her get dropped for the first time in her career, Barber started making adjustments in the second and once she found her range and rhythm, she connected with a series of strikes that eventually brought the fight to a halt.

The wins are great and crucial for advancement, obviously, but the things that have stuck out most about Barber thus far are her tenacity and finishing instincts, two things you can’t really teach a fighter and that you don’t necessarily expect from a 21-year-old. As she continues to gain experience and improve her fight IQ, “The Future” could very well make a run at breaking Jon Jones’ record for being the youngest champion in UFC history.

Edmen Shahbazyan

When you’re fighting out of the Glendale Fighting Club and represented by UFC Hall of Famer Ronda Rousey’s management group, you’re going to get attention, but Shahbazyan has quickly shown that he belongs on the big stage.

Carrying a 6-0 record into his Contender Series appearance, the 21-year-old “Golden Boy” continued his run of dominant performances by finishing Antonio Jones in 40 seconds flat to earn a contract. In his promotional debut, Shahbazyan was able to grind out a split decision victory over durable and dangerous Brit Darren Stewart before getting back on his “wasting no time” tour with a 38-second stoppage over fellow Contender Series alum Charles Byrd in his follow-up appearance.

There is a lot to like about the undefeated Californian, whose brother Leon is set to compete on the first week of Season 3, and his upcoming bout against Welsh veteran Jack Marshman at UFC 239 should go a long way to helping clarify how quickly Shahbazyan could climb the middleweight ranks.

Edmen Shahbazyan was pushing the action right from the start and was rewarded with a first round knockout on Season 2 of Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series to earn a UFC contract. Watch the replays from both seasons anytime on UFC FIGHT PASS.


Jimmy Crute

If I had to highlight one fighter coming off the Contender Series with the brightest future, I would select Barber without any hesitation. That’s not a knock on any of the other athletes on this list — it’s just that the 21-year-old has already collected a pair of stoppage wins inside the Octagon and is already poised to be a factor in the flyweight division going forward.

After mauling Jamie Colleen in her Week 5 win during Season 2, Barber got a home game for her promotional debut, squaring off Hannah Cifers in Denver, where the Fort Collins resident scored a second-round win. For her sophomore appearance, Barber moved up to flyweight and took on JJ Aldrich, who entered on a three-fight winning streak and was starting to build some momentum of her own in the 125-pound weight class.

Following a rough first round that saw her get dropped for the first time in her career, Barber started making adjustments in the second and once she found her range and rhythm, she connected with a series of strikes that eventually brought the fight to a halt.

Catch Season 3 of Dana White's Contender Series Beginning June 18th on ESPN+

The wins are great and crucial for advancement, obviously, but the things that have stuck out most about Barber thus far are her tenacity and finishing instincts, two things you can’t really teach a fighter and that you don’t necessarily expect from a 21-year-old. As she continues to gain experience and improve her fight IQ, “The Future” could very well make a run at breaking Jon Jones’ record for being the youngest champion in UFC history.

A left hook secured Jim Crute a victory and a UFC contract on Week 7 of Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series.


Ian Heinisch

Over the last year or two, there have been a handful of competitors who have gone from newcomer to contender in the span of a year, including current interim middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and bantamweight standout Petr Yan. Heinisch is on the way to joining that group and he’s still five months away from the anniversary of his official UFC debut.

“The Hurricane” started his run on the Contender Series with a first-round stoppage win over Justin Sumter where he was able to work his way to top position and finish the bout with a series of hellacious elbows. A few months later, Heinisch accepted a short notice fight against Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira in Buenos Aires, Argentina, ventured to the South American outpost and picked up a decisive decision win.

As an encore, the 30-year-old Factory X Muay Thai product squared off with world-class grappler Antonio Carlos Junior, extending his win streak to five with another hard-fought, come from behind decision win. Next up for Heinisch is a showdown with Top 10 fixture Derek Brunson at UFC 241.

Less than a year after his Contender Series debut, Heinisch already has two very good wins and a date with a perennial contender lined up for later this summer where a victory would catapult him into the Top 10 in the shifting, intriguing 185-pound weight class.

Ian Heinisch worked his way out of a bad decision and took over the fight finishing things in the first round thanks to some huge elbows on the ground to earn a UFC contract on Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series.


Devonte Smith

The last fighter to compete in Season 2 and earn a contract, Smith made quick work of Joseph Lowery in the penultimate bout of the season, scoring a knockout in a little under three minutes. The win extended the Factory X lightweight’s winning streak to four and put him on the radar as someone to watch in the division going forward.

Two fights into his UFC tenure, “King Kage” has positioned himself as one of the most exciting and intriguing up-and-comers in the division, with a chance to make an even bigger splash later this summer.

Smith knocked out Julian Erosa in his promotional debut, catching the TUF and Contender Series alum with a clean one-two. Three months later, the 25-year-old ventured to Melbourne and collected another first-round finish, hitting veteran Dong Hyun Ma with “the bing-bing” before putting him away with a series of unanswered blows just before the four-minute mark of the opening stanza.

Now 10-1 overall, Smith is scheduled to make his third Octagon appearance this summer, and with another victory, he’ll head into the home stretch as one of the most exciting young stars in the 155-pound weight division.