The third season of Dana White's Contender Series comes to a close Tuesday night after 10 episodes. Five fighters signed from the show this summer already have UFC fights booked.
Contender Series has been well received for its no-frills format: five fights, a small audience at UFC Apex in Las Vegas and no walkout music. White himself once said he could host a Contender Series episode every week for the rest of his life.
But the show isn't White's first foray into episodic television in which the objective is to award UFC contracts to worthy fighters. "The Ultimate Fighter" was the original, the pioneer of the medium, beginning in 2005 on Spike TV. The reality show, which played out not unlike "Survivor," was credited with getting the UFC on cable television and sparking the growth of mixed martial arts. TUF is currently on hiatus, but White has promised a return.
"Lookin' for a Fight," which airs on UFC Fight Pass, follows White and retired UFC veterans Matt Serra and Din Thomas around various cities, where they experience local culture and cuisine. The climax of each episode is the trio watching a regional MMA card and determining who should be in the UFC.
Contender Series, TUF and Lookin' for a Fight all have their pros and cons. And while the end game is always signing new fighters, the shows have different approaches. Here, we pit the three shows against each other in five categories and determine a winner.
Best for fighter scouting
Ultimately (pun very much intended), finding the best fighters is what all three of these shows are supposed to be about. The environments are very different in each, but that is the one consistent goal.
The Ultimate Fighter puts athletes through the wringer, sticking them in a house with each other and making them fight (and cut weight) frequently in an elimination tournament format. They are away from their families and regular coaches.
The Contender Series brings fighters to Las Vegas for a single bout in front of a small crowd, where they try to do enough to impress White. As featherweight Brendan Loughnane learned earlier this season, just winning in exciting fashion is not enough. There's a premium put on finishing.
"Lookin' for a Fight" is probably the most accurate glimpse into who each fighter is. They're fighting on a regional show in front of a local crowd with their coaches in their corners. White, Serra and Thomas are just flies on the wall, watching said fighters do their thing. "Lookin' for a Fight" has sent athletes such as Sage Northcutt, Mickey Gall and Randy Brown to the UFC.
The results have been mixed for "Lookin' for a Fight" alums, while "The Ultimate Fighter" certainly has produced the better UFC performers overall (and we'll get to that in a second). But when it comes to an organic environment in which to watch aspiring MMA stars, "Lookin' for a Fight" has the others beat via close unanimous decision.
Edge: "Lookin' for a Fight"
Best for fighter development
When fighters are done with one of these three shows, are they better versions of themselves? That's what this category is all about. Which show allows for noticeable improvement?
The answer here has to be "The Ultimate Fighter." With all the inanities that come with spending six weeks in a house with other fighters and the constant competing and cutting weight, there is a certain mental strength gained from being on TUF. Plus, fighters get exposed to new coaches and coaching styles, most of which are on a high level. The star fighters who "coach" during the season usually bring their own training staffs.
"I have a lot of potential; the TUF house made me that much better," TUF 28 alum Maurice Greene told BJPenn.com in November. "You get world-class coaches, world-class training. The only downfall is that you are under that microscope of reality television at times."
TUF has produced 11 UFC champions, which is nothing to sneeze at. Contender Series might be the new favored horse in the UFC's stable, but even the latest seasons of TUF, which have been panned by critics, have stacked up well. Since 2017, when Contender Series debuted, the 40 fighters who have been on TUF during that time have a combined record of 43-39-2 (.512 winning percentage). The Contender Series alums have fared only slightly better: 69 fighters with a 92-82-2 (.523) record, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Contender Series and "Lookin' for a Fight" are not really about development. One could argue "The Ultimate Fighter" is not, either. But the granddad of this group is the clear selection here.
Edge: "The Ultimate Fighter"
Most entertaining for fans
I had an interview with White in his office six years ago. The topic of "The Ultimate Fighter" came up, because many at that time thought the show was on its last legs. Ratings were down. Not as much premium-level talent was coming out of the series. The reality show fad had fizzled. I asked White about those concerns, and he said -- and I'm paraphrasing here: As long as the fights are still good, what does it matter?
Now, in Contender Series, White has what he probably always wanted: a show with just fights. No BS. No childish pranks. No buffoonery. Just five fights every week, with the most aggressive finishers getting UFC contracts. All the other stuff inside the TUF house was for the networks, to trick them into putting MMA on television under the guise of reality TV. Contender Series is about the competition and the competition alone.
In 2019, even with an abundance of MMA on television, Contender Series has spoken directly to the hard-core fans. Exciting fights and big finishes are White's expectation, and oftentimes they are delivered. The production team and broadcasters also do a nice job of telling us who these fighters are without all the fuss of sticking them in a house together for six weeks. Former fighter Laura Sanko has stood out as a real star as the backstage interviewer and ring announcer.
Most important of all, UFC matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard have done an incredible job of finding UFC-ready talent. These are supposed to be exciting bouts, and Shelby and Maynard have constantly hit home runs in that regard, which is amazing considering how much work they already have in trying to fill up the UFC's 40-plus events per year.
Contender Series is a show with just five fights, completed sometimes within 90 minutes. It's easily digestible. With all respect to the hilarious Serra on "Lookin' for a Fight" (he needs his own show), Contender Series is the big winner in this category. Via finish, too -- just the way White likes it.
Edge: Contender Series
Most likely to produce a UFC title contender
Maybe this isn't a fair question, because of The Ultimate Fighter's expansive body of work over the past 14 years. So, let's just take a look at the recent past. There are two current UFC champions who have been on TUF: Robert Whittaker and Kamaru Usman. TJ Dillashaw and Rose Namajunas are TUF alums who held UFC titles inside of 2019. And then there's Tony Ferguson, a TUF veteran and former interim champ who has not lost since 2012. These are elite names. Whittaker, Usman and Ferguson are on ESPN's top 10 pound-for-pound list. None of the other two shows can boast such a pedigree.
"Lookin' for a Fight" has not produced anyone who has come close to a title shot in its four years. Contender Series has some names that could graduate to that. Sean O'Malley is an excellent bantamweight prospect and 2-0 in the UFC, but he's currently serving a second suspension for an anti-doping violation. Geoff Neal is 4-0 and looks like a future welterweight contender, but he's not quite there yet. Greg Hardy has been the DWCS alum who has moved up the card fastest -- he has been in co-main events -- but that's more due to his notoriety as a former NFL star with a troubled past.
It's possible that Contender Series and maybe even "Lookin' for a Fight" will produce names that reach the highest echelons of the UFC. But it'll probably take a long time until they're able to hold a candle to TUF, which at one time was the UFC's main breeding ground for top-shelf talent. Even Nate Diaz was on "The Ultimate Fighter." It's not an apples-to-apples comparison in this contest, but we're the matchmakers here and TUF goes over big.
Edge: "The Ultimate Fighter"
Best path to UFC for a prospect
If you're a high-level MMA prospect trying to get into the UFC, what would you rather do -- be in a house with unfamiliar fighters for six weeks away from your loved ones, or fly to Las Vegas for a few days for one fight? That's an easy choice. Just about every fighter would choose the Contender Series and a chance to win a UFC contract with one punch or choke rather than go through the tournament grind on "The Ultimate Fighter."
The one difficult part about DWCS is the pressure. You have to perform in one fight in front of White and catch his eye with brilliance, or it's back to the regional circuit for you. In some cases, fighters can't execute what would normally be a tactical game plan, because White wants to see aggression and athletes gunning for a finish. "Killers," White calls them. All of the fighters that make it to Contender Series are excellent for their level and markedly tough. But in one 15-minute fight, they have to show more than that to White.
"Lookin' for a Fight" is more of a crap shoot. The event, promotion and locale that White and the gang scout out are selected ahead of the actual fighters on the card. There are occasions when a fighter impresses White on "Lookin' for a Fight" and gets sent to Contender Series, like what happened with Herbert Burns earlier this year. The show is not consistent enough to be the best possible path. Contender Series gets its hand raised here.
Edge: Contender Series
In doing this exercise, I've come to the conclusion that perhaps "The Ultimate Fighter" is unfairly lambasted. Sure, it peaked years ago. But it still has its strong points, especially when the UFC is committed to putting the best possible outside talent on the show.
In the end, that's what is most important about all of these shows -- the caliber of fighter competing on them. The UFC signs top prospects outright now. The days of blue-chippers having to go through TUF to earn a six-figure UFC contract are probably over. In some ways, Contender Series has taken its place, but the best fighters on TUF from eight years ago are way better than the best ones on DWCS today. The industry has changed, and the UFC's strategy with regards to bringing in talent has, too.
"Lookin' for a Fight" is the best show to see prospects in their element, with the White, Serra and Thomas high jinks in between. White promises a TUF return soon, so we'll see what kind of creative ideas the UFC has to rejuvenate it.
Contender Series is king right now. White wants even more seasons of it per year, outside of the 10 weekly shows every summer. He's enthusiastic about this show, and for good reason. It's extremely watchable, has good fighters, exciting fights and, for the athletes, it's the quickest way to make a name and get into the UFC. Contender Series gets the overall win via TKO. Because you know it would never shoot for a takedown with its opponents in trouble.
The winner: Contender Series