The UFC will launch its fifth season of Dana White's Contender Series on Tuesday night inside the Apex facility in Las Vegas.
The show, which pits unsigned talent against one another in a one-night audition for a UFC contract, is not terribly old, but it's already produced 117 additions to the UFC roster -- including 37 just last year alone. Fighters who impress Dana White and his team are told after their fights if they've earned a UFC contract, or in some cases, just a chance to try again in the future.
The show has not yet produced a UFC champion, although it did produce its first title challenger in 2020 -- flyweight Alex Perez.
Season 5 begins with a distinctly international feel. Only two of the eight Week 1 fighters are from the United States. The main event pits light heavyweight Matheus Scheffel, one of three Week 1 fighters from Brazil, against Russian Azamat Murzakanov, who at 9-0 is one of three undefeated fighters on the card (along with 8-0 Americans Carlos Candelario and A.J. Fletcher).
As the promotion gears up to award a new set of exclusive fight contracts, here's my votes for the top three fighters to come off the show thus far.
Sean O'Malley, bantamweight
14-1 overall, 6-1 in UFC (with 4 KOs)
It almost feels like something weird has happened with the O'Malley hype, right? It's grown so much, it actually cuts both ways. There are some who truly view him as a future champ, and others who believe he's overrated, protected by the UFC and not even a top-10 talent.
Personally, I lean more towards the former than the latter. It's easy to look at O'Malley's Instagram and make assumptions on him that are simply untrue. Or, at the very least, it's easy to look at his Instagram and overlook some of the very real things he has going for him. O'Malley is mature, he's smart and he's a very hard worker. He's 26 and very confident in his abilities, which I see as a good thing.
I like the personality, the flair -- it's smart to have that in this sport. But underneath, I do see a genuinely talented bantamweight. And I would not be surprised if he rose to the level of champion at some point. I do think there is that level of potential here.
Geoff Neal, welterweight
13-4 overall, 5-2 in UFC (with 3 KOs and 1 submission)
Neal is coming off back-to-back losses for the first time in his career, but I'm telling you -- I think we were very close to seeing a Geoff Neal breakout in 2020. However, everything went wrong for the 31-year-old welterweight. He battled a serious COVID-19 infection in the first half of 2020, which included a trip to the intensive care unit. When he returned from that harrowing experience, he was thrown into one of the toughest challenges that exists in the division: a five-round fight against Stephen Thompson. He lost to Thompson by decision last December. Four months later, Neal came up short against Neil Magny in a three-round decision.
It feels like this is a spot in which some will jump off the Neal bandwagon, but I'm holding firm. Not making excuses for the guy, but I don't think we saw the best version of him in his last two fights due to circumstances out of his control. It sounds like he's healthy now and close to booking a return. My expectations are still high for him.
Crute flattens Bukauskas with massive right hook
Jimmy Crute drops Modestas Bukauskas with a huge right hook and a follow-up uppercut at UFC Fight Night.
Jimmy Crute, light heavyweight
12-2 overall, 4-2 in UFC (with 2 KOs and 2 submissions)
Last year, ESPN voted Crute as the No. 1 fighter in the world under the age of 25. So, that gives you an idea of how highly we view him here.
The skills are there and the record speaks for itself. He ran into a "too much, too soon" situation in his last fight -- a first-round doctor's stoppage loss to former title challenger Anthony Smith. Crute was definitely getting the worst of it in that fight, but it's worth pointing out he suffered a rare leg injury, which was the reason the fight was stopped.
End of the day, I'm just still very high on Crute's ceiling. I don't see many potential matchups at 205 pounds in which Crute would be out of his league. He's a rising contender and he's young. If you were looking to put stock in any of the Contender Series alums thus far, you could do a lot worse than investing all of it in Crute.
How to watch the fights
Don't have ESPN+? Get it here.
There's also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every fight card.
Tuesday's fight card
ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Light heavyweight: Azamat Murzakanov vs. Matheus Scheffel
Men's featherweight: Diego Lopes vs. Joanderson Brito
Men's flyweight: Victor Altamirano vs. Carlos Candelario
Welterweight: A.J. Fletcher vs. Leonardo Damiani