Editor's note: Results and upcoming lineups for the rest of Season 6 can be found below.
Dana White's Contender Series swaggered onto the scene five years ago dangling in front of fight fans a tantalizing promise. It was right there in the show's name. This on-ramp for developing UFC talent wasn't simply assuring MMA followers of an influx of new names for the prelims. No, the show promised contenders.
It took a while for Contender Series to live up to its name, but there's no denying it anymore. Within the past two years, Alex Perez has challenged for the UFC men's flyweight title and Taila Santos has taken her shot at the women's flyweight belt. Both are DWCS alums.
There soon could be more top contenders coming off the show, which launches Season 6 on July 26 (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET). Among those competing this season will be Bo Nickal, a three-time NCAA Division I national champion wrestler, who fights at middleweight in Week 3 (Aug. 9).
Similar to previous seasons, there will be 10 weekly fight cards at UFC Apex in Las Vegas, the final one taking place Sept. 27.
Beyond the two DWCS-discovered title challengers, several other fighters already have made their mark in the UFC -- from fast-rising strawweight Marina Rodriguez to colorfully blustery bantamweight Sean O'Malley. In all, 156 fighters have earned UFC contracts on the show, and more than a dozen of them are now in the promotion's rankings.
How does one land a UFC contract via Contender Series? There seem to be three avenues for success:
1. Make the judges irrelevant
Finishing your fight is no guarantee that you'll secure a spot in the UFC, but it's by far a fighter's best shot. This show isn't simply about winning, it's also about trying to get White, the UFC president, and his matchmakers to jump out of their cageside seats. A flashy finish could do just that and leave a lasting impression.
Who fits the bill: Practically everyone who has walked away with a UFC contract did so following a finish. Some notable names from the UFC rankings: Perez (No. 6), O'Malley (12) and Geoff Neal (welterweight, 13) from Season 1; Maycee Barber (women's flyweight, 10), Ryan Spann (light heavyweight, 12) and Sodiq Yusuff (men's featherweight, 12) from Season 2; Santos (2), Rodriguez (3) and Augusto Sakai (heavyweight, 14) from the Brazil season in 2020; Jamahal Hill (light heavyweight, 10), Andre Muniz (middleweight, 10) and Tracy Cortez (women's flyweight, 14) from Season 3; and Dustin Jacoby (light heavyweight, 15) and Adrian Yanez (men's bantamweight, 15) from Season 4.
The rankings are still waiting on someone among last season's record 39 contract winners to emerge.
Season 2 also produced light heavyweight Jimmy Crute and middleweight Edmen Shahbazyan, both of whom earned deals with first-round knockouts. While neither is in the UFC rankings, they were Nos. 1 and 2 in ESPN's 2020 ranking of the top 25 MMA fighters under age 25.
2. Go for that (elusive) finish
This is different from what's above, because this qualification is not contingent upon a fighter actually getting the finish. The UFC brass, more than anything, wants to see that a fighter is not willing to settle for a decision. In other words, don't be a Brendan Loughnane. The British featherweight dominated his Season 3 bout with Bill Algeo, but in the final seconds, he shot for a takedown to sew up the win rather than flurrying for a finish.
Rather than a UFC contract, Loughnane instead drew the ire of the company president. "Unlike any other show you would fight on or whatever, I'm looking for killers, man," White said that night. (Loughnane is now in the PFL, while Algeo has fought four times in the UFC.)
Who fits the bill: Johnny Walker had to go the full three rounds to earn a victory over Henrique da Silva during the Brazil season. But, Walker was striving for a finish the whole time and was rewarded with a contract. He's now No. 13 in the UFC's light heavyweight rankings.
Last season, White took his contract-winning criteria in an interesting new direction. After Carlos Candelario suffered his first career loss in an exciting flyweight fight with Victor Altamirano, the UFC president showed how deeply he believes that winning isn't everything. "It was an absolute dogfight; much respect to both of you," he told the fighters. "I'm gonna take you both."
3. Pile up the style points
The UFC is in the business of selling fights, and the promoter's job is made easier by fighters who sell themselves. From the prefight buildup to the postfight callout, there's a lot more to a prizefight than the fight itself. The Contender Series can be a prime-time showcase for a fighter's total package.
Who fits the bill: O'Malley and Barber are the most prominent examples of this, marketing themselves in a big, bold way. In their Contender Series appearances, they both showed that they have more in their arsenals than the knockout punches that led to their UFC contracts.
O'Malley, with his aggressive striking, his Technicolor hairdo and his no-less-colorful trash talking, has become a star while slowly building toward 135-pound contendership. Five years after joining the UFC, he finally had his biggest test earlier this month. It was unfortunate that the bout with top-10 contender Pedro Munoz ended prematurely as a no contest because of an incidental eye poke. Although O'Malley might have lost the first round, he was coming on and had momentum. A win would have given fans reason to believe "Suga Sean" is as good as he says he is.
Barber arrived in the Contender Series at age 20 with her eyes fixed not simply on a UFC deal but on making history. Before she'd even set foot in the cage that night back in 2018, she pointed to Jon Jones being the youngest UFC champ ever and set her goal. "I'm gonna beat that record," Barber said. "I have just over three years." She didn't make it to the belt, but her confidence still bubbles over every time she fights. A contender? Not yet, but she's coming.
Dana White's Contender Series Episode 10 fight card
ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Middleweight: Bo Nickal vs. Donovan Beard
Lightweight: Sam Patterson vs. Vinicius Cenci
Featherweight: Freddy Emiliano Linares vs. Jack Jenkins
Flyweight: Rafael Esteves vs. Joao Elias
Bantamweight: Ashiek Ajim vs. Mateus Mendonca
How to watch the fights
Watch all episodes: Contender Series on ESPN+
Don't have ESPN+? Get it here.
There's also FightCenter, which offers live updates for all fight cards.
Week 9 results
*Middleweight: Brunno Ferreira def. Leon Aliu by TKO
*Bantamweight: Raul Rosas Jr. def. Mando Gutierrez by Unanimous Decision
*Heavyweight: Austen Lane def. Richard Jacobi by TKO
*Lightweight: Nurullo Aliev def. Josh Wick by TKO
*Flyweight: Jafel Filho def. Roybert Echeverria by TKO
*Ferreira, Rosas Jr., Lane, Aliev, and Filho were each awarded a UFC contract
Week 8 results
*Bantamweight: Farid Basharat def. Allan Begosso by Unanimous Decision
*Middleweight: Ikram Aliskerov def. Mario Sousa by Submission
*Lightweight: Trevor Peek def. Malik Lewis by TKO
*Women's flyweight: Bruna Brasil def. Marnic Mann by KO
*Bantamweight: Daniel Marcos def. Brandon Lewis by Unanimous Decision
*Basharat, Aliskerov, Peek, Brasil and Marcos were each awarded a UFC contract
Week 7 results
*Light heavyweight: Vitor Petrino def. Rodolfo Bellato by KO
*Welterweight: Gabriel Bonfim def. Trey Waters by Submission
*Heavyweight: Karl Williams def. Jimmy Lawson by Unanimous Decision
*Lightweight: Ismael Bonfim def. Nariman Abbasov by Unanimous Decision
Women's flyweight: Tereza Bleda def. Nayara Maia by Unanimous Decision
*Petrino, Gabriel Bonfim, Williams and Ismael Bonfim were each awarded a UFC contract
Week 6 results
*Welterweight: Yusaku Kinoshita def. Jose Henrique Souza by TKO
*Light heavyweight: Sedriques Dumas def. Matej Penaz by Submission
*Lightweight: Mateusz Rebecki def. Rodrigo Lidio by Submission
*Women's strawweight: Viktoriya Dudakova def. Maria Silva by Unanimous Decision
*Bantamweight: Blake Bilder def. Alex Morgan by Submission
*Kinoshita, Dumas, Rebecki, Dudakova and Bilder were each awarded a UFC contract
Week 5 results
*Heavyweight: Michael Parkin def. Eduardo Neves by Submission
*Welterweight: Darrius Flowers def. Amiran Gogoladze by TKO
*Flyweight: Jesus Santos Aguilar def. Erisson Ferreira by Submission
*Bantamweight: Cameron Saaiman def.Josh Wang Kim by KO
*Women's strawweight: Denise Gomes def. Rayanne Amanda by Unanimous Decision
*Parkin, Flowers, Santos Aguilar, Saaiman and Gomes were each awarded a UFC contract
Week 4 results
*Lightweight: Esteban Ribovics def. Thomas Paull by KO
*Middleweight: Claudio Ribeiro def. Ivan Valenzuela by KO
*Bantamweight: Jose Johnson def. Jack Cartwright by Unanimous Decision
*Women's bantamweight: Hailey Cowan def. Claudia Leite by Split Decision
*Lightweight: Nazim Sadykhov def. Ahmad Hassanzada by KO
*Ribovics, Ribeiro, Johnson, Cowan and Sadykhov were each awarded a UFC contract
Week 3 results
**Middleweight: Bo Nickal def. Zachary Borrego by Submission
*Heavyweight: Jamal Pogues def. Paulo Renato Jr. by Unanimous Decision
*Featherweight: Erik Silva def. Anvar Boynazarov by KO
*Flyweight: Clayton Carpenter def. Edgar Chairez by Unanimous Decision
Women's flyweight: Karolina Wojcik def. Sandra Lavado by Unanimous Decision
**Nickal was awarded another fight in the Dana White Contender Series
*Carpenter, Silva and Pogues were each awarded contracts in the UFC
Week 2 results
*Lightweight: Chris Duncan def. Charlie Campbell via KO
*Men's flyweight: Vinicius Salvador def. Shannon Ross via TKO
*Men's featherweight: Francis Marshall def. Connor Matthews via Unanimous Decision
*Heavyweight: Waldo Cortes-Acosta def. Danilo Suzart via TKO
*Welterweight: Billy Goff def. Shimon Smotritsky via TKO
*Duncan, Salvador, Marshall, Cortes-Acosta and Goff were each awarded a UFC contract
Week 1 results
*Middleweight: Joseph Pyfer def. Ozzy Diaz via KO
Light heavyweight: Anton Turkalj def. Acacio dos Santos via Unanimous Decision
Men's featherweight: Dennis Buzukja def. Kaleio Romero via Unanimous Decision
Men's flyweight: Alessandro Costa def. Andres Luna Martinetti via Split Decision
*Pyfer was award a UFC contract