Since its premiere in 2017, Dana White's Contender Series has overtaken The Ultimate Fighter as the UFC's most productive means of recruiting talented fighters for their promotion. Most recently, Jamahal Hill became the first DWCS alumnus to capture UFC gold. With such an abundance of talent from the show, several fighters are bound to follow. I've ranked the 16 best fighters from the show, regardless of whether or not they earned a contract for their performance.
It was difficult to include any unproven fighters from more recent seasons, so this list is bound to change in the coming years.
Hill tops the list as the only participant in the show to win a UFC title. "Sweet Dreams" rose quickly since his DWCS fight in 2019, going 6-1 with one no-contest in that span. The opponents are bound to only get tougher from here for Hill. Still, the 31-year-old answered several questions in his title win against Glover Teixeira, where he demonstrated a solid ground game and a good gas tank to go with his heavy hands.
Do you know when you watch a guy fight and immediately think, "yup, this guy has it."? Yeah, this guy has it. Almeida found finishes in all four of his UFC fights so far and will continue climbing the heavyweight rankings if he gets a win against Jairzinho Rozenstruik in May. The Brazilian is a threat on the feet and the ground and has his sights set on fighting at both heavyweight and light heavyweight. I predict Almeida will run through "Bigi Boy" to capture a top-ten ranking and continue his dominant rise.
It's probably a bit controversial to rank Almeida over "Sugar" Sean O'Malley, but that's not to take away from the man who stole the number-one contender spot at bantamweight. O'Malley can now consider himself a bonafide UFC veteran, compiling an 8-1 record and one no-contest. His next fight will likely be for the 135 strap after Aljamain Sterling fights Henry Cejudo, which would boost him to the top of this list with a win.
Taila Santos is one of only three contender series alumni to earn a UFC title shot and arguably delivered the best performance of the three. Santos lost a close split decision to champion Valentina Shevchenko in her last fight, and she can take pride in the fact that she made a fighter who previously looked immortal look beatable. However, following Erin Blanchfield's recent impressive performance against Jessica Andrade, Santos will probably need one more fight to return to a title fight. Still, her all-around game is challenging to plan for, and her ground threat is legitimate.
Brendan Loughnane is the only fighter on this list not to be in the UFC. Loughnane cruised to an easy decision win against UFC veteran Bill Algeo in his DWCS fight but didn't receive a contract because of Dana White's frustration with how he went for a takedown at the end of the bout. The UFC surely regrets this decision, as Loughnane recently captured the PFL championship at 145 to win $1 million after going 9-1 since his DWCS fight. The Manchester native will look to take home another $1 million in 2023 and will start the year off in a fight against former UFC veteran Marlon Moraes.
Geoff Neal was a short-notice replacement in his DWCS fight, and he took advantage of the opportunity to punch his ticket into the big show. He has since picked up quality wins against Belal Muhammad, Vincente Luque, and Santiago Ponzinibbio. However, he will receive his most challenging test when he fights Shavkat Rakhmonov in March. Neal's most significant issue is his concentration; when he's on, he's on. If he can continue bringing crisp boxing combinations and unyielding tenacity, he'll be a problem for many years.
JDM may have just entered the rankings at welterweight, but it's hard to find a flaw in the Australian's game. His strikes are crisp, powerful, and accurate, and in his last fight against Randy Brown, he displayed high-level jiu-jitsu with a first-round submission win. JDM has quickly become a fan favorite for UFC fans everywhere, and he'll be sure to continue climbing up the rankings and receiving box-office opportunities at just 26 years old. But geez, man, I'm 26 as well – what am I doing with my life?
"Super" Sodiq Yusuff has begun to stand out recently for his hilarious fight card predictions, but he's been a mainstay of the UFC featherweight division for a long time. Yusuff has gone 6-1 since winning on DWCS, having only lost to potential title contender Arnold Allen in a close decision. While Yusuff may not necessarily possess the touch of death, he's one of the most intelligent fighters you'll see in the octagon and feels comfortable both on the feet and on the ground.
Outside of Kevin Holland, nobody has more UFC wins from DWCS than Ricky Simon. The wrestler with heavy hands is 8-2 in the UFC, most recently cementing a longtime spot in the bantamweight rankings with a submission win against the previously undefeated Jack Shore. Simon faces a tough test in his next bout when he faces Song Yadong, but at 30 years old, he'll be around for a while regardless of the result. Simon has a win against number three contender Merab Dvalishvili, showing that he's a problem for even the division's elite.
Grant Dawson has the distinction of holding the longest undefeated streak out of all the fighters on this list. "KGD" hasn't been on the wrong end of a UFC scorecard, going 7-0-1 in the promotion. He finally achieved a spot in the rankings after submitting Olympic wrestler Marc O. Madsen in November. With five finishes in the promotion already, Dawson is as underrated as it gets. He's especially dangerous in the later rounds, with a gas tank that's afforded him three third-round finishes in his last four fights. Watch for the guy who looks like Michael Bisping's son.
Marina Rodriguez has had a challenging run in the UFC, having had to rebuild her momentum on multiple occasions. She lost a controversial split decision against Carla Esparza in 2020 in a fight that could have propelled her to a title shot had she taken home the victory. Regardless, he picked up four wins in a row after the loss to put her right back in title discussions but suffered a third-round TKO against Amanda Lemos as a moderate favorite to put her back down the rankings. Rodriguez has impressive boxing and size for the division, but at 35, time is running out for the talented Brazilian. She has one good run left, so perhaps Rodriguez can become the second woman from DWCS to fight for a title.
This fan-favorite bantamweight might be the hardest hitter in his entire division. Yanez burst onto the scene with a 39-second finish in his Contender Series fight and followed up with a 5-0 record in the UFC. He gets a significant step up in competition when he fights Rob Font in April, giving him a quick opportunity to jump from the 13th spot in the rankings to number six. If Yanez can bring this home, the Houston native will immediately jump five spots up this list. I favor Yanez in this fight, which will likely be a striking affair.
Jalin Turner has a slow start to his UFC career, going 1-2 in his first three fights with the promotion, but soon picked it up after that, going on a five-fight win streak of all finishes. Turner has a massive, imposing frame for the division and sits in the tenth spot of the lightweight rankings. He can continue climbing as he prepares to fight seventh-ranked Mateusz Gamrot. Turner has power on the feet and is opportunistic on the ground, but I rank him below Grant Dawson due to his initial losses in the octagon showing larger holes in his game. Gamrot could be too much too soon for Turner, but he should stick around the rankings for a long time at just 27 years old.
Nobody on this list comes even close to the number of fights that Chris Curtis has on his record, sitting at an impressive 30-9. Curtis picked up a third-round finish in DWCS but didn't receive a contract, which sent him to PFL to participate in the 2019 season. After mixed results, he retooled and picked up five finishes in a row, setting him up for a long-awaited opportunity to enter the UFC octagon. Curtis took advantage of the spot, taking three impressive wins against Phil Hawes, Brendan Allen, and Rodolfo Vieira. His momentum slowed after taking a decision loss in a short-notice opportunity against Jack Hermansson but rebounded nicely with a devastating KO win against Juaquin Buckley. Curtis will finally be able to fight a ranked opponent with a full camp when he faces Kelvin Gastelum in April, and with a win here, he will be able to take the next step in his career.
Ryan Spann, the only fighter on this list who fought twice on DWCS, has accumulated a ridiculous 18 finishes in his long career. Still, at 31, "Superman" is just entering his prime and gets a chance to climb to the sixth spot at 205 with a win against Nikita Krylov. Spann's most impressive win came in his last fight against former title contender Dominick Reyes when he knocked him out in the first round. Unfortunately, Spann's worst moments in the octagon have come from lousy decision-making; he has all of the physical tools and credentials to make a deep run in the division, but he needs to be more tactful if he hopes to rise into the top five. Still, Spann could fight for the title one day.
We round out the list with another light heavyweight, Azamat Murzakanov, who sits at 12-0 in his MMA career. Azamat sits at the 15 spot in the 205 rankings but has an opportunity to keep rising with a fight against Dustin Jacoby in April. Murzakanov has finished both of his opponents in the UFC so far after winning by KO in DWCS. He even had a 50-second KO win against ranked middleweight Andre Muniz before entering the UFC. His well-rounded skillset will present issues for his entire division, and at 33 years old, the time is now for him to make a deep run.
Shoutout to Dan Ige, who barely missed this list.