Combat Hat: The 10 best Contender Series alumni

IT is no secret that Dana White and co. have serious eyes for talent, with organised UFC scouting searches spawning all the way back in 2005 with The Ultimate Fighter, and transitioning into the now-famed Contender Series. The standalone promotion is set to launch in Asia this year, and has already produced an impressive list of alumni. We take a look at the show’s 10 best graduates – in order of appearance – after four featured on Sunday’s UFC 246 card.

Season One:

Sean O’Malley (Week 2) | 10-0/2-0 UFC | Bantamweight

‘Sugar’ Sean O’Malley became an instant fan favourite after his impressive knockout victory in just the second Contender Series edition. His seamless transition into the UFC with two unanimous decision victories worked to immediately justify the new scouting format, and his personality out of the cage only adds to his in-cage appeal and grappling quality. The 25-year-old has already had notable moments in the leading promotion, including a unique post-fight interview with Joe Rogan while lying on the mat in agony due to a fractured foot. His natural progression into the bantamweight rankings has been halted due to doping violations and two subsequent six-month bans, but O’Malley is due to make his long-awaited return against José Alberto Quiñónez at UFC 248.

Dan Ige (Week 3) | 12-2/4-1 UFC | Featherweight

One of the many promising Hawaiian prospects is Dan Ige, who fought his way to a UFC contract by submitting Luis Gomez (no, not Michael Bisping’s mate) in an entertaining Week 3 bout. Despite not earning a contract on the night and coming up short in his official UFC debut, Ige has proved himself worthy of the promotion with four consecutive wins in just over a year, and has notable grappling credentials as a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt and judo brown belt. Despite his five submission victories, Ige is also capable on the feet having put Mike Santiago away within a minute in his maiden UFC win, while also using those heavy hands to rock Danny Henry before submitting him in style. Next on the agenda is Mirsad Bektic at UFC 247, and a win would go a long way to getting that sought-after ranking next to his name.

Geoff Neal (Week 3) | 13-2/5-0 UFC | Welterweight

The ‘Handz of Steel’ moniker just about does justice to Geoff Neal, who has proven to be the real deal at 170lbs. A well-built athlete with scary knockout power, Neal entered the scene on the Contender Series at middleweight, but since flourished at welterweight to finish four of his five UFC wins and earn the division’s number 11 ranking. While he has not crossed a fellow ranked opponent as of yet, impressive stoppage victories over the likes of Niko Price and Mike Perry of late make him fully deserving of the ranked tag in a talent-rich weight class. He seems to be in a hurry, and with plenty of big names to challenge ahead of him, Neal could be the next big thing at 170lbs with scope to move to 185lbs in time and if need be.

Season Two:

Antonina Shevchenko (Week 3) | 8-1/2-1 UFC | W. Flyweight

The sister of women’s flyweight champion, Valentina Shevchenko, Antonina entered the mixed martial arts realm as an esteemed kickboxer. She was given the chance at a UFC contract after working to a 5-0 professional record, and took it with both hands with a beautiful display of her muay thai pedigree to earn a TKO win via knees to the body. Currently the number 12 ranked women’s flyweight contender, Shevchenko’s run to the top was momentarily halted by a first professional loss to veteran leveller Roxanne Modafferi, but she returned to the winners list with a fight of the night performance against Lucie Pudilova in August, 2019. Her next bout is yet to be announced, but a decent hit-out should be in store for Shevchenko, and her name goes a long way to progressing quickly.

Maycee Barber (Week 5) | 8-1/3-1 UFC | W. Flyweight

A fighter in a hurry, Maycee Barber is hell-bent on bringing ‘The Future’ forward by beating out Jon Jones to become the youngest-ever UFC champion. The 21-year-old has shown plenty since earning a contract during Season Two via vicious elbow strikes, going on to nab finishes in all three of her UFC wins via three different methods. Barber’s physicality and pure meanness inside the octagon has proven too much for many of her opponents, and she gained a heap of respect for her heart upon fighting on with a torn ACL in her first professional loss at UFC 246. Given the injury, fans will have to wait around a year to see the American in action again, with plenty of options ahead for the ninth ranked women’s flyweight star nonetheless.

Edmen Shahbazyan (Week 5) | 11-0/4-0 UFC | Middleweight

One of the brightest middleweight prospects is Edmen Shahbazyan, who fights out of the famed Glendale Fighting Club under Edmond ‘Head Movement’ Tarverdyan. Tarverdyan has trained the 22-year-old since he was a boy, with UFC hall of famer Ronda Rousey one of his former training partners. The fighter of Armenian descent boasts an incredible professional MMA record, going undefeated through 11 bouts with his UFC debut the only one to endure past the first round. Wins over Brad Tavares and Jack Marshman have accelerated the prodigy into ninth in the middleweight rankings, with a top-tenner surely up next unless he opts for a gatekeeper-type opponent. Either way, his technical stand-up game and punching power have proven too much for all 11 opponents, and he is a scary proposition for the future.

Jimmy Crute (Week 6) | 10-1/2-1 UFC | Light Heavyweight

Australian brawler Jimmy Crute is one of three exciting talents to be signed out of the Season Two, Week 6 instalment, fighting to a 2-1 record in the promotion after earning a TKO victory in his Contender Series shot. Fighting under the tutelage of legendary Australian kickboxer Sam Greco, ‘The Brute’ finished two light heavyweight mainstays – Paul Craig and Sam Alvey – within three months of entering the UFC, but came up short on the mat during his first venture into the realm of ranked opponents. After a much-needed break to develop his game, the 23-year-old Victorian is set to fight just his third professional bout overseas when he meets Michał Oleksiejczuk in New Zealand at UFC Fight Night 168. Crute’s heavy hands and tendency to finish fights make him one to watch, possessing a deceptively good ground game to boot.

Sodiq Yusuff (Week 6) | 11-1/4-0 UFC | Featherweight

One who may well find himself among the rankings come Wednesday is Nigeria’s ‘Super’ Sodiq Yusuff, a heavy hitter who has started life in the UFC flawlessly. His 4-0 record to date was extended at UFC 246 with a comfortable decision win over Andre Fili, with the typically dangerous knockout artist serving a reminder of his grappling quality with some accomplished ground work – he started off in a jiu jitsu gym after all. Yusuff did not need a finish in his Contender Series effort to earn a contract, but has since made up for it with two beautiful TKO wins in the top promotion. At 26 years old, Yusuff will soon enter his prime and is perhaps one of the more fearsome prospects given his well-rounded game and obvious avenue to victory – that undeniable power.

Chase Hooper (Week 6) | 9-0/1-0 UFC | Featherweight

The son of Ben Askren (not really), Chase Hooper has proven to be a beneficiary of Dana White’s decision to sign him to a development league contract upon an impressive decision win in his Contender Series shot. Victorious and still undefeated after three more fights outside of the top promotion, Hooper was ultra-impressive in his UFC debut at UFC 245 in dispatching of Daniel Teymur via TKO within the first round. A true modern-day MMA prodigy, Hooper possesses a range of weapons with his splitting elbows, slick ground game and rare range on the feet. There is plenty of time for the 20-year-old to find his feet, but fans will inevitably be eager to see more of ‘The Teenage Dream’ as soon as possible. He may look like a kid, but has a skillset beyond his years.

Brazil:

Johnny Walker (Week 2) | 17-4/3-1 UFC | Light Heavyweight

Another fighter who did not require a finish to impress Dana White, the unique and truly unorthodox Johnny Walker has found a home at number 11 in the UFC light heavyweight rankings. An athletic freak with a crazy knack for early and eye-catching finishes on the feet, the Brazilian was put forward as a prospect who could be the one to dethrone long-time 205lbs champion Jon Jones, but a first round TKO loss to Corey Anderson proved there are levels to the game, and has put Walker back in the pecking order. With a proposed moved to Tristar Gym, Walker will hope to recapture the magic that saw him claim three consecutive T/KO victories upon entering the UFC, and could still be anything.

Other notables:

Casey Kenney 13-1/2-0 UFC

Greg Hardy 5-2-(1)/2-2-(1) UFC

Ricky Simon 15-3/3-2 UFC

Augusto Sakai 14-1/3-0 UFC

Marina Rodriguez 12-0-2/2-0-2 UFC

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