The Next O’Malley: Ranking the best UFC prospects from 7th season of Contender Series

A remarkable thing happened to me last week. I was catching up on the latest season of the UFC’s Contender Series when I heard Laura Sanko drop this little tidbit on air:

“Thirty percent of the UFC roster has come through the Contender Series.”

Wow. I mean, I know that Contender Series graduates comprise a good chunk of just about every fight card these days, but 30 percent? That is a lot. If this was baseball, Contender Series would be a Hall of Famer slugger. If this was blood-alcohol content, Contender Series would be me after betting all my money on Valentina Shevchenko to beat Alexa Grasso. If this was … you get the point. Thirty percent of anything is a lot.

And while I normally am one to rail against the Contender Series and the business practices of undermining labor costs, the fact is, this is the reality we live in, and in this reality, over the past 10 weeks, the UFC signed 47 new fighters to the roster. These fighters range from card filler to future title challengers, and since in MMA we don’t have a draft (a criminal oversight that MMA Fighting is doing its best to correct), this is the best chance we have to look at a big crop of incoming talent and parse them out into neat little piles of potential. And so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

I went back and watched every Contender Series fight of this past season to answer that very question, and then grouped contract winners together in buckets. I call it The Contender Series Prospect Directory. Who is here to fill out cards and who is The Next Big Thing? We’ve got you covered.

Didn’t Not Receive A Contract, But Might (Or Later Did)

George Hardwick, Kevin Vallejos, Eduardo Neves, Raimond Magomedaliev, Davi Bittencourt, Josefine Knutsson

Not everyone who goes on the Contender Series can earn a contract. In fact, more than half the people don’t. That’s just how things go when the promotion is, at best, signing only winners (though they did sign a few losers this year). The people in this group failed to earn a coveted $10,000 to show and $10,000 to win UFC contract because they lost, but for one reason or another, they seem likely to make their way to the UFC eventually. Be it because they are extremely young (Vallejos, Neves), showed some real talent (Hardwick, Bittencourt), or simply know the right people (Magomedaliev), I expect all of them to at least get another shot on the show, if not serve as a late-notice replacement fighter.

Knutsson is the oddball in this group as she did not receive a contract after beating Isis Verbeek in Week 3 of the show, but did ultimately get signed and already picked up her first UFC win.

Just Another Guy

Caio Machado, Charalampos Grigoriou, Hyder Amil, Dylan Budka, Steven Nguyen, Jose Medina, Angel Pacheco, Connor Matthews, Ramon Tavares, Shamil Gaziev

Look, not everyone can be a world champion, and in a world where the UFC owes ESPN 42 events per year, with somewhere around 24 fighters per event, sometimes you simply need cannon fodder to fill out the file. These are respectable fighters who do their best but simply don’t have the goods to make much of an impression.

Another way to think of it: This is the group with the lowest ceiling, and in truth this category should probably have a few more names in it, but the optimist in me decided to err on the side of potential with some of these other signees. That’s not intended as a knock on these fine men, all of whom are professionals who will show up and do their jobs to the best of their abilities. It’s just that their abilities, at least from what I saw, don’t seem to carry a ton of potential.

Special shoutout to Angel Pacheco though. His scrap with Danny Silva was incredibly fun, and while his overall skill set didn’t wow me, he absolutely has that dog in him. If there’s one guy I’d pick to overachieve from this group and carve out a nice little career as an action fighter, it’s him.

Special Teamers (Young Fighters In Need Of Seasoning)

Kevin Borjas, Oban Elliott, Serhiy Sidey, Julia Polastri, James Llontop, Igor da Silva, Rodolfo Bellato, Lucas Rocha

The NFL Draft is a highly stratified event. First-rounders are all supposed to be immediate impact players and franchise cornerstones. Second- and third-rounders you hope are quality starters and contributors. But once you get into Day 3, it’s all dart throws, with most of those picks ending up as special-teamers or practice squad guys — people young enough to develop into contributors who probably won’t become household names, but sometimes become superstars.

In terms of the UFC, this category is for the young pups who flashed something that got them signed, but also showed some clear deficiencies that need to be worked on. Because they’re young, they have time to work on those things, and ultimately, they might end up as long-term UFC fighters.

Of the fighters in this category who might exceed expectations quicker than others, Rodolfo Bellato stands out as he’s a little older in general, and light heavyweight is a much weaker weight class where he can immediately come in and be a Brazilian Gian Villante. Not sure there’s too much upside beyond that, but hey, Villante has 18 fights in the UFC.

Defense Is Optional

Zachary Reese, Brendson Ribeiro, Danny Barlow

When I originally conceived of this idea, this category didn’t exist, but then these three guys broke the mold by being total mysteries. Reese, Ribeiro, and Barlow all showed at least one very impressive thing about their games, but also demonstrated some spectacularly awful defense and judgement. Dana White even specifically told Barlow he fights too wild, which should probably tell you what you need to know about this man.

Could these guys be legit staples of their divisions in a year or two? Absolutely. They’ve got the offense. Could they also get hauled out in a stretcher three times in a row and then cut because they do not understand the value of self-preservation? Absolutely. There range of outcomes here is nearly infinite, and so they defy the normal categorization.

Old, But Talented

Cesar Almeida, Jhonara Diniz

Another specialty bucket where the name says it all. Both Almeida and Diniz are former Glory kickboxers (Almeida famously has a win over Alex Pereira) who are probably too old to actually do anything hugely notable in the UFC, but who also come with the kind of pedigree that merits not counting them out entirely. After all, “former Glory kickboxer” is quickly becoming one of the best bases for MMA success.

Three-and-D, Rotational Player

Abdul-Kerim Al-Selwady, Luis Pajuelo, Bolaji Oki, Thomas Peterson, Carlos Prates, Kaynan Kruschewsky, Vinicius Oliveira, Ernesta Kareckaite, Mauricio Ruffy, Victor Hugo

The anchor of any successful NBA franchise is a deep bench of guys who can give you 12 minutes, bother opponents on defense, and hit a few open looks. It’s the same for MMA promotions. Yes, you want LeBron James to carry the load and sell tickets, but you also need J.R. Smith to come in and catch fire once a series. That’s who these fine folks are: Plug and play starters who can contribute immediately and stick around for years to come, might mess around and win Fight of the Night occasionally, but if they end up headlining an APEX card, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.

I’m highest on Pajuelo, Oki, and Oliveira as quality action fighters who will spice up undercards, and don’t sleep on Kareckaite who already fights a bit like a women’s flyweight version of Tim Means, and she’s only six fights into her career.

Leonardo DiCaprio Would Not Call You A Prospect, But You’ll Make Someone Very Happy Someday

Dione Barbosa, Eduarda Maura, Magomed Gadzhiyasulov

It’s a cruel reality that sports of all kinds, and particularly combat sports, are the province of the young. In any other walk of life, these three would be considered young pups, but that’s not MMA. If you’re pushing 30 (or already past it), you’re not a prospect.

Barbosa, Maura, and Gadzhiyasulov all showed a ton of skill in their Contender Series fights, and if they were younger, I’d be extremely high on their potential as future title challengers and/or top 10 staples. Instead, they are simply good bets to hang around the promotion for several years, win a lot more than they lose, and probably earn a ranking at some point. And if after a few years they decide to test the waters elsewhere, just look at how that’s going for Olivier Aubin-Mercier. He and his PFL title and millions of dollars seem to be quite happy.

Big Paws On A Puppy

Payton Talbott, Ibo Aslan, Jean Silva, Jean Matsumoto, Stephanie Luciano, Carli Judice, Danny Silva, Marquel Mederos, Andre Lima

These are the people you want to see coming into the UFC: Young and talented with tons of upside. Every person in this group showcased either very good athleticism or very good skill, and many showed both.

Carli Judice is 24 years old and has been training for two years and can compete tomorrow with top-30 women’s flyweights (plus she’s got that dog in her, she almost made the final category). Stephanie Luciano is 23 and meaner than a stepped-on rattlesnake. Danny Silva moves at 1.25x speed and has some of the best boxing in the UFC from day one. Jean Matsumoto is 24 and fights with the composure of Jon Jones. You get the idea.

Each of the fighters in this group have the potential to be divisional staples for years to come. We’re talking fighters who will get ranked and stay ranked, and maybe with a few good breaks, fight for the belt one day. Will all of them pan out? Probably not. They’re all young and development isn’t linear. Sometimes young fighters are Taila Santos, sometimes they’re Jake Matthews. You never know how the ball is going to break, but these are the best bets for the future stars of the UFC.

Which brings us to the final category…

The Ceiling Is The Roof

Tom Nolan

If I had to bet on one single fighter from this season of Contender Series to become a champion, Tom Nolan is the one. Is he on the Bo Nickal, Jailton Almeida tier of prospect? No, not quite. But he’s still a darn good one.

Nolan is 23 years old, undefeated, and has the biggest paws on any of the puppies in this class, both literally and figuratively. Nolan is a 6-foot-3 lightweight with shades of Jalin Turner crossed with Dan Hooker. And that size is the thing that differentiates Nolan from the rest of this incoming class. To become a legitimate title contender in this day and age of the UFC, you have to have a superpower of some kind. Nolan undeniably has it. It’s simply a question of whether he can leverage it to maximize his potential.

And on that front, I think he has a decent shot at it. For one thing, like featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, Nolan is a former rugby player who carries plus athleticism with him to the cage (which pairs really nicely with his enormous frame, by the way). For another, Oceania has become a hotbed for MMA talent development.

The great hope is that Nolan will make his way to City Kickboxing — one of the best gyms in the world and one that has also shown a clear ability to develop guys with his gifts — and really unlock his full potential. If that happens, even money says he fights for a title one day, even in the impossibly stacked division that is lightweight.

Full Contender Series Season 7 results and fight videos:

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