In 2022, roughly a quarter of the UFC’s gargantuan roster has passed the funnel of Dana White’s Contender Series. UFC relies on the series to create one final barrier to entry into the world’s most prestigious MMA organization, pitting prospect against prospect.
The secret sauce of the show comes in the desired impact on audiences—not only MMA skills, but entertainment. UFC wants to find stars like Sean O’Malley that can capture a new generation of MMA fans.
Although season six of the Contender Series is still underway, the UFC brass have already selected a cast of fighters that will undoubtedly go on to become ranked contenders, and some could very likely become champions. After six episodes, twenty-four fighters have earned UFC contracts.
Below are the top ten of the current winners, each impressing in their own way. Not only did these fighters show their top-shelf level of talent, but they showed potential to move out of obscurity on the prelims to become marketable. Several of these athletes represent key markets the UFC would love to grow in, and others will likely become the sort of guaranteed violence that will make for perfect main-card filler.
10. Esteban Ribovics (11-0)
While Ribovics wasn’t well-known until outside of his native country of Argentina, he could soon become a fan favorite. He headlined week four of the Contender Series against Brit Thomas Paull. The matchmakers knew they could count on these two to produce some kind of knockout.
Ribovics would get the better of those exchanges, putting away Paull with a right hook and follow-up punches after ninety seconds. The Argentinian is still perfect in eleven fights, and also maintains a perfect finish rate. UFC fans can depend on him however long he’s in the organization to bring the action to the cage, win or lose. Argentina has a passionate sports and MMA fanbase, and Esteban Ribovics perfectly captures the energy of his country.
9. Blake Bilder (7-0-1)
While he was nearly passed over by Dana White as the UFC “isn’t trying to sign 32 year-olds”, Blake Bilder proved that he’s ready today to hang with solid UFC featherweights. The former CFFC featherweight champion took out Canadian veteran Alex Morgan with ease in week six of the show with a rear naked choke in round one.
Most indicative of Bilder’s experience was the incredible patience and timing of his attack plan, aptly defending Morgan’s offense en route to dropping him with a perfect punch. MMA fighters coming out of the U.S. Northeast have a rugged impermeability about them and willingness to drop the hammer (think Sean Brady, Calvin Kattar and Shane Burgos), and Bilder perfectly fits that stereotype.
Hopefully, the UFC matchmakers will waste no time setting him up with fan-friendly opponents in the middle of the division next year…
8. Claudio Ribiero (10-2)
Brazilian Claudio Ribeiro is a man of chaos. Against fellow bomber Ivan Valenzuela, he slipped in a beautiful left hook after Valenzuela missed on a spinning backfist, sending the Mexican rolling to the floor.
Not much more could be made of Ribiero’s performance as it only lasted twenty-five seconds. But he showed that he’s here for mayhem. Middleweight is in need of refresh, and Claudio is likely to put together a wild highlight reel during his time with the UFC.
7. Erik Silva (9-1)
It wasn’t only the presence of a finish that earned Venezuela’s Erik Silva a UFC contract, it was the perfection of the mugging. His opponent, kickboxer Anvar Boynazarov, even carried a decent amount of hype into the matchup. But Silva couldn’t care less…
He was able to take down the Uzbek without issue and unloaded merciless ground strikes that quickly caused his opponent to wither as if Anvar had insulted his sister. The former LUX featherweight champion has won eight straight and will be a handful for anyone in the featherweight division.
6. Vinicius Salvador (14-4)
From practically dead to forty-two members strong, flyweight is now on par with the other talent-heavy divisions in the UFC. Once its newest members is Brazil’s Vinicius “Fenomeno” Salvador, a violent finisher who trains with Amanda Ribas.
Salvador had a memorable war with Australia’s Shannon Ross, finishing him with punches late in the second round in one of the best fights of the season. Salvador will have to fight a bit more risk-averse if he hopes to climb the rankings eventually. But in the meantime he’s must-see TV…
His debut was briefly scheduled against a mirror image of an opponent in Kleydson Rodrigues, but Salvador withdrew shortly after. Add his name to the ever-growing list of exciting flyweight prospects for 2023.
5. SD Dumas (7-0)
Dumas put MMA fans on notice with a viral head kick KO at iKON FC this past January. After not even being a professional MMA fighter for two years, he’s spotless in seven fights and the newest UFC middleweight. He probably has a couple unpolished areas that may produce a loss or two in the next few years. But that’s not to detract from the ridiculous amount of raw ability SD has… On the contrary, anyone who can pick up that many savage finishes in such a short amount of time could be molded into a future star.
SD’s Contender Series fight against formerly undefeated Matej Penaz seemed to be even on paper, but the fight was anything but that. Dumas showed his killer instinct and supreme strength with a quick standing guillotine choke agains the cage, finishing Penaz in less than a minute.
Given his relative inexperience as a pro, SD Dumas should be matched against fighters at the bottom of the division for a while as his skills fill out. He should be able to build a highlight reel while he’s there, and probably sooner than expected, could start charging up the divisional ranks.
4. Joe Pyfer (9-2)
Ever since week one of Contender Series 2022, the catchphrase “Be Joe Pyfer” has become a rallying cry for fighters looking to make impressions. While the first episode of the year really wasn’t all that bad like some would like to think, it didn’t live up to the built-up expectations of MMA fans thirsty for wild violence on the show.
Joe Pyfer, the final fighter to win that evening, earned a good deal of fans merely on the odd merit that he actually understood the urgent intentions of the show when others didn’t. “Bodybagz” threw down with Ozzy Diaz for two rounds, before finishing him off with punches.
Perhaps it’s an unrealistic expectation for Joe Pyfer to bring the “Contender Series style” to every UFC fight he enters. But fortunately, it won’t be long at all until he gets to show fans the next chapter: Pyfer fights Alen Amedovski at UFC Vegas 60 on September 17th. Judging by the collision of styles, it could be a perfect fight for Joe to follow up on his raucous DWCS fight.
3. Cameron Saaiman (6-0)
In the UFC’s lighter weight classes, it seems like almost every week fans and media are hailing the newest young prospect. Cameron Saaiman of South Africa—now the youngest male fighter on roster—currently enjoys that praise.
He had a tall task in beating Josh Wang-Kim in his Contender Series fight. Wang-Kim is tough to train for and incredibly experienced. Understandably, Saaiman struggled early. What makes his eventual win impressive and hopeful that he’ll develop into a ranked contender was his maturity. He showed the ability to adapt and build on what was working over three rounds.
Eventually, Cameron was able to build enough momentum to knock out Josh in the third round. At such a young age, it’s not out of the question to think he could challenge for a belt before he reaches the age of thirty. Coming from South Africa and training partner Dricus du Plessis, he could carry the entire fanbase of his country on his back.
2. Yusaku Kinoshita (6-1)
The most underrepresented country on the entire UFC roster is unquestionably Japan, although there are signs this year that the promotion could finally make an effort to reclaim the market. 22 year-old Yusaku Kinoshita is the latest to represent the enormous talent pool in the UFC, winning a bruising fight with Jose Henrique on the Contender Series.
Every single box that could be checked for a breakout star, Kinoshita filled with enthusiasm. He’s young and raw, but has that kind of youthful zeal that will be able to hold a crowd in the palm of his hand. All of his fights have ended in violent fashion, and keep fans on the edge of their seats as long as they last.
Kinoshita is high on this list not only for the level of talent—which is high—that he possesses today, but for what he could be in five to ten years once he’s had time to establish himself with UFC fans. If he keeps winning, he could be the fighter to reclaim the coveted Japanese MMA market, which has been rebuilding in recent years thanks to promotions like RIZIN.
1. Mateusz Rębecki (16-1)
Of all the winners on this list, Mateusz Rębecki is the one that should not have had to fight on the Contender Series to get into the UFC. He entered his fight with Rodrigo Lidio with a 15-1 pro record. He’s also had victories in five-round title fights. What more was the UFC looking for?
Fortunately, he did exactly what he should in his DWCS performance, completely manhandling Lidio to a rear naked choke in the first round. While other fighters on this list may eventually go farther than Rebecki, he’s the fighter that has what it takes to go the farthest today.
He should ideally be matched with fighters like Gregory Rodrigues or Kyle Daukaus, just a bit below the middleweight rankings. He’s square in his prime at 29 and has been fighting top talent for years already. It’s not unthinkable that he could break into the lower half of the top fifteen at middleweight by the end of 2023, emerging as one the top prospects from this season of Dana White’s Contender Series.
Which Season 6 DWCS prospect do you have the highest hopes for? Let us know in the comments…