Jake Hadley (R) (Cage Warriors)

Dana White’s Contender Series: Problems With Season 5

The fifth season of Dana White’s Contender Series wrapped up this past Tuesday, with the popular show continuing to display high-level mixed martial arts that garnered big weekday audiences. The show, which has become a main pipeline for prospects to get into the UFC, will undoubtedly be back for a sixth season next year and continue to be wildly popular amongst fans.

I, myself, am a huge fan of the show. I have watched every single episode since its inception, suffering through the early days of Snoop Dogg commentary – which literally added nothing of substance – while Urijah Faber sat there not being able to get a word in edgewise.

That said, the fifth season had a number of problems that made this season less enjoyable than previous installments. The fights, of course, were largely entertaining and great. So, from that aspect, the show continues to receive an “A” grade in that category. However, a number of things, from certain aspects of the broadcast to inconsistency in the selection process to some of the talent on the show, were bothersome throughout the season. It sometimes made watching the Contender Series more frustrating.


Here are five problems that I had with Season 5 of the Contender Series:

Inconsistency in Signing Logic and Too Many Contracts Awarded

There has always been some controversy when it comes to Dana White’s signings at the end of episodes. Two names that always jump out when considering this are Brendan Loughnane and Justin Gonzales. Both were excellent prospects who got snubbed for reasons that are beyond most fans. So, this inconsistency in signing logic is nothing new, but this season took it to another level. The sheer number of signings was also off the charts.

Thirty-nine, of the hundred fighters who fought, were signed after their episode. That’s almost 40 percent of the fighters, which means that and average of only one winner per episode was not signed.

I get it. The Contender Series has been the main pipeline to the UFC, because it provides a ton of fresh bodies at entry-level pay and gives them some recognition in the meanwhile. A decent amount of these athletes get two or three fights with the UFC, and then they’re gone, only to be replaced by next year’s crop of fighters. That said, this season was egregious in the signing logic and inconsistencies.

On the very first episode, Carlos Candelario lost a fight and was given a contract. I am sorry, but, no matter the performance, no fighter should be signed to the UFC coming off a loss. There is more of a justification to sign any of the fighters who won, no matter the performance, than giving somebody who lost a contract.

Take for instance Jonas Bilharinho in the most recent episode. Sure, he had a bit of a tentative outing in the first two rounds, but the dude literally slept his opponent with a spinning wheel kick. Spectacular finishes are a shoo-in for a UFC contract on the Contender Series, but White passed on him in a move that was puzzling, to put it nicely. But sure, sign the guy who lost his fight. That makes sense.

Then there are the finishes and fun fights that are the absolute for getting signed. Going to decisions in just-above-average fights, or worse, don’t net contracts. That was both seen and subsequently not seen throughout the series, showing further inconsistency.

For example, on Episode 2, both Chad Anheliger and Saimon Oliveira won split decisions that were not barnburners, nor were they complete dominance. However, both were signed, despite the fact that both looked like they could use a fight or two more before the UFC.

On the flip side, Mo Miller, who is regarded as a blue-chip prospect, won a dominant unanimous decision and was not given a contract. While I respect that White thinks he should get more work in before coming to the UFC (which I would agree with), he won far more dominantly than Anheliger or Oliveira. The same scenario goes for Maria Silva in her bout with Kathryn Paprocki.

And then there’s Caio Borralho. While he was eventually signed by the UFC, it was after taking a second fight this season within several weeks of his first one. His first fight saw him dominate Aaron Jeffrey, a guy that was considered one of the top fighters on this season of the show. He won by unanimous decision, again a better more clear-cut decision than two aforementioned fighters who won by split decisions.

If you’re gonna sign a guy that won by split decision, why not go with Juan Puerta on the final episode? He is a flyweight (a division that needs bodies) with 20-plus wins, who beat a 40-plus fight veteran by split decision. It makes more sense to sign him rather than Anheliger or Oliveira.

On the flip side, White was willing to sign a heavyweight who was sloppy and unimpressive, who got a late finish one night, but was unwilling to sign a heavyweight who was less sloppy, more impressive and got a similarly late finish on a different night. Lukasz Brzeski didn’t even look close to UFC-level, and he beat a glorified light heavyweight by rear-naked choke, so Dana took him. Rizvan Kuniev has been UFC-level since pre-Contender Series and fought a big heavyweight, winning by TKO. Dana passed on him, and it made no sense in retrospect.

Speaking of signing guys who clearly aren’t UFC-ready, White did that several times too. In addition to the aforementioned Anheliger and Oliveira, Genaro Valdez is the glaring example. Valdez got a finish, but it was against a talent far lower than himself in Patrik White, who had no business being on the Contender Series either. He showed his talent levels were not UFC-level in that fight, despite the win, showing undisciplined grappling, poor striking defense and a shallow gas tank. Yes, his fight was entertaining, but you’re telling me he’s more UFC-ready than the aforementioned Miller, Kuniev, Silva, Bilharinho or Puerta, or other winners not signed like Joseph Holmes or Pedro Falcao? He was most likely signed, because he’s from the MMA market of Mexico, but he’s a guy that’s likely going to go 0-2 or 0-3 before he’s out of the company.

Finally, the biggest glaring issue: Jake Hadley. Full disclosure, I actually think Hadley was one of the best prospects on this season and a guy who is UFC-ready right now. I actually couldn’t believe he was fighting on the Contender Series and not signed directly to the UFC.

All that out of the way, Hadley’s signing was ridiculous. He missed weight for his fight with Mitch Raposo. When a fighter misses weight on the Contender Series, they don’t get offered a contract. That’s the rule, and it’s a good rule. Missing weight is the most unprofessional thing you can do outside of cheap-shotting someone or holding onto a submission too long.

But a rule is a rule, no matter how talented Hadley is, and White signed him anyway. What made that more hypocritical is that Christian Rodriguez missed weight on the same episode, and won his fight, but White justified not signing him by saying he would have been signed if he made weight. Wait, what?

That hypocrisy is glaring. If you sign one, you sign both. Or, you don’t sign one at all (which is how it should have been). They literally could have passed on Hadley that night, and then signed him a week or two later as a short-notice fight against anyone on any card. That would have been a workaround to get him on the roster.

The Hadley signing was the most glaring inconsistency on a season full of inconsistencies.

Too Much Gianni the Greek

I will keep this brief: The amount of screen time and audio time Gianni the Greek got this year, as opposed to previous years, was beyond annoying. I get it. Many MMA fans bet on fights, and that’s one of the many things that makes MMA even more exciting for the casual viewer. However, it was excessive this year. I also know there is a good amount of people who couldn’t give a flying foonani what the best prop bets were nor do they want to hear about the gambling aspect of MMA in general.

To me, it was like sitting at the bar, watching football, and having to constantly hear yahoos all around you talk about their fantasy football teams and stats, while you’re just trying to enjoy the game. That’s what Gianni the Greek and his betting input has become on the Contender Series, and it’s just exhausting.

If you want to have him on and talk about bets, keep it to a minimum as in previous years. We don’t need to check in with him for every bet on every fight. I’d rather hear Luke Rockhold philosophize about “believing and achieving” while nailing my ears to the wall.

Too Much Laura Sanko

I want to start this portion off by saying I like Laura Sanko. I have met her before, she’s a nice lady and I admire her passion. She’s a good egg and has a place in MMA media/broadcasting. That being said, she was on the Contender Series telecasts way too much.

For one thing, at one point early on, she was doing color commentary, ring announcing and backstage interviews. That was stretching her way too thin, and you could tell she was too busy with all of those duties. Luckily, they brought in a ring announcer later in the season to help relieve her in that area.

The most glaring issue I have with Sanko is that she is not a good interviewer. I have had this problem with her since she started doing it on the Contender Series. She asks awful, rhetorical questions that are a complete waste of time. I feel almost every interview (and you can check my Twitter to see me complain about this weekly) she asks dumb questions like, “How would it feel to earn a UFC contract tonight?” or “How does it feel being from (insert country) and competing on the Contender Series?”

How could it feel other than great and amazing and awesome? Is somebody in this realm of reality going to say, “Well Laura, it feels like the absolute drizzling shits that I just achieved my dream of signing with the UFC, if I can be honest.”?

Also, when she brings up obviously emotional things to the fighter that causes physical reactions, it is the most annoying thing ever. It turns in the Dana White: Depression Series when she asks things like, “Do you think your dead mother would be proud of you?” or “Do you wish your brother, who recently passed away, was here to see this?” and tears ensue. Let the fighters tell about their hardships on the vignette before the fight and leave it at that.

I’m sure the budget is tight on these episodes, so the less staff, the better. But the UFC would be better brining on Megan Olivi, who is far better at interviews, and getting the most out of the fighters.

Sanko is a decent enough commentator on the show, and she has a good personality for it. I do think she can talk too much at times in the broadcast, and overtake the play-by-play commentator, whose job it is to lead. Add to that, it’s always a three-person booth, and, sometimes, she’s a bit much in there when you want some more insight from Paul Felder or Michael Bisping.

Leave the announcing duties to Cyrus Fee, the interviews to Olivi, and just focus on having Sanko in the commentator’s booth. That way, she can be all that she can be there, instead of getting stretched too thin.

Too Many Fighters from China

Again, I get it. The Chinese market is a massive market that the UFC is trying to tap into, in an effort to make big bucks. If I were in their position, I would do the same thing. However, the development of the country’s MMA is still in it’s embryotic stages, with only a couple credible top-level fighters from the country such as Weili Zhang and Jianliang Li.

Chinese MMA, despite the investment from the UFC and the Performance Institute in Shanghai, is just not where it needs to be yet. That can be seen from the handful of recent Chinese fighters, who were signed straight to the UFC, and have been unsuccessful against fighters at the bottom of their divisional rankings.

There were six Chinese fighters featured on this season of the Contender Series, all in the final two episodes. They went 1-5, with Maheshate being the only guy to win, and subsequently earn a contract. Of the five who lost, none were especially impressive, nor did they show that they were ready for the next level. By the UFC including these fighters from China, they took spots away from other more credible prospects. All of this was done in the name of the UFC attempting to make stars in the Chinese market, and, obviously, it doesn’t look like it’s going to pay off.

Zhifa Shang and Lun Qiu were featured as two experienced flyweights from the country, but neither showed a well-rounded skillset that would have set them up for success in the UFC. In their places, I would have included Charles Johnson and Carlos Mota, who are two far-more deserving prospects. Xiao Long was featured in the bantamweight division, which actually might be the most deep division for prospects at this point. You’re telling me that he deserved to be featured on the show over an experienced, UFC-ready prospect like Levi Mowles?

Bin Xie was the most credible guy from China that they brought in for the Contender Series, as he was a ONE Championship veteran who had fought some decent competition. His inclusion is not as head-scratching as the others, but why not bring back a prospect who won on the Contender Series last year like Kyle Driscoll?

Lastly, they featured Qi Hui Yan in the women’s flyweight division, and she was physically impressive when you looked at her. But, she lacked a lot of the fighting substance to compliment that physique. There are so many women’s flyweights that should have been featured, who are indeed UFC ready, such as Stephanie Geltmacher, Brogan Sanchez or Karina Rodriguez, the latter of whom represents another market the UFC tried to feature this season in Mexico.

The China project is still far off, and the UFC needs to be patient. Maybe in a few years, these athletes would have had a better shot, but right now, most of the talent coming out of China is regional level.

Too Many Promos and Interviews

Note to the UFC and ESPN: the Contender Series is on a Tuesday night. Despite the damn-near 10 million job openings in the United States not being occupied, due to the lack of workforce participation, most of us still work during the week and want to get to bed at a decent time, so we don’t have to struggle to get out of bed the next morning. And for our friends in Europe, I get it, it’s an even worse time for you. That considered, the pacing needs to be better from the Contender Series.

I will admit, it’s not the worst, especially when you consider what we saw from the PFL Finals the other day where I had two birthdays while watching that freakin’ thing. That said, when you only have five fights, I’m not sure why the telecast, which doesn’t have a ton of advertising, lasts nearly three hours every time. There are an inordinate amount of promos, interviews and speaking sessions during the telecast, and that elongates the fight card much more than it has to.

There is a promo spotlighting several of the fights at the beginning of the broadcast. Then, there is an over five-minute promo package before each fight, so we can get to know the combatants. Then, after the fight, there is a post-fight interview, which seems to be a recap of said pre-fight promo mixed with a bevy of horrible, rhetorical questions, as I’ve mentioned before.

We also have the several betting segments with Gianni the Greek, the power rankings segment, which is worthless considering Paul Felder and Michael Bisping have about as much input on the signings as I do, and, lastly, the post-signing interview segment. The post-signing segment is basically the post-fight interview segment with the added question of “How does it feel to get signed by the UFC?” At least that final interview segment can be skipped, since the fights are over and the signings have been announced.

I am not a producer, but I could definitely, somewhat, streamline this and make this more time productive for us grouchy, work-going chuds. From the aforementioned promos and interviews, leave it as a pre-fight promo for each fight – the vignettes you see before each bout – and cut the post-fight interviews to just stick with the post-signing interviews. That way, you’re only spending air time talking to fighters who are actually making the roster that night. Dump the power rankings segment and keep the Gianni the Greek stuff to one or two check-ins, total, on the night.

And I get it. The cage needs to be addressed by the crew between fights, but that’s where you put your block of commercials in. I am sure Ziprecuiter won’t have a problem with that.