Gregory Payan/Associated Press
Dana White‘s Contender Series, which gives MMA prospects the opportunity to compete in front of the UFC president for exclusive contracts, has proved to be a valuable scouting program for the promotion, producing talents like Sean O’Malley, Dan Ige, Greg Hardy, and Sodiq Yusuff since its 2017 inception.
The 2020 iteration of the show has been no exception to that rule. This year, it has resulted in 33 new fighters being signed by the UFC, including three on this week’s episode.
But which of this week’s winners have the brightest futures in mixed martial arts?
That’s the question we’ll attempt to answer here, as we assign the latest Contender Series victors letter grades based on their performances on the show and the other information we’ve been able to scrape together about them.
Let’s get to it.
Danny Sabatello: B
Danny Sabatello defeated Taylor Moore by unanimous decision, didn’t earn a UFC contract
The action began in the bantamweight division, where trash-talking American Top Team product Danny Sabatello (9-1), a former Big 10 wresting champion at Purdue, took on the amply more experienced Taylor Moore (10-5), whose pro record is bolstered by a 16-1 amateur run.
This one was all Sabatello, who used his wrestling so effectively that he earned a Khabib Nurmagomedov comparison from cageside commentator Michael Bisping.
Over the course of three rounds, the 27-year-old secured multiple takedowns, racked up almost 14 minutes of control time and landed just shy of 160 strikes—more than enough to earn a unanimous decision and make good on his status as the biggest betting favorite on the card.
With this victory, Sabatello moved onto a three-fight streak, which includes a bantamweight title win in the Titan FC cage. While this latest win cemented his status as a high-level fighter, it left a lot to be desired in terms of excitement.
In his post-fight interview with Laura Sanko, Sabatello justified his strategy by explaining that he enjoys “beating the f–k out of a guy for 15 minutes.” That’s all well and good, but it just wasn’t the kind of performance that’s going to win him any fans, particularly after he asked Moore how he wanted to be finished at the card’s weigh-ins.
It was a classic example of talking the talk without walking the walk, and nobody likes that. White certainly didn’t, as he accused the bantamweight of being risk-averse at the conclusion of the show.
Luana Pinheiro: A+
Luana Pinheiro defeated Stephanie Frausto by knockout at 2:48 of Round 1, earned a UFC contract
Brazilian prospect Luana Pinheiro (8-1) couldn’t have made much more of a splash in her Contender Series scrap with Stephanie Frausto (8-7) in the second bout on this week’s card.
The 26-year-old, who is known as a grappler thanks to her judo black belt and BJJ purple belt, sealed the deal in the first round with a blistering volley of punches—precisely the kind of finish we know White looks for on the show.
This win over Frausto, who has a decade of pro MMA experience, pushes Pinheiro onto a six-fight win streak, including a violent knockout win over The Ultimate Fighter veteran Helen Harper in her next most recent fight.
To say she’s got promise would be an understatement. She is a lethal submission specialist who, a little over three years into her MMA career, has discovered some serious firepower in her hands and is gaining confidence in her striking as a result.
That’s got to be a scary thought for her fellow strawweights, even those that populate the UFC’s top 15.
Nikolas Motta: A-
Nikolas Motta defeated Joe Lowry by unanimous decision, earned a UFC contract
In the middle bout of this week’s episode of Contender Series, former CFFC lightweight champ Nikolas Motta (13-3) took on a fellow CFFC veteran in Joe Lowry (9-2).
Both lightweights had come close to earning UFC roster spots previously, as Motta competed on season four of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, and Lowry was knocked out by Devonte Smith on a 2018 episode of Contender Series.
Needless to say, both men were eager to make a statement in this fight, and it was Motta who did so.
The Brazilian was the far more effective party throughout the three-round slugfest, landing upward of 40 head strikes and shattering his rival’s nose in the process. In fact, he probably would have scored a knockout win had he not been fighting Lowry, who looked like he had been hit by a meteorite and walked out of the smouldering crater mostly unscathed.
After Motta’s unanimous-decision win, Bisping forecasted “a very, very bright future” for the Brazilian. We agree with that, although the two knockout losses on his 16-fight record suggest some fragility, which could cause him problems against the best lightweights in the world.
Other than that minor detail, he seems to be well-equipped to do some big things in this sport, and we’re excited for his UFC debut.
Natan Levy: A
Natan Levy defeated Shaheen Santana via technical submission (arm-triangle choke) at 0:55 of round three, earned a UFC contract
The penultimate bout of the night occurred at a 160-pound catchweight, as Shaheen Santana (6-1) took on Syndicate MMA product Natan Levy (6-0), who stepped in on short notice to replace his rival’s originally slated opponent, Landon Quinones.
Barring a brief second-round scare when Santana threatened with an armbar, this one was all Levy. The LFA veteran was the more effective man on the feet and on the mat through the first two rounds and, spurred on by a firm talking to from his coach between rounds, choked his rival unconscious with an arm-triangle choke in the third.
With this win, Levy maintained his unbeaten record, and even more importantly, flaunted some sorely needed finishing ability after winning his last three fights by decision.
From here, the karate specialist will likely drop back to the featherweight division, and we expect him to have some real success there.
Mario Sousa: B
Mario Sousa def. Mariusz Ksiazkiewicz via unanimous decision, didn’t earn a UFC contract
This week’s episode concluded with a clash of towering middleweights, as 6’3½” Canadian Mariusz Ksiazkiewicz took on 6’3″ Brazilian Mario Sousa.
As it turned out, the pair were as evenly matched in terms of their skills as they were in terms of their physical traits. For three rounds, they battled through all phases of the game, blasting each other with heavy artillery on the feet and threatening each other with submissions and ground-and-pound when the action hit the mat.
It was the kind of back-and-forth fight that judges probably dread, but all three ultimately sided with the Brazilian, giving him his first win outside his home country.
With this win, Sousa is now on a five-fight streak. While he failed to pick up a finish for the first time in his career, the silver lining was that it gave him the opportunity to prove he has the gas tank to fight for three hard rounds. He also reaffirmed what we already knew: He’s got slick striking, solid jiu jitsu and a clear appetite for violence.
Unfortunately, Sousa also showed a pretty clear deficit in the wrestling department—something Bisping eluded to during the fight. That’s going to be a problem for him going forward, particularly if he makes it to the UFC, where there’s simply no avoiding high-level wrestlers.
If the 24-year-old can shore up that part of his game, he can probably accomplish some big things, but that’s a big if.