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 30 new fighters being signed by the UFC—including four on this week's episode, which marked the program's return after a six-week hiatus.
The long-awaited return of Contender Series—the eighth episode of the 2020 season—was originally expected to feature the customary five fights. Unfortunately, the lineup was reduced to four contests when Gloria de Paula was forced out of her planned strawweight tilt with Pauline Macias due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Despite that shake-up, episode eight of Contender Series turned out to be a great night of MMA, as all four fights ended with finishes and all of the victors earned contracts with the UFC.
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.
Jared Vanderaa: B-
Jared Vanderaa defeated Harry Hunsucker by TKO at 3:34 of Round 1, earned a UFC contract
The first bout of the night occurred in the heavyweight division, where Jared Vanderaa (11-4) took on Harry Hunsucker (6-3), who replaced Oscar Cota on short notice.
In the early going, this one looked like it could go the way of the underdog Hunsucker, but Vanderaa ultimately proved the oddsmakers right, securing a takedown midway through the first round and finishing the fight with a volley of ground strikes.
While Vanderaa got the win, it was far from a perfect performance. In the opening minutes of the bout, he showed some serious gaps in his boxing defense and ate a number of clean shots as a result. Against a low-level heavyweight like Hunsucker, it didn't matter much, but against more lethal big men, those defensive shortcomings could cost him dearly.
On the flip side, Vanderaa's lone takedown of the fight—the catalyst for his victory—looked good, and he showed great killer instinct by pouring on the ground-and-pound once he got his man to the mat. Throw in the fact that he's just 28 years old—that's pretty young for a heavyweight—and that he's a BJJ black belt who trains with the likes of Dan Henderson and Sam Alvey at Team Quest in Temecula, California, and it's possible he's got some upside.
Is he a future champ? Likely not. Is he capable of beating more heavyweights like Ruan Potts and Tony Lopez, who are the biggest names among his victims thus far? Sure.
Luis Saldana: A-
Luis Saldana defeated Vince Murdock by TKO at 0:44 of Round 3, earned a UFC contract
The second bout of the night came in the featherweight division where the highly regarded Luis Saldana (14-6) took on Team Alpha Male product Vince Murdock (12-4).
Saldana was the far taller, longer man in the Octagon, towering over his 5'6" foe at 5'11". He parlayed those physical advantages into a striking clinic. In the first two rounds, he pieced his foe up with jabs and kicks. In Round 3, he put a stamp on things, dropping his foe with a pair of spearing front kicks to the face and finishing him off with ground-and-pound.
Contender Series analyst Laura Sanko was quick to compare Saldana's fight-ending front kicks to the kick Anderson Silva put Vitor Belfort down with in 2011. That comparison feels a bit over the top, but there's no denying the 29-year-old looked good.
His striking looked fantastic, and considering he had his first boxing match at eight years old, that's no surprise. His cardio also held up well, and he showed great killer instinct, cranking up the offense when it was necessary in the third round. These are great things to see from a young prospect.
While Saldana's naysayers will likely point to the six losses on his record, it's worth noting two of them came against UFC veterans Mike Santiago and Justin Lawrence, which makes them easy to excuse.
There are still a lot of questions about his game, such as how he'll fare against a wrestler who's able to navigate his reach and tie him up, but he looked very solid on Contender Series.
If Saldana can continue to use his physical tools the way he did against Murdock, he should be able to make some waves in the same way other lanky featherweights like Luis Pena and Andre Fili have done.
Ignacio Bahamondes: A+
Ignacio Bahamondes defeats Edson Gomez by knockout at 2:31 of Round 2, earned a UFC contract
The penultimate bout of the evening pitted Chilean karate specialist Ignacio Bahamondes (11-3) against Californian knockout puncher Edson Gomez (6-2) who, it should be noted, missed the 171-pound welterweight limit by three pounds.
In terms of the pair's physical traits, this fight looked a bit like the one that preceded it, as the 6'2" Bahamondes towered over the 5'8" Gomez.
Gomez, who secured all six of his wins by knockout, did his best to close the distance and initiate takedowns and tie-ups, but the Chilean wasn't having it. After thwarting his foe's advances in Round 1, he picked up a highlight-reel knockout in the second round with a blistering front kick to his rival's chin.
Octagon-side commentator Jon Anik called it one of the best knockouts he's seen in 2020, and it's hard to disagree. We'll be talking about this one for weeks to come.
With this tremendous win in the rear-view mirror, Bahamondes looks he could achieve some amazing things as a mixed martial artist.
Skeptics will point out that he's experienced some submission losses in the past, which could highlight a technical deficit in the grappling department. Doubters might also add that some of his victories have come against fighters with losing records.
However, the 23-year-old has moved his training camp to Illinois, where he's been putting in rounds with UFC featherweight contender Yair Rodriguez, which will surely have him well-prepared for what's to come.
The sky's the limit for this young man.
Carlos Ulberg: A-
Carlos Ulberg defeated Bruno Oliveira by knockout at 2:02 of Round 1, earned a UFC contract
The featured bout on this week's episode of Contender Series occurred in the light heavyweight division, where Brazil's Bruno Oliveira (8-2) took on New Zealand's Carlos Ulberg (3-0).
Ulberg, a 60-fight kickboxing veteran and former rugby league player, entered the fight with tons of hype behind him, partly due to his athletic background and partly to the fact that he trains alongside UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya at the famed City Kickboxing.
The 29-year-old justified that hype in emphatic fashion, nuking his 36-year-old rival with a check hook in the first frame.
It's hard not to get excited about a prospect from City Kickboxing. The Auckland gym has produced a host of world-class stars such as Adesanya, UFC featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski, and UFC lightweights Dan Hooker and Brad Riddell. Ulberg seems like he could follow in their footsteps.
All throughout this episode of Contender Series, viewers were assured that Ulberg's sparse MMA record was not a cause for concern in terms of his future in the Octagon. We're going to have to disagree with that.
At this stage, the Kiwi would likely be chewed up by many light heavyweight grapplers. That being said, he's training in a good place to tighten up that part of his game. So long as he's brought along slowly, and not rushed into fights with BJJ black belts and Division 1 wrestlers, he surely has a very bright future.
Come to think of it, he'd make an excellent opponent for former Glory champion Gokhan Saki, who will hopefully soon be ready to make his Octagon return.