Dana White's Contender Series has proven to be a steppingstone for rising MMA stars, giving up-and-comers the opportunity to showcase their skills in front of UFC president Dana White. Typically given one opportunity to prove themselves, fighters on the show can earn a UFC contract if their performance is on par with current UFC talent.
In this series, we showcase DWCS grads who have started to rise the ranks since earning their UFC contract on the show.
Taila Santos: Flyweight
Entering her fight on Dana White's Contender Series, flyweight Taila Santos was one of MMA's hottest prospects.
Coming in at 14-0, Santos' biggest X-Factor was her finishing ability, defeating 10 of her 14 opponents by knockout. Santos made a strong impression in her bout against Estefani Almeida on DWCS, out striking Almeida every round, earning a unanimous decision victory.
Despite not getting the finish, Santos' raw talent was quickly recognized by UFC president Dana White, and she was signed then and there to the world's elite MMA promotion.
Santos' UFC career started out slowly; it wouldn't be until just under two years after earning her contract that she'd win her first bout for the promotion. Santos defeated Liverpool standout Molly McCann, and it would be the first time in the UFC that Santos would unveil her exceptional grappling.
Santos secured five takedowns and accumulated nearly eight minutes of ground control time. The bout showed that Santos had more than just heavy hands, and there were very few holes in her game that opponents could capitalize on.
It soon became apparent that Santos' diversity of attacks could be the biggest threat to flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, the greatest flyweight of all-time. Shevchenko seemingly had no weaknesses and took fights to where her opponents felt the most comfortable, then beat them there. But to challenge the long-reigning champion, Santos needed to string together a handful of impressive wins.
Santos dominated her three next opponents, each more definitively than the last. In back-to-back fights against Gillian Robertson and Roxanne Modafferi, Santos found success wherever the fight went. Out-striking and out-grappling both opponents, the Brazilian began finding her rhythm inside the UFC and was rapidly rising up the flyweight ranks.
Her most impressive win came against Joanne Wood in November 2021. Taking the fight on short notice, Santos earned her first "Performance of the Night" bonus in a one-sided bout that jumped her from No. 10 to No. 4 in the flyweight rankings.
The first three minutes of the bout was a feeling out process, each fighter trying to find their distance and timing. Santos, however, was the one putting constant forward pressure on Wood. Finding her range, Santos unloaded a right cross that dropped Wood briefly.
Unable to keep Wood down, Santos wasted no time to land a left hook that sent Wood back down to the canvas. Then, Santos' grappling took over. Quickly taking Wood's back, Santos locked in a rear naked choke, forcing the tap from the No. 5 contender. This fight showed that Santos was ready for the best fighters UFC had to offer. Riding a four-fight win streak, it was enough to earn Santos a shot at the title.
Santos became the second Dana White's Contender Series grad to fight for a title after Alex Perez, who lost his men's flyweight title shot trying to dethrone champion Deiveson Figueiredo. But the test in front of her was like nothing she'd ever faced before.
Defeating Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the vacant flyweight title in December 2018, Shevchenko defended her belt six times and jumped Amanda Nunes for the No. 1 spot on the women's pound-for-pound rankings.
The two met at "UFC 275: Teixeira vs Prochazka," serving as the co-main event in Singapore. The consensus seemed to be that Santos' biggest threat to the champion was her power on the feet, but when it came time to fight, Santos' grappling took over.
In the first round, Shevchenko was controlling the clinch very well, and looked for an early takedown. Santos reversed the position and was able to take Shevchenko's back. Constantly looking for a choke, Santos forced the champion to defend the submissions rather than advancing positions. This allowed Santos to stay in control for the final two minutes of the opening round.
The next two rounds were mirror images of the first. Shevchenko's slight advantage in strikes on the feet was heavily outweighed by Santos' six minutes of control time in the 10-minute span.
Entering the championship rounds, Shevchenko was able to keep the fight standing, where she continued to show a slight advantage over Santos, who saw her vision impaired early in the round after a clash of heads. Needing to make a statement in the fifth, Shevchenko secured a takedown of her own, ending the fight with her strongest five minutes of the night.
As Bruce Buffer made the decision official, Shevchenko was the one with her hand raised.
Although the fight didn't go her way, Santos proved she can hang with the pound-for-pound No. 1, an impressive feat in and of itself. Santos has made the strongest impression of all DWCS grads, being the closest to earn UFC gold and becoming the highest-ranking grad currently in the promotion.
This story first published at UFC.com.