The fifth season of “Dana White’s Contender Series” kicked off on August 31, starting a series of weeks where a whole host of talented fighters from around the world will converge on Las Vegas in their hope for UFC glory. This week continued to follow the trend from Season 4 of many more contracts being given out than in the first three seasons, as in the end five of the eight fighters who took part left with UFC deals.
If that math seems a little strange to you, it’s because for the first time ever, a losing fighter was offered a contract. That fighter was Carlos Candelario, who fought Victor Altamirano in an exhausting back-and-forth battle that eventually went to a split decision. In the rest of this piece, I will break down how both fighters made their way to DWCS, how they looked during the fight, and where their skill sets fit into the UFC’s flyweight division.
Altamirano spent essentially his entire pro career with LFA after making his pro debut with them in 2017, winning six straight under their banner to start his career. In 2019 he suffered his only professional loss by way of submission against former UFC flyweight Jarred Brooks. He rebounded in 2020 with a decision over “Contender Series” alum Chris Ocon and a submission of longtime U.S. regional standout Lloyd McKinney, then went an exciting 25 minutes against fellow prospect Nate Smith to claim the vacant LFA flyweight title in February 2021. Like many LFA champs before him, that belt was enough to get him a chance at the “Contender Series,” where he was originally scheduled to face much less acclaimed Brazilian prospect Vinicius Salvador. However, that fight was scrapped due to visa issues and Altamirano was rebooked against Candelario, who at one point was one of the hottest 125-pound prospects in MMA.
Both fighters came out hot out of the gate, as you would expect from flyweights. While Altamirano managed to land a couple kicks in the first round, he was mostly controlled against the ground or fence thanks to Candelario’s strong wrestling. He threatened a couple leg locks to get back to his feet but always ended up back on the ground. He was slightly more successful at staying on his feet in the second round and managed to land some good elbows while pressed against the fence or from guard, but it was hard to judge just how much damage they were inflicting because he didn’t have much leverage from those negative positions. Towards the end of the round, Altamirano finally began shooting his own takedown attempts and having more success in stuffing his opponents’ as his superior cardio and longer training camp started to become important. The third round clearly went in his favor, as he controlled the cage and landed a beautiful mix of punches, kicks, elbows, and knees to both the body and head of Candelario and showed the urgency you want to see out of someone down on the scorecards. Altamirano briefly took the back to look for a submission with a couple minutes left but was unable to control the position and spent most of the round inflicting damage while standing. He eventually got the win by the narrowest of margins, as two judges gave him the second round for a 29-28, 29-28, 28-29 split decision.
Altamirano came into the week with four submissions, four decisions, and one TKO out of his nine wins, but those numbers are somewhat deceptive since four of those finishes came during his first five fights against weak opposition. He’s been much more of a decision artist since moving up to a higher caliber of opponent, and that will have to be his path to success in the UFC as well since he throws a high volume of strikes but isn’t overly powerful and is also a talented grappler but likely not exceptional enough to submit many people in the technically-proficient flyweight division. He’s also 30, so it’s unlikely that we see dramatic improvement in his skillset, though access to the UFC Performance Institute can always be useful. I currently rank him as my #69 flyweight in the world, which is lower than most of his divisional peers, due to how close the “Contender Series” fight was and my concerns over his paths to winning fights against elite talent. He does have great stamina and toughness, but that’s almost expected once you reach this level and won’t be enough to carry a fighter through like it might on the regional scene.
Candelario’s path to the UFC has been long and had major obstacles at times, but he’s finally made it as the first fighter to get signed after a loss on the “Contender Series.” He made his amateur debut at age 21 all the way back in 2012 and racked up four straight submission finishes, then missed over a year and a half due to injuries and scheduling issues. He got one last amateur win in 2014 then went pro the next year and won six straight between 2015 and 2017, with five of those fights under the banner of New England-based promotion CES. That was enough to earn him a shot on the first season of “DWCS” against BJJ blackbelt and fellow 6-0 prospect Ronaldo Candido, who Candelario ended up beating in an intense decision that unfortunately left him with a torn-up knee.
He never got his chance to fight for the UFC after that win, and it looked like he might fade away into obscurity after an attempt at a comeback with CES in 2019 was cancelled by the same injury, but then on August 6th of this year he finally made his CES return and won a decision over a 5-4-1 opponent. It wasn’t a super-impressive performance, as he didn’t seem to have the same levels of explosiveness, stamina, and aggression that he had before the injury, but some level of rust has to be expected coming off of a four-year layoff. It was also good enough to get him back on the UFC radar, so when Altamirano’s original opponent was forced to withdraw, Candelario stepped in with less than two weeks to prepare for his second fight of the month.
As noted in Altamirano’s writeup, Candelario was able to dominate the first round of their fight and land some solid ground and pound, but his ability to control and do damage both faded as the fight progressed. By the middle of the second round he was still managing to control his opponent but inflicted so little damage between his chain-wrestling attempts that two of the judges didn’t give him the round because they felt Altamirano’s strikes while defending body locks and from guard were more damaging than anything Candelario was doing. The commentators seemed to think he had clearly won both of the first two rounds and just needed to survive the onslaught that he faced in the third from his noticeably fresher opponent, and Dana White made it clear after the show that he signed Candelario because he also disagreed with the judging, but I think if you actually prioritize damage over positional control (which the judges are supposed to do), this fight was close but scored fairly.
Candelario enters the UFC as my #75 flyweight worldwide, which is just a few spots below Altamirano and similarly lower than most other UFC flyweights. He has good wrestling, competent striking, and some nice submissions, but he’s now gassed out in two straight third-round fights and is entering a division full of non-stop dynamos. He’s not deadly enough of a finisher to end a ton of fights early against the opponents he will face at this level, and unless he manages to regain his old conditioning he also will be unlikely to grind out many decisions. The fight with Altamirano was very entertaining though, and he could stick around for a few years if he’s able to consistently produce excitement like that while winning enough to keep his record solid.