By any measure, week two of the second season of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series was a rollicking success.
Every fight on the card ended in a finish, with three of them ending in under two minutes. If UFC president Dana White was looking for hungry athletes looking to make a memorable impression, he couldn’t have asked for more from Tuesday’s crop of Octagon hopefuls.
Typically, no more than three fighters receive a contract following an appearance on the Contender Series, but White was so thrilled by this week’s performances that he handed out a record four UFC contracts to Matt Sayles, Anthony Hernandez, Ryan Spann, and Dwight Grant.
Five week two winners, four brand new additions to the UFC roster.
So who got left out?
That distinction goes to featherweight Austin Springer, a 31-year-old Washington resident who trains out of Gracie Barra in Portland, Ore. Springer was matched up with highly vaunted kickboxer Giga Chikadze, a Georgian fighter who had finished his last five opponents by first-round knockout.
Chikadze’s lethal kicks were on full display in the early stages of the bout and it looked like Springer was on his way to becoming KO victim number six. Instead, he waded through the punishment, getting in close to use his wrestling to take Chikadze down to the mat and wear him down.
In the third, Springer asserted himself on the ground and put Chikadze away with a rear-naked choke submission. Of this week’s five Contender Series winners, Springer logged the most cage time, which he understands may have been one of the reasons that White passed on signing him.
“I think they have a specific thing that they want,” said Springer, speaking to MMA Fighting about his experience on the show. “They want those faster knockouts, it’s easier to then build off of that when they can say, ‘This guy’s coming off the Contender Series, he had a fast knockout’. That sells a lot more when trying to promote a fight than ‘He won by third-round rear-naked choke.’ I do get it.
“I do think they got to see a lot more from my fight than what they saw in the other ones. For all we know — nothing against anybody that got those fast knockouts — but maybe that was a fluke. Maybe when the going gets tough, they fold or mentally break. But we didn’t get to see any of that, whereas in my fight, you got to see grappling, striking, and a desire to not give up, and you didn’t get to see that in any of the other fights.”
Following his win, Springer wondered how his performance would register with White and the other officials watching. In all likelihood, he was on his way to losing a judges’ decision before pulling off the come-from-behind submission. One contract already appeared to be locked up as the fight before Springer’s saw Spann submit Emiliano Sordi with a guillotine choke in just 26 seconds.
When the last two fights of the night ended in first-round KOs, Springer braced himself for the bad news.
“I kind of was mentally prepared for them saying that I didn’t get it,” said Springer. “Because that way in the event that I did, cool I’m excited; in the event I didn’t, then I’m not let down. But I’m sitting back there like, everyone else got a quick knockout. In the past that’s what they’ve been looking for more so than longer fights, so I kind of expected it.”
Springer had a few moments in the cage to joke around with White and he was also able to express his gratitude to UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby for the opportunity. Despite not being picked up, the experience was far more positive than Springer’s first brush with the UFC, when he was denied a spot on The Ultimate Fighter 22 after being knocked out by current UFC lightweight Chris Gruetzemacher in that season’s elimination round.
He won just two of his next five fights (including a split decision loss that Springer is convinced should have gone his way), but never wavered in his belief that talent-wise he could hang with fighters at the UFC level.
So when the call came to be on the Contender Series, Springer was more excited than surprised, and there was no trepidation on his part especially when he got a chance to scrutinize Chikadze’s 5-1 record. Springer went on to become the first Contender Series underdog this season to pull off an upset win.
“I think they put a lot of weight on his kickboxing record and maybe didn’t quite look at his MMA record,” said Springer. “He has a good MMA record, but you look at the guys that he beat, it’s very unimpressive. I’m not taking anything away from him, he got built up the way he should, but you look at the record of the guys he beat, 0-10, 1-9, 0-2, 1-3, and that’s not a huge list of guys that he’s knocking out in the first round, so I guess the oddsmakers maybe didn’t do as much research to look into that stuff.”
Springer can’t be sure when or if the UFC will touch base with him, so for now he and his team are already using their exposure from the Contender Series to keep moving forward.
“There’s already a couple of things lined up,” said Springer. “We can’t announce anything yet, but in the next couple of days hopefully we should have something lined up and a new path to go down.”