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The last Ultimate Fighting Championship event of 2020 has arrived, and it is a shockingly deep affair. In fact, UFC Fight Night 183 on Saturday is so deep that it lost two main-card bouts—Leon Edwards-Khamzat Chimaev and Misha Cirkunov-Ryan Spann—and still might be the promotion’s best non-pay-per-view event of the year. Geoff Neal gets a major chance at a statement victory against Stephen Thompson in the main event, and the theme carries over to the two bantamweight bouts providing the primary support, as Marlon Vera and Rob Font welcome opportunities at career-defining wins in respective matches with Jose Aldo and Marlon Moraes. Add in an absolute banger between Michel Pereira and Kalinn Williams, a fascinating flyweight affair pitting Gillian Robertson against Taila Santos and a thrown-together scrap featuring Anthony Pettis, and this serves as an excellent way to cap the year.
Now to the preview for the UFC Fight Night “Thompson vs. Neal” main card:
Welterweights#5 WW | Stephen Thompson (15-4-1, 10-4-1 UFC) vs. #11 WW | Geoff Neal (13-2, 5-0 UFC)
ODDS: Neal (-115), Thompson (-105)
Thompson is quietly back on the fringes of the welterweight title picture. “Wonderboy” came into the UFC with a bevy of martial arts and kickboxing titles of questionable importance, and his 2012 promotional debut against Daniel Stittgen showed that he could be a flashy and exciting fighter. However, after a one-sided loss to Matt Brown—still firmly in the journeyman portion of his career at the time—it was easy to dismiss Thompson as a gimmicky fighter who would not be able to sustain success at a high level. With that said, the loss aged well once Brown started his late-career rise through the ranks, and Thompson himself put together a winning streak that saw him frustrate and often finish his opponents. Since Thompson has moved into legitimate contender status, his style has become divisive. His long karate stance has allowed him to obliterate overly aggressive and defensively lax opponents, but elite opposition has typically given him a lot less with which to work. Thompson’s finishing ability still provides some tension throughout the proceedings, but some of his main events have become absolutely excruciating to watch once it becomes apparent that nothing is going to happen. His title rematch against Tyron Woodley is the greatest example of this dynamic. After a championship draw that had enough big moments to make up for long stretches of inactivity, both men decided to neutralize those big moments in their sequel, resulting in 25 minutes of each man waiting on the other to provide a new opening. Between that and a similarly interminable decision loss to Darren Till, most figured that Thompson would not get anywhere near the title picture again, particularly after a surprising knockout loss to Anthony Pettis in 2019. However, Thompson snuck in a win over Jorge Masvidal in the midst of those poor performances, and he has not fought since winning an absolute war against Vicente Luque in one of the best fights of 2019. Between the excitement of his last fight and the divisional churn during his inactivity, there is suddenly a path for Thompson to move his way back up the ladder for one last run towards a title shot. If he wants to continue his upward trend, he will have to first turn back one of the division’s hottest prospects.
Neal has done nothing but exceed expectations during the three years he has been on the UFC roster. He looked like a fine prospect in his win on the first season of Dana White’s Contender Series, then spent 2018 making it known that he was a talent to watch, particularly after a brutal knockout in an impressive win over Frank Camacho. However, even that performance did not portend Neal’s breakout 2019 campaign. First came an underrated victory over Belal Muhammad, as Neal out-adjusted one of the division’s best technicians to a clear decision. Then came one-sided wins over two dangerous bangers in Niko Price and Mike Perry. While Perry has technically regressed, his reliable durability made it impressive when Neal ran through him in just 90 seconds. That figured to set up a 2020 in which Neal affirmed himself as a true contender, but instead, it has been particularly difficult. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Neal had to return to his day job due to trouble with finding opponents. While Neal is an obvious talent, his relative lack of name recognition made it a tough risk-reward proposition for a prospective opponent to accept. Once Neal actually got something on the books in August, he suffered a life-threatening infection that caused a litany of issues, including temporary organ failure. Neal has apparently recovered enough to take this booking, and amazingly enough, a win here would keep him on a championship trajectory even after such an otherwise horrible year.
Assuming Neal is close to his 2019 form, this is an interesting challenge for Thompson. Given Thompson’s rangy and defensive style, there are usually two clear paths to victory: either moving quickly to shock him with a single burst of violence, as Pettis did, or to slow things into a cautious crawl. Neal is certainly capable of either. While a slow-paced fight would be out of character for Neal, he showed an impressive level of adaptability in his win over Muhammad and comes from a well-regarded camp. Even if a patient decision win would not be the most stock-raising victory, it is at least a way to put a win in the books; and Neal does have considerable speed and power, enough so that he could catch Thompson in a blitz. Conventional wisdom from his quick knockout win over Perry was that the latter’s chin had finally been cracked, but “Platinum Mike” has proven durable enough since then to show that Neal apparently just hits that hard. While Neal is certainly capable of walking away as the victor, it is just generally hard to pick against Thompson given how much he can neutralize an opponent’s best weapons. That works both ways here. While “Wonderboy” should be able to stay evasive when it comes to Neal’s hardest shots, Thompson also does not have any of the pressure and wrestling that has typically given the Fortis MMA rep issues in the past. Neal also does not have much built-in defense to his game, so from a pure odds standpoint, it seems likelier that Thompson can bank offense rather than get hit with a huge shot in return. While Thompson is at the age where there could be a sudden decline, Neal’s recent medical issues essentially make that a wash when it comes to things not captured yet on film. The pick is Thompson via decision, but this was the right fight to make to see where both men sit in their careers.
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