Dec 18, 2020
Brett OkamotoESPN Staff Writer
- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
The UFC’s final event of 2020, which takes place Saturday in Las Vegas, was originally supposed to feature one of the scariest unranked welterweights on the planet against an established, veteran opponent. Well, even though the main event did change, the storyline around it remained the same.
Two-time 170-pound title challenger Stephen Thompson (15-4-1, 10-4-1 in the UFC) will face rising contender Geoff Neal (13-2, 5-0 UFC) in a main event that will massively impact each fighter’s outlook going into 2021. The UFC Fight Night card airs on ESPN+ (7 p.m. ET main card, prelims at 4 p.m.).
The UFC initially booked 2020 breakout star Khamzat Chimaev against Leon Edwards as this Saturday’s main event, but Edwards had to withdraw because of COVID-19. This new matchup is very similar to the original, however, in that many see Neal as a potential future champion and Thompson as his toughest test to date.
It’s a solid way for the promotion to close out the year, showcasing a welterweight division that could draw a lot of attention in 2021. Champion Kamaru Usman defended his title only once this year, but that number should increase in 2021. Gilbert Burns emerged as a dangerous No. 1 contender and is expected to get his shot early in 2021. The division has very familiar names at the top in Colby Covington, Jorge Masvidal and Edwards, as well as a class of new talent in Chimaev, Neal and Vicente Luque.
Caught somewhere in the middle, stuck between the top of the division and the up-and-comers looking to build their names, is Thompson, who appears to have plenty of fight left at age 37 but is just 2-3-1 in his past six bouts. That makes Saturday’s five-round main event arguably even more important for Thompson than for Neal, as he’s looking to defend his spot in the rankings. He is No. 9 in the ESPN welterweight top 10.
It’s obviously been a challenging and frustrating year, at times, for the UFC — just like the rest of the world — but this weekend’s (very deep) card will feel like something of a celebration of what the company was able to pull off amid a pandemic. And even though the main event changed, it’s a matchup worthy of 2020’s final spotlight.
By the numbers
2.25: Knockdowns per 15 minutes for Neal, the highest average among current UFC welterweights. Neal is also the division’s active leader in strikes landed per minute (6.0) and striking differential (2.28 landed for every one absorbed).
6:40: Average fight time in the UFC for Neal, the second shortest among active welterweights, behind only Abdul Razak Alhassan‘s 5 minutes, 45 seconds.
1: UFC welterweights who have more postfight bonuses than Thompson. It’s just Matt Brown, with seven. “Wonderboy” has six — three for performance of the night, two for fight of the night and one for knockout of the night.
5-0: Neal’s record in the Octagon, making him one of only two welterweights to start a UFC career with five consecutive victories. The other is champion Kamaru Usman, who is 12-0 in the UFC.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
Five vs. five
Stephen Thompson’s most recent results
Win: Vicente Luque (UD, Nov. 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Anthony Pettis (KO2, March 23, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Darren Till (UD, May 27, 2018)
Win: Jorge Masvidal (UD, Nov. 4, 2017)
Loss: Tyron Woodley (MD, March 4, 2017)
Geoff Neal’s most recent results
Win: Mike Perry (TKO1, Dec. 14, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Niko Price (TKO2, July 27, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Belal Muhammad (UD, Jan. 19, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Frank Camacho (KO2, Sept. 8, 2018)
Win: Brian Camozzi (Sub1, Feb. 18, 2018)
And the winner is …
It’s OK to be very high on Geoff Neal and also acknowledge that this particular matchup could be very tough for him. Neal hasn’t fought at all in 2020, in large part because of his health, and this is his first five-round fight in the UFC. And that “five-round” part is coming on relatively short notice. Neal is as dangerous of a knockout artist there is at 170 pounds, but it’s not easy finding Thompson’s chin. He suffered the first knockout loss of his MMA career only last year, to Anthony Pettis, and he’s been in there with the likes of Johny Hendricks, Rory MacDonald, Tyron Woodley, Jorge Masvidal and Darren Till. Thompson knows how to defend himself and he knows how to extend a fight and score points. Honestly, I think this is one of the tougher matchups the UFC could have thrown Neal in this spot, but I’ve been so high on his potential, I can’t pick against him now. Neal by knockout, second round.
How to watch the fights
Watch the fights on ESPN+. If you don’t have ESPN+, get it here.
There’s also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every UFC card.
Saturday’s fight card
ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET
Stephen Thompson vs. Geoff Neal | Welterweight
Jose Aldo vs. Marlon Vera | Men’s bantamweight
Michel Pereira vs. Khaos Williams | Welterweight
Marlon Moraes vs. Rob Font | Men’s bantamweight
Marcin Tybura vs. Greg Hardy | Heavyweight
ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET
Anthony Pettis vs. Alex Morono | Welterweight
Sijara Eubanks vs. Pannie Kianzad | Women’s bantamweight
Deron Winn vs. Antonio Arroyo | Catchweight (195 pounds)
Gillian Robertson vs. Taila Santos | Women’s flyweight
Tafon Nchukwi vs. Jamie Pickett | Middleweight
Jimmy Flick vs. Cody Durden | Men’s flyweight
Carlton Minus vs. Christos Giagos | Lightweight
Six more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)
1. Marlon Vera enters his co-main event against former featherweight champion Jose Aldo on a six-fight win streak at bantamweight, one shy of the division’s longest active streak, owned by champion Petr Yan. Vera’s finish of Sean O’Malley in August was his eighth in UFC 135-pound competition, tying him with ex-champ TJ Dillashaw for the most in division history.
2. Khaos Williams, who faces flashy welterweight Michel Pereira, can become just the second fighter in UFC history to win three consecutive fights in under a minute — after his two previous UFC bouts ended in 27 and 30 seconds. The only fighter with three such results in a row is Ronda Rousey.
3. Gillian Robertson looks to extend her win streak to three when she faces 16-1 Taila Santos. Robertson is tied for the most wins in flyweight history with six and is one finish away from tying Rousey and Jessica Andrade for second most among female fighters in UFC history, behind Amanda Nunes (eight).
4. Marcin Tybura opens the main card as a slight underdog to Greg Hardy, who enters on a two-fight win streak. Tybura has won his past three fights and would tie for the longest active win streak at heavyweight with a victory. Tybura could also become the sixth heavyweight to go 4-0 in a calendar year.
5. As of Wednesday, no fighter on the main card had 2-to-1 or better odds to win, according to Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. The most recent main card on which every favorite had less than 2-to-1 odds was at the May 13 event headlined by Anthony Smith vs. Glover Teixeira. The largest main-card favorite on this card is Marlon Moraes, at -150 against Rob Font.
6. Three signees from this season of Dana White’s Contender Series will make their UFC debuts on the prelims: Flyweight Jimmy Flick fights Cody Durden, who will be making his second UFC appearance; middleweights Tafon Nchukwi and Jamie Pickett make their debuts against one another.
ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim contributed to this fight preview.