UFC Vegas 17: Thompson and Neal Look to Complicate Title Picture

Stephen Thompson and Geoff Neal, UFC Vegas 17
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 18: (L-R) Opponents Stephen Thompson and Geoff Neal face off during the UFC Fight Night weigh-in at UFC APEX on December 18, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

The UFC welterweight division officially has a logjam as ranked contenders Stephen Thompson and Geoff Neal will be looking to add their names to the title picture at UFC Vegas 17.

There’s plenty going on in the UFC’s welterweight division.  Champion Kamaru Usman, as of this writing, is still expected to be locked into a date with surging contender Gilbert Burns.  Pay-per-view megastar Jorge Masvidal is expected to face roommate turned arch-nemesis Colby Covington in the New Year.  Finally, 2020’s breakout star Khamzat Chimaev is looking to complete his fast-track to title contention when he meets the recovering Leon Edwards in the first quarter of 2021.

So where does Stephen Thompson fit into all of this?  Just two years ago, he was a perennial title contender in the stacked division.  Today, a year long absence from competition has “Wonderboy” looking for a foothold on the precarious cliff of contenders.   A victory over his surging opponent would reassert him near the top of the weight class with plenty of opportunities to slide into a potential title eliminator as the major players look to get statement victories in the coming months.  On the other hand, a loss would take him out of the conversation altogether and leave him to work his way back up the ladder in 2021.

Such a swing may seem dramatic, but it is also fitting considering the star power of the man deemed the nicest fighter on the UFC roster.  His seven fight win-streak over past and future champions like Robert Whittaker, Rory MacDonald, and Johnny Hendricks established him as an elite contender.  His epic collision with Tyron Woodley for the title in 2016 pushed his popularity to greater heights.  Add in the fact that he holds a victory over the aforementioned Masvidal, and a leap back into the title picture against a new champion in Usman or any of the other top contenders would not be a stretch.

“Handz of Steel” Geoff Neal is looking to complete his own ascension to the elite level in taking on his biggest opponent to date and force himself into the crowded title picture.  Appearing on the first season of Dana White’s Contender Series in 2017, Neal has reeled off five straight victories since being offered a contract on the show.  He has not disappointed, stopping heavy-hitters like Frank Camacho, Niko Price, and Mike Perry.  Though the division has several more well-established veterans ahead of him, a sixth victory in a row for Neal would put him in position to face another top ranked opponent that would likely get him to within reach of a title shot.

Neal has made it clear he wants the credit of having taken out the “best striker” in the division and hopes that a stoppage over another elite stand-up fighter would begin to give him that distinction at 170 pounds.  He would also gain another distinction with a victory.  2020 has been a commencement year of sorts for Contender Series alumni with four fighters from the show having been involved in UFC headliners in the past several months.  Neal will be looking to be the first from the program to win a UFC main event and snap the tough skid of the other alumni in the process.

Stylistically, the powerful and athletic Neal will be looking to close the distance against Thompson.  He’s proven his ability to hurt several durable opponents, but will need to hide his entries with feints and should look to use kicks to the calf to wear down Thompson’s mobility.  Thompson should look to follow his proven strategy and pick apart Neal from the outside, using his footwork and timing to stay out of the pocket and avoid the fence where he can get corralled into the clinch.

The future for either man figures to be dictated by how the title picture shakes out.  Assuming all the expected match-ups come to pass in the first half of 2021, Saturday’s winner could look to book a fight with the winner of Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington or the winner of Leon Edwards and Khamzat Chimaev depending on which fighter is available.