Geoff Neal’s moment has arrived; is ‘Wonderboy’ a gatekeeper?


Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is no stranger to UFC main events, but there is one role the two-time welterweight challenger doesn’t want to get accustomed to: gatekeeper.

Thompson faces Geoff Neal in Saturday’s Fight Night headliner in Las Vegas, and it’s the second time in a row Thompson, 37, will be fighting a younger opponent on the rise. Neal, 30, has won seven straight, and he would parlay a victory over “Wonderboy” into a top-10 ranking. Thompson’s last fight was a unanimous-decision triumph over Vicente Luque, 29, on Nov. 2, 2019.

The UFC ranks Thompson No. 5, and he wants another shot at the title, not the role of being an opponent fighters need to beat on their way up the ladder.

Saturday’s card, which is the last UFC event of the year, is packed with familiar names and fighters who might be on the verge of breaking out. ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy breaks down what’s real and what’s not in the MMA world.

Real or not: Neal is one of the most underrated fighters in the UFC, but that will change with a win Saturday.

Wagenheim: Neal is the real deal — and this weekend, he will show the world on MMA’s most brightly lit stage. There’s a wave of turbulence in the sport right now, with new names bubbling up into prominence, and Neal has an opportunity to ride that kahuna in his first UFC main event.

The timing is right for Neal, who for years has been sharpening his skills while on the job. Fighters are fond of pointing out, “There are levels to this game.” What they don’t always acknowledge is that, much like a good wrestling attack, the level changes can come seemingly out of nowhere.

As recently as a couple of years ago, a fight against Thompson would have been a mismatch. Wonderboy competed for the welterweight title in 2016 and again in 2017, and both times, Thompson gave champion Tyron Woodley all he could handle. Thompson earned those shots by beating ex-champ Johny Hendricks and Rory MacDonald. Thompson’s karate-rooted kickboxing was hard to get a handle on for even the battle-tested, and the neophyte Neal would have been in over his head.

But now Thompson is 37. Last year, he suffered his first knockout loss. He has not fought in over a year. Neal has been idle for nearly as long, but he is riding a seven-fight winning streak, with all but one of those victories a stoppage. Saturday’s bout represents a step up in competition — a level change, if you will — but Neal is ready. It’s his time now to seize the moment.

Real or not: Wonderboy needs a win to avoid being viewed as a gatekeeper.

Okamoto: Absolutely, 100 percent real. I mean, evidence suggests the UFC is already looking at Thompson that way. He is fighting an opponent in Neal who is ranked six spots behind him and has looked like a potential title challenger. Before this fight was official, there was some talk about pairing Thompson with Khamzat Chimaev, who also is ranked much lower.

This doesn’t have to be a touchy subject or even seen as a slight toward Thompson; it is what it is. He fought for the belt in 2016 and 2017 and came up short. He is 2-3-1 in his past six fights. He isn’t in the title conversation right now, so the UFC is booking him against opponents who are on the rise.

For Thompson, this fight is about defending his spot in the rankings, which then would allow him to look toward an opponent ranked above him. If he loses, he likely will find himself in another matchup similar to this — one in which his opponent has more to gain than he does.

Real or not: Khaos Williams will walk away with a bonus and a top-15 ranking after Saturday.

Raimondi: I’d say real, especially regarding the bonus. Both Williams and his foe, Michel Pereira, are known as action fighters. Williams is 2-0, with highlight-reel finishes in a combined 57 seconds. “The Oxfighter” starched Alex Morono in February and Abdul Razak Alhassan in November, both in 30 seconds or less. While Deiveson Figueiredo and Kevin Holland are the front-runners for 2020 fighter of the year, if Williams stops Pereira, he has to be in that conversation.

With all of that said, this will be a tough one. Pereira is unpredictable. Like, he-might-do-a-backflip-off-the-cage unpredictable. It’s impossible to project what this fight looks like. Pereira also has some decent wrestling and impactful slams. Maybe he looks to remove Williams’ ridiculous, one-punch knockout power from the equation with takedowns? Then again, when has Pereira ever been risk-averse? He throws himself into the fire constantly.

So yes, Williams vs. Pereira has a very strong chance of winning a fight of the night bonus. And both are phenomenal finishers, enough to make this one a possibility for performance of the night, as well.

That leaves us with the final part of the equation: Williams winning and earning a top-15 ranking. I’ll buy it. Williams is 26 years old and only getting better. His power is difference-making. There are some veterans at the bottom of the rankings who could easily be ousted. Khaos will reign.

Real or not: Anthony “Rumble” Johnson vs. Yoel Romero will be one of the most anticipated fights of 2021.

Helwani: Certainly in Bellator. Other than a potential Patricio “Pitbull” Freire vs. A.J. McKee featherweight title fight, I can’t think of a more intriguing fight Bellator can make in 2021. The combination of it being Johnson’s first fight in almost four years, plus their respective debuts in a new organization, plus Romero’s first light heavyweight fight in almost a decade, plus the explosive power both men possess makes this a real juicy fight.

Side note: For the first time in a long time, you can make a strong case that a Bellator division rivals or is more interesting than a UFC division.

Here are the top eight Bellator light heavyweights, as I see them: Vadim Nemkov, Ryan Bader, Phil Davis, Anthony Johnson, Yoel Romero, Corey Anderson, Lyoto Machida and Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov.

Here are the UFC’s top eight 205ers: Jan Blachowicz, Glover Teixeira, Dominick Reyes, Aleksandar Rakic, Jiri Prochazka, Anthony Smith, Volkan Oezdemir, Nikita Krylov.

Pretty darn close, right?

Heck, if I were with Bellator, I’d consider doing one of those grand prix it loves doing so much to really spotlight the excitement it has brewing at 205. Something to consider.

Regardless, of those 16 fighters, you could make a strong case that Johnson and Romero are the two biggest names, and that’s why Bellator needs to make sure that whenever they step foot in a Bellator cage next year, it’s to fight each other. And if the promotion does a tournament, I would strongly suggest the first round features “Rumble” vs. Romero. There’s no time to waste. Make the fights people want to see right away.

Real or not: Jose Aldo has one more title run left in him.

Murphy: Aldo’s featherweight reign will get its deserved Hall of Fame enshrinement. Lightning-quick hands, impossible takedown defense and kicks that could fell a redwood ensured Aldo’s name was in pound-for-pound debates for half a decade. He electrified home arenas on par with national heroes like Canada’s Georges St-Pierre and Aldo’s Brazilian countryman Anderson Silva. For Aldo, like Silva, the glory days left abruptly, and they’re not coming back.

Since Conor McGregor shook the MMA world with a single left cross at UFC 194 in 2015, Aldo is 3-6. A venture down to bantamweight has yielded a split-decision loss to Marlon Moraes and a merciless demolition at the hands of champion Petr Yan. All that comes at the expense of a significantly steeper weight cut on a 34-year-old body making its 25th UFC/WEC appearance on Saturday.

Aldo is a slight favorite in this co-main event opposite Marlon “Chito” Vera, and Aldo could very feasibly navigate to a decision win. Then, perhaps the loss to Moraes warrants a rematch, and Aldo could take a coin flip there. But that bantamweight mountain gets entirely too steep at the summit. Yan showed he is levels above Aldo in July, a battering that probably should have been stopped well before the fifth round. And Aljamain Sterling and Cory Sandhagen both seem closer to Yan than Aldo.

Aldo deserves co-headliners like this and maybe one more main event on a Fight Night in Rio de Janeiro when the pandemic allows. However, we’ve seen this movie play out far too many times to think another title run is realistic. The only undefeated competitor in MMA is Father Time, and Aldo is approaching the judges’ scorecards in that fight.

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