Who’s next for “Wonderboy,” who showed he’s still a title threat?


ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim breaks down the biggest stories coming out of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night, including Stephen Thompson‘s convincing unanimous-decision win over Geoff Neal and two former champions earning key victories.

Helwani: “Wonderboy” is no stepping-stone

Considering what Geoff Neal overcame just three months ago — Sepsis and congestive heart failure — it’s amazing he was even able to fight on Saturday night.

At one point, while Neal was placed on dialysis and was in the ICU, there was fear he wouldn’t survive, let alone fight in the UFC again. This after he had COVID-19 two months prior.

So, while I’m sure he doesn’t want to hear about moral victories, he should be proud of himself. He went toe-to-toe with one of the best welterweights in the world and never gave up.

Because make no mistake about it: Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is still one of the best welterweights in the world.

This fight seemed to be a showcase for the 30-year-old Neal, who was 5-0 in the UFC going into this fight, to knock off of the 37-year-old former title contender en route to becoming a contender at 170 pounds. Considering both men had not fought this year — Wonderboy was nursing injured hands and Neal had his health issues — it was a hard fight to predict. Personally, I wasn’t sure what to expect from both men.

Heading into the bout, Thompson, who’s considered one of the nicest athletes in the UFC, spoke up a little more than usual. It seemed as though he didn’t like the idea of being a stepping-stone for the younger generation. Remember, the UFC tried to book him against Khamzat Chimaev before settling on Neal.

After his two failed title fights against then-champion Tyron Woodley, the UFC has consistently booked Thompson in this stepping-stone spot: that was the story of the Darren Till fight in 2018, as well as the Vicente Luque and Neal tilts.

So, it felt like he had a chip on his shoulder. And maybe that helped. But the truth is, Thompson isn’t washed up. He isn’t a stepping-stone, either. He never was. His win over Lugue in November 2019 taught us that. He remains one of the most difficult puzzles to figure out in the sport.

And what a win from the veteran. Despite an early cut from an accidental headbutt and what appeared to be an injured right knee, he never stopped moving and never stopped throwing. It was nice to see vintage “Wonderboy” back. In fact, one could argue he was better than ever as he landed a UFC career-high 171 significant strikes, per ESPN Stats & Info. Not only is that a record for Thompson, it’s the eighth-most significant strikes landed in a 170-pound fight.

Riding high afterwards, he told Daniel Cormier that he will win the welterweight title in 2021. That’s a bold prediction, but, hey, crazier things have happened.

Before that, though, he called for a rematch against Jorge Masvidal, who he beat three years ago.

It’s a fun idea, but I’m not sure I love it for Thompson considering he won their first meeting. Plus, it seems like Masvidal and Colby Covington are on a collision course.

Maybe a fight versus Neil Magny could be next or how about Demian Maia‘s retirement fight?

Regardless, there’s enough time to think about that in the future. For now, I’ll just say that I, like many of you, was bummed that the Leon Edwards vs. Chimaev fight that was supposed to happen Saturday night got canceled. It seemed like the perfect way to end this anything-but-perfect year.

But you know, I’m happy we ended 2020 with Thompson vs. Neal. It was nice to close things out with two of the nicest, classiest fighters in the game. Two guys who overcame a lot this year — perhaps none more so than Neal — and two reminders of why we love this sport and these fighters so much.

Okamoto: Who’s next for the headliners?

Stephen Thompson, welterweight

Who should be next: Loser of Kamaru Usman vs. Gilbert Burns

I honestly don’t see any other option here. The UFC placed Thompson in the “gatekeeper” role in his last two fights. No other way to say it. He fought an up-and-comer in Vicente Luque, and then another up-and-comer in Geoff Neal. Thompson wasn’t trying to improve his rank in these fights. He was trying to keep his place in line. Well, he’s done it — and now he deserves someone ahead of him. Problem is, there aren’t many names ahead of him, and the ones that are probably have other matchups on the horizon. I don’t love pairing “Wonderboy” with someone coming off a loss, but in this case, Usman and Burns are fighting for the championship early next year. Whoever loses is still going to be very highly ranked, obviously, and Thompson hasn’t fought either one. It’s the only fight that makes sense for Thompson, given the options.

Wild card: Colby Covington

A potential fight between Covington and former teammate/friend Jorge Masvidal seems so obvious to make. And I like that. I really like that fight. I want to see it. But if, for whatever reason, Covington does not face Masvidal next, Thompson would be the next, most obvious choice.

Geoff Neal, welterweight

Who should be next: Vicente Luque

Hindsight is always 20/20, but looking back, this wasn’t much of a “favor” to Geoff Neal. The guy definitely deserved a top-10 matchup after starting his UFC career 5-0. But to have that top-10 matchup come against the tricky style of Thompson — in a five-round main event — it was a tough ask. Obviously, if Neal is a future champion, he needs to be able to beat everyone, but for his first highly ranked matchup, I don’t know what would have been a tougher option. Thompson’s recent record really doesn’t tell the full story. Yes, he was 2-3-1 in his last six coming into this one, but two of the losses were razor-thin decisions, and in the third, he got caught by a punch in a fight he was winning against Anthony Pettis. Bottom line, Neal is still very talented, and so is Luque. Rankings-wise it makes sense, and Luque is another potential welterweight contender who also lost to Thompson.

Wild card: Loser of Khamzat Chimaev vs. Leon Edwards

The UFC is hoping to book Chimaev and Edwards to a main event in January. If that fight happens, it will have major implications at welterweight, particularly if Chimaev wins. Whichever way it goes, Neal would be a good option for the loser.

Jose Aldo, bantamweight

Who should be next: TJ Dillashaw

Easy, easy call, especially since the UFC just booked Cory Sandhagen vs. Frankie Edgar in February. From a rankings perspective, this is the fight to make. It’s also the fight to make for name value and style. It checks every box. Dillashaw is eligible to return in January afer a PED suspension. He’s still one of the division’s biggest names, and there will be a ton of intrigue around this matchup. The only other fights that make sense for Dillashaw’s return would be Urijah Faber (if the UFC wanted to make a fight about drama, and not rankings) or maybe Rob Font after his knockout win over Marlon Moraes on Saturday. But even those two are a stretch. Aldo is perfect for Dillashaw, and Dillashaw is perfect for Aldo. Quality callout, Jose.

Wild card: Cody Garbrandt

Garbrandt was looking at a drop to flyweight — and an immediate title shot at 125. Have to wonder if there’s now a wrench in those plans, considering the UFC plans to book a flyweight title rematch between Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno. Aldo vs. Garbrandt would make plenty of sense, but I still like the Dillashaw option better.

Marlon Vera, bantamweight

Who should be next: Loser of Jimmie Rivera vs. Pedro Munhoz in January

This was a big opportunity for Vera to finish a massive 2020 campaign, which could have seen him beat two of the biggest names in the division in Sean O’Malley and Aldo. That kind of year would have catapulted him into the biggest fights in the division. Now, he’s still deserving of a solid name and a high-ranked fight, but it won’t come with the spotlight it might have had he won this one. Rivera and Munhoz are fighting in January, and they are similar in that they’re extremely established in the division, but they’re not all that close to a title shot. Either one would be an appropriate next fight for Vera. It won’t be a blockbuster-type opportunity, but it will be a chance to get the ball rolling again, against an opponent fans know.

Wild horse: Raphael Assuncao

Assuncao is in the same boat as Rivera and Munhoz: established, but needs wins to make a serious run. Assuncao is fighting Raoni Barcelos, a hot 135-pound prospect, in February. Regardless of result, he’d make sense for Vera. As would Barcelos, for that matter, although if Barcelos wins that fight, he might be looking for a higher-ranked opponent than Vera.

Anthony Pettis should consider Bellator’s potential for big matchups and big bucks

Raimondi: Anthony Pettis has done almost everything there is to do in the UFC. He’s won the UFC lightweight title and beaten the likes of Charles Oliveira, Stephen Thompson and Donald Cerrone (twice). If the money is right — and you’d have to imagine the exciting “Showtime” would be well sought after — Bellator would be able to provide some incredibly interesting matchups. Pettis is en route to becoming a free agent following his UFC contract expiring with a unanimous-decision win over Alex Morono on Saturday. Imagine Pettis taking on Michael “Venom” Page or Douglas Lima at welterweight or Patricio “Pitbull” Freire or AJ McKee at lightweight.

Pettis is still only 33 years old. He said he wants to move back to lightweight to attempt to retain the title he once had, which seems to mean he intends to stay in the UFC. If I’m Bellator, I do whatever I have to do in order to get Pettis, who remains extremely well-known and marketable. He should be a valuable commodity on the open market. Plus, Pettis has shown he is willing to evolve. He told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani earlier this week that he is no longer partying as much as he once did. And now Pettis is working in Las Vegas under Robert Drysdale, a highly regarded Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach. These are positives signs. Pettis still has plenty of miles left on him. He really has only lost to the elite.

Jose Aldo isn’t shot as a fighter, but he’s not a title contender

Wagenheim: Jose Aldo is not shot as a fighter. He showed us that in the co-main event, using his leg kicks and body punches to get the upper hand early against Marlon Vera, then sealing the decision with a veteran-smart takedown to leave a strong final impression on the judges.

But the greatest featherweight of all time did nothing in this fight that suggests he is a championship contender in his rebirth as a bantamweight. The win over Vera ended a three-fight skid for the Brazilian, and at age 34 he has 36 fights worth of tread on the tires. Moreover, beating a guy like Vera, while a necessary first step in getting back on track, is not a route toward the top of the mountain. “Chito” is a tough out, as passengers on the Sean O’Malley hype train learned earlier this year, but he’s far from being a contender.

Aldo does have a way to prove me wrong, though, with a little cooperation by UFC matchmakers. After his win, Aldo called out former champ TJ Dillashaw, who is eligible to return from a USADA suspension next month. Dillashaw has said he wants a title fight right away, but PED failures aren’t typically a stepping-stone to championship bouts.

Even if Aldo were to be called upon to welcome Dillashaw back, and even if Aldo were to win, would that catapult him into a title fight? I suppose it could, given that earlier this year he fought Petr Yan for the belt while he was on a two-fight losing streak. UFC title fight matchmaking, ladies and gentlemen, can be unpredictable. I’m not going to buy into that foolishness, though. Aldo is a legend, but his days of being a champion are in the past.

We shouldn’t ask Michel Pereira to rein it in too much

Raimondi: When Michel Pereira is booked on a UFC card, many fans circle it on their calendar. And that’s not because Pereira is an exceptional fighter who can go on to become UFC champion. Pereira is extremely skilled, but what makes him a fan favorite is his wildman style of fighting, complete with backflips and kicks after launching himself off the cage. We shouldn’t want to remove that from his game completely in favor of earning pedestrian victories, which is what it kind of felt like Saturday when Pereira beat Khaos Williams by unanimous decision.

Pereira already has the ingredient that many combat-sports athletes have a hard time attaining. And that’s not the ability to win fights — it’s making people excited to watch you fight. People are not paying money to see Jake Paul box on pay-per-view because he’s a great fighter and future champion. It’s because they’re invested in watching him compete. MMA is show business at the end of the day. It’s entertainment. Pereira is so unique. The last thing anyone should want to do is make him like every other fighter on the UFC roster.

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