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Thompson vs Neal: Fight By Fight Preview

We Run Down The Entire UFC Vegas 17 Card, From Top To Bottom

STEPHEN THOMPSON VS. GEOFF NEAL

We’re ending the year with a welterweight banger as Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson squares off with Geoff Neal in a critical clash that will help shape the title picture in 2021.

A two-time title challenger, Thompson snapped a two-fight skid in his final appearance of 2019, outworking Vicente Luque over 15 minutes in a Fight of the Night-winning clash at UFC 244 in New York City. Closing in on 38, the South Carolina native remains a Top 5 fixture in the 170-pound weight class, and a second consecutive win over a rising star could send him into next year just a win or two away from potentially challenging for championship gold once again.

Unbeaten in five UFC starts, Neal returns for the first time since stopping Mike Perry in 90 seconds at UFC 245 last December. The Fortis MMA product dealt with a scary, non-COVID medical situation earlier this year that left him in the hospital, but now that he’s fully recovered and slated to return, the Contender Series grad has a chance to close out this year by establishing himself as a legitimate title threat in the welterweight division.

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As is always the case when “Wonderboy” takes to the Octagon, the chess match between the two combatants is sure to be compelling, as Thompson will look to stay in space before darting in to land blows, while Neal with have to work hard to close the distance and connect with attacks of his own.

This is a considerable step up in competition for the Dallas-based emerging threat, but he’s done everything that has been asked of him to this point and an opportunity of this magnitude is certainly merited. Thompson is one of the elder statesmen of the division, but eager to show he’s still got plenty left in the tank, and turning back a streaking fighter seven years his junior is a great way to do just that.

After a challenging, but highly entertaining, year inside the Octagon, these two should combine to close out 2020 in style.

UFC Vegas 17: Fully Loaded
UFC Vegas 17: Fully Loaded
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JOSE ALDO VS. MARLON VERA

Bantamweights looking to solidify their place in the pecking order clash in the co-main event as former featherweight kingpin and recent title challenger Jose Aldo takes on developing threat Marlon Vera in the penultimate tussle of 2020.

It has been an odd 18 months inside the Octagon for Aldo: he closed out his featherweight run with a losing effort against current champ Alexander Volkanovski before dropping to the 135-pound ranks, where he debuted with a split decision loss to Marlon Moraes. Despite the setbacks, he landed opposite Petr Yan in the battle to crown a new bantamweight champion in July, and after a solid start, he faded quickly and was stopped, sending him into this one on the first three-fight losing streak of his career.

Vera arrives on the opposite trajectory, as the lone blemish on his resume over his last seven outings is a controversial split decision loss to Song Yadong in a Fight of the Night-winning battle in May. Despite his frustrations with that verdict, Vera still landed a marquee assignment for his next appearance and made the most of it, stopping Sean O’Malley in the first round at UFC 252.

This is a classic pairing between a former champion looking to prove he can still hang with the best in the division and a promising up-and-comer looking to add a marquee name to his list of vanquished foes.

Will Aldo dial up one more impressive performance to halt his slide or can Vera keep things rolling and head into 2021 on a hot streak?

MICHEL PEREIRA VS. KHAOS WILLIAMS

No matter how this one plays out, it’s guaranteed to be bonkers (and that’s a good thing) as Brazilian wild man Michel Pereira faces off against 2020 Newcomer of the Year contender Khaos Williams.

Though he’s split his first four UFC appearances, Pereira has been must-see TV each time he’s taken to the Octagon, as his free-wheeling, unpredictable style makes it impossible not to be intrigued. Last time out, “Demolidor” snapped a two-fight skid with a third-round submission win over Zelim Imadaev, pushing his record to 24-11 (with two no contests) for his career and solidifying his place as a dangerous enigma in the middle of the 170-pound ranks.

All Williams has done through his first two UFC starts is deliver a pair of hellacious knockouts in a combined 57 seconds. First, he iced Alex Morono on short notice at UFC 247 in March, and then last month, he followed up his debut effort with an even more impressive performance when he starched Abdul Razak Alhassan with a short right hand, and now he looks for a third straight stunning effort to close out his rookie campaign in the UFC.

Williams has exhibited scary power and the ability to alter a fight with incomparable quickness thus far, and another blistering finish would put him in the mix for a podium finish in multiple year-end awards categories. Pereira tends to treat the Octagon like his personal parkour course, running, jumping, and tumbling around the eight-sided cage looking for openings and disorienting his opponents, so it will be interesting to see how things shake out between the two proven finishers with very different styles on Saturday night.

Every UFC Finish By Jose Aldo
Every UFC Finish By Jose Aldo
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MARLON MORAES VS. ROB FONT

The first of two contests between ranked bantamweights to hit the Octagon this weekend pits perennial contender Marlon Moraes against Top 15 fixture Rob Font.

Moraes was the odd man out when it came time to determine who would challenge for the vacant bantamweight title this summer, watching from the sidelines as Aldo, the man he beat at the end of last year, faced off with Petr Yan. When he finally secured an assignment of his own after a couple false starts and missed opportunities, the Brazilian contender was stopped in the second round by Cory Sandhagen.

After a frustrating year, Moraes looks to close out 2020 by getting back into the win column and re-establishing his footing in the bantamweight title chase with a victory over Font this weekend in Las Vegas.

A member of the New England Cartel team, Font is one of the most unheralded fighters on the UFC roster. A Top 15 mainstay with a 7-3 record inside the Octagon, Font has won two straight, three of his last four, and his setbacks have all come against fighters stationed ahead of him in the rankings at the time. The smooth striker wrapped up his 2019 campaign with a strong effort against Ricky Simon and is hopeful to build on that effort by delivering a comparable performance here against Moraes.

The bantamweight division might be the most compelling, competitive weight class in the UFC at the moment and the outcome of this one is bound to have an impact on how things line up in the first half of 2021.

MARCIN TYBURA VS. GREG HARDY

Heavyweight veteran Marcin Tybura puts his three-fight winning streak on the line in this one as he takes on Contender Series grad Greg Hardy.

After enduring a stretch where he managed just a single victory in five appearances, the 35-year-old Tybura has posted consecutive victories over Serghei Spivac, Maxim Grishin, and Ben Rothwell to cement his place in the heavyweight hierarchy. The Polish veteran is a durable grinder with a wealth of experience and could force his way back into the Top 15 with a victory on Saturday.

RELATED: UFC Vegas 17 Fighters On The Rise

Hardy has the chance to wrap up his sophomore season with a third straight victory and push his overall record to 8-2 with one no contest heading into Year 3. This will be his eighth fight in two years, and though he’s still a work in progress, it’s clear each time the former NFL defensive lineman steps into the Octagon that he is continuing to improve, and a victory over a vet like Tybura would be a massive feather in his cap heading into next year.

This is the kind of test every emerging talent has to pass in order to graduate to the next tier of talent in their respective division and it will be interesting to see how Hardy contends with such a savvy, seasoned opponent this weekend in Las Vegas.

GILLIAN ROBERTSON VS. TAILA SANTOS

Flyweight hopefuls that had opponents fall out at the last minute earlier this month pair off in this compelling clash as Gillian Robertson goes toe-to-toe with Taila Santos.

Robertson graduated to the UFC through Season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter with just five career fights. Since then, the 25-year-old has produced a 6-2 record, including victories over Molly McCann and Cortney Casey. The American Top Team representative scored a unanimous decision victory over Poliana Botelho on “Fight Island” last time out and continues to show improvements every time she steps into the Octagon.

Santos impressed on the All-Brazilian edition of the Contender Series in the summer of 2018 but came out on the unhappy side of a split decision result in her promotional debut six months later. Following a lengthy layoff brought on by injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic, the 27-year-old returned in July, securing her first UFC victory by posting a unanimous decision win over Molly McCann.

Both women have shown flashes of potential and room to develop into permanent fixtures in the flyweight title chase, so it will be interesting to see which one takes a major step forward towards that goal here.

ANTHONY PETTIS VS. ALEX MORONO

Anthony Pettis continues to embrace his “I just want to take fun fights” approach to life as he looks for a second consecutive victory to wrap up the year in this matchup against “The Great White,” Alex Morono.

After nearly a decade spent chasing down, capturing, defending, and trying to reclaim championship gold across numerous divisions, “Showtime” has spent the last couple years taking fun assignments at lightweight and welterweight where his focus has been on enjoying himself. Last time out, he finally shared the cage with fellow WEC standout Donald Cerrone and came away with a victory, halting a two-fight skid and showing that he’s still got plenty to offer inside the Octagon.

Morono entered 2020 as an intriguing name to watch in the welterweight ranks, having won three straight. His momentum was halted by Khaos Williams in March, but the Fortis MMA product returned to the win column with a strong effort against Rhys McKee last month and looks to make it two in a row at the Apex with a statement win over Pettis on Saturday.

As much as I love fights that carry divisional significance and championship ramifications, bouts like this are equally delicious because you just know that Pettis and Morono are going to meet in the center and trade from the jump, only stopping at the end of each round or when one of them ends up looking up at the lights.

SIJARA EUBANKS VS. PANNIE KIANZAD

Bantamweight veterans looking to move closer to cracking the Top 10 clash in this year-end battle as Sijara Eubanks squares off with Pannie Kianzad.

Watch Saturday With Your ESPN+ SubscriptionEubanks is one of those fighters whose record doesn’t quite reflect her level of talent and ability inside the cage. Though she’s just 7-5 overall, the former TUF standout is a legitimate tough out in the lower third of the Top 15 and continuing to get better the more she continues to work with Mark Henry and the rest of the “Iron Army” crew in New Jersey.

The same can be said about Kianzad, who reached the TUF 28 finals and enters Saturday’s contest with Eubanks on a tidy two-fight winning streak. Still just 29, Kianzad was a fixture in the title chase during her Invicta FC days, and now appears to be working her way into comparable position in the UFC after strong efforts against Jessica-Rose Clark and Bethe Correia.

This is one of those bouts where we’re going to know more about where each woman stands in the division once the dust settles, and the process of determining the outcome should be all kinds of fun to watch.

KARL ROBERSON VS. DALCHA LUNGIAMBULA

Finishers looking to get back into the win column face off here as Karl Roberson welcomes Dalcha Lungiambula to the middleweight division for the first time.

After posting consecutive victories to close out 2019, Roberson’s 2020 campaign began with a bout against Marvin Vettori facing several delays. When they finally clashed, Roberson missed weight and then was submitted in the first round, halting his modest winning streak and sending him into this one in dire need of a strong performance.

Lungiambula earned a stoppage victory in his promotional debut last spring but closed out the year with a third-round stoppage loss to Magomed Ankalaev in November. Now, the former two-division EFC champion moves down to middleweight with designs on rebounding from his first loss in five years.

Things are heating up in the middleweight division and neither man will want to be left behind, so expect Roberson and Lungiambula to come out swinging, eager to make a strong impression on Saturday night.

DERON WINN VS. ANTONIO ARROYO

Deron Winn and Antonio Arroyo look to get back into the win column following disappointing efforts in this clash at a catchweight of 195 pounds.

A hyped prospect and protege of former two-division world champion Daniel Cormier, Winn has stumbled in his last two appearances after securing a victory in his promotional debut. After missing weight in a split decision loss to Darren Stewart last October, the compact wrestler was submitted by Gerald Meerschaert last time out before incurring a nine-month suspension after failing a post-fight drug test.

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Arroyo was part of the Contender Series’ Class of ’19 after securing a contract with a second-round submission win over Stephen Regman. He landed on the wrong side of a unanimous decision result in his debut after dealing with multiple opponent changes, and finally makes his first foray into the Octagon this year following a pair of last-minute fight cancellations.

Both men have a great deal to prove, albeit for very different reasons, and the fact that they agreed in advance to compete at a catchweight should mean fans will be treated to the best each man can bring to the table on Saturday night.

Pannie Kianzad punches Bethe Correia in their bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 26, 2020
Pannie Kianzad punches Bethe Correia in their bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 26, 2020 (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

AIEMANN ZAHABI VS. DRAKO RODRIGUEZ

Bantamweights do battle here as Aiemann Zahabi welcomes Drako Rodriguez to the Octagon for the first time.

After beginning his career with seven consecutive victories, including a win in his UFC debut, Zahabi arrives in Las Vegas on a two-fight skid. Last time out, the 33-year-old dropped a unanimous decision to Vince Morales.

A standout on the regional circuit, Rodriguez punched his ticket to the UFC with a first-round submission win over Mana Martinez in August. Now 7-1 as a pro, the 24-year-old is an intriguing new addition to the 135-pound weight class and potentially one to watch long-term heading into next year.

This is a really intriguing pairing, as Zahabi is a polished and technical competitor with a slick ground game, while Rodriguez is a rising star stepping onto the biggest stage in the sport for the first time. Will the bright lights be too much for him or can Contender Series graduate hand Zahabi a third straight loss?

TAFON NCHUKWI VS. JAMIE PICKETT

Tafon Nchukwi and Jamie Pickett earned UFC contracts one week apart this year on the Contender Series and now they make their promotional debuts against one another in this potentially explosive middleweight affair.

The 26-year-old Nchukwi is just four fights into his professional career, but it’s easy to understand why he’s viewed as such a compelling prospect, as he’s 4-0 with four stoppage victories, including a win over current UFC light heavyweight William Knight. Saturday’s contest will be the Maryland-based prospect’s first appearance in the 185-pound ranks, so it will be interesting to see how his power transfers over now that he’s fighting down a division.

RELATED: Jamie Pickett Wants Everyone's Attention

After landing on the losing side of the ledger in his first two Contender Series appearances, Pickett finally picked up a victory and a call to the Octagon this summer by putting away Jhonovan Pati just 33 seconds into the second round. Now 11-4 overall, “The Night Wolf” is now training full-time and hopes to translate that into a quick rise up the rankings as he looks to hand Nchukwi the first loss of his career this weekend.

Both these men have the potential to be factors in the middleweight division in the coming years, so it will be interesting to see which one prevails this weekend. Nchukwi has the greater potential on paper, while Pickett is far more experienced and polished, making this a compelling contest.

The Arrival Of Tafon Nchukwi
The Arrival Of Tafon Nchukwi
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JIMMY FLICK VS. CODY DURDEN

Action shifts to the flyweight division as veteran grappler and recent Contender Series grad Jimmy Flick takes on American Top Team product Cody Durden.

The 30-year-old Flick has been grinding out a quality living on the regional circuit for the last decade, fighting tough competition at every turn while showcasing a slick submission game that has produced finishes in each of his last eight victories. “The Brick” secured a chance to compete inside the Octagon with a non-stop effort against Nate Smith in September, finally chasing down a submission midway through the final round after hunting and threatening for the entire fight.

Durden impressed in his short-notice UFC debut earlier this year, battling Chris Gutierrez to a draw at the start of August. Now the long-time bantamweight makes the move down a division looking to extend his unbeaten streak to nine and secure his first UFC victory.

The flyweight division is one of the most interesting, active, and competitive divisions in the UFC at the moment and each of these men have the potential to be positive additions to the weight class going forward.

RICK GLENN VS. CARLTON MINUS

After more than two years on the sidelines, Rick Glenn returns to the Octagon and the lightweight division as he squares off with Carlton “Clutch” Minus this weekend in Las Vegas.

A 28-fight veteran who held gold under the World Series of Fighting banner before matriculating to the UFC, Glenn hasn’t fought since missing weight and dropping a decision to Kevin Aguilar on The Ultimate Fighter 28 Finale in November 2018. Tall for the division and tougher than a three-dollar steak, it will be interesting to see what “The Gladiator” brings to the table when he finally steps back into the UFC cage on Saturday night.

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Minus made his promotional debut in August, dropping a decision to Matthew Semelsberger. The Alaska FC veteran’s only previous loss came against UFC vet Rick Story, and this weekend’s pairing with Glenn could turn into a referendum on where he fits in the lightweight ranks heading int next year.

Fights like this have a way of sneaking up on you and catching you by surprise, especially given that both men have something to prove this weekend. Don’t be surprised if this one earns some Fight of the Night consideration.