Mandatory Credit: Cooper Neil – Zuffa LLC The puzzle presented by UFC welterweight contender, Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson is something quite difficult to solve, and those who attempt, and even those who even find success against the karate specialist — rarely look impressive. It’s challenging to look good when pitted with the counter striker, something Fortis MMA trainee, Geoff ‘Handz of Steel’ Neal now knows all too well about. Ahead of Saturday night’s main event, Texas kickboxer, Neal had won five on the trot since his transition from Dana White’s Contender Series — blasting through ‘Platinum’ Mike Perry in November of last year at UFC 245 in December via a high-kick and follow up strikes. This Monday morning, the Fortis MMA mainstay face’s his first promotional setback. In the Octagon, Tyron Woodley, Darren Till, and Anthony Pettis have managed to best Thompson of note recently, however, none in dominant fashion. Former titleholder, Woodley was forced to a majority draw and then a majority decision against the 37-year-old. Liverpudlian striker, Till took a close, somewhat contentious unanimous decision over Thompson on home soil — while former lightweight champion, Pettis was finding himself on the wrong side of almost all the striking exchanges prior to his late second-round one-punch knockout back in Nashville in March 2019. Neal, who finds himself on the favoured side of the power equation against Thompson did have some moments against the South Carolina native, but the latter’s movement, both head and lower section, more often than not left Neal swinging at thin air particularly midway through the fight. Setting up his kicks with his hands as well as counter blitzes, Thompson really looked at his gleaming best, even weathering an apparent muscle or tendon injury in his right leg before the beginning of the fifth and final frame — on his way to a dominant 50-45 (x3) unanimous judging win. Thompson remains a legitimate title challenger. Scoring his first win at bantamweight at the third time of trying as well as snapping a three-fight slide, former featherweight kingpin, Jose Aldo ‘Jr.’ is here to stay at 135-pounds — displaying his incredible speed at the weight class, as well as some of his often-overlooked grappling chaps against the surging Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera. Beating the Ecuadorian to the punch nine times out of ten over the course of their co-main event clash, Aldo has transitioned from a usual Muay Thai approach to a more boxing orientated offence, which ultimately served him well against the gritty Vera — as well as the return of a series of leg kick attacks. Snapping Vera’s six-fight rise at 135-pounds and possibly bouncing him from the division’s top-fifteen, the #7 ranked Aldo set his sights on former two-time bantamweight best, T.J. Dillashaw who is set to return from suspension next month — a pairing that makes a lot of sense for both strikers next. Below, join me as I play matchmaker for perennial top-five contender, Thompson and former titleholder, Aldo, as well as division streakers Neal and Vera — with the former, not that far removed from the high-profile stakes.
Stephen Thompson vs. Jorge Masvidal II:Mandatory Credit: Cooper Neil – Zuffa LLC & Jeff Bottari – Zuffa LLC Three years after their first pairing, a potential title-eliminator re-run of proclaimed NMF and 2019 mined BMF championship holder, Jorge ‘Gamebred’ Masvidal seems like a logical next pairing for the two. Echoing his interest in a rematch alongside the Floridian following his victory over Neal — I spoke with Thompson in February, where then he even had sights fixed on a billed NMF vs. BMF outing. Masvidal, who embarked on a massive three-fight finishing spree following his unanimous decision loss to Thompson has been tentatively targeted to match with former interim champion and American Top Team teammate, Colby ‘Chaos’ Covington since the latter’s most recent Octagon win in September, with the clash so far failing to come to fruition. Billing a potential rematch as the NMF vs. the BMF is something the promotion should capitalise on Whilst I was thoroughly intrigued by the possibility of a long floated matchup of perennial contender, Leon ‘Rocky’ Edwards and Thompson for some time this year, the promotion are hoping to nail down a reworked headliner of the Birmingham native and the captivating, Khamzat ‘Borz’ Chimaev on ‘Fight Island’ in January.
Jose Aldo vs. T.J. Dillashaw:Mandatory Credit: Cooper Neil – Zuffa LLC & Zuffa LLC This one really works given the lie of both men’s careers. Aldo looked sharp as a tack against Team Oyama staple, Vera in the weekend’s co-headliner — and former champion Dillashaw, despite his claims that he should be afforded an immediate title shot upon his Octagon return, needs to reinstate himself into contention for certain. Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling cannot be continually overlooked. While Aldo sits at #7, and will likely score a place or two higher off the back of his win over Vera — Dillashaw is unranked due to his USADA suspension and two-year sidelining, and a matchup with a former two-time titleholder for the Manaus native will give us a decent look at just how much is left in the tank. For Bang Muay Thai striker, Dillashaw, the 34-year-old Californian had also been linked with a matchup opposite the #2 ranked Cory Sandhagen, however, stick that on the backburner for the time being as the Elevation Fight Team standout looks to draw former lightweight best, Frankie ‘The Answer’ Edgar in February. Two contrasting but very technical styles. Aldo’s slick boxing and Muay Thai base versus Dillashaw’s drop-shifting kickboxing blitzes and ability to stick in there with a pace.
Neil Magny vs. Geoff Neal:Mandatory Credit: Jeff Bottari – Zuffa LLC & Cooper Neil – Zuffa LLC Initially scheduled for UFC Vegas 8 in August; let’s try this one again. Set to meet with longtime 170-pound division contender, ‘The Haitian Sensation’ Neil Magny in a high-profile matchup, Neal was forced to withdraw from the meeting with the Brooklyn native after he was hospitalized due to numerous health scares. Replacing Neal — former welterweight titleholder, ‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler, who went on to suffer a rather one-sided unanimous decision loss. Since Magny’s victory, his third consecutively, a matchup for the ten-year veteran has been hard to come by. He currently sits at #9 in the official 170-pound pile and while it’s not ideal to look down the rankings for the Denver-based veteran, a matchup with the still majorly-touted Neal offers him the chance to knock back a consensus future title challenger, and possibly kick into gear another surge to championship contention once more for himself. Like previously stated, Neal faced an upward climb from the get-go against someone of Thompson’s patience, timing, speed, and composure so a major slide out the rankings would be totally unwarranted. However, a matchup with Magny should give us a gauge as to where Neal’s level is at this stage in his brief Octagon career.
Marlon Vera vs. Nathaniel Wood:Mandatory Credit: Zuffa LLC & Steve Flynn
This one’s got some backstory and bite to it. Former Cage Warriors bantamweight champion, Nathaniel ‘The Prospect’ Wood plys his trade under former UFC bantamweight mainstay, Brad ‘One Punch’ Pickett and Vera just happens to be the final opponent on Pickett’s record.
There’s a lot more to it than just that factor, although it could be a salient part of a potential matchup of Vera and Wood. The career trajectory of both was somewhat similar prior to the former’s first-round knockout win over the polarizing, ‘Sugar’ Sean O’Malley in August.
They share common-opposition in Andre Ewell, and before Wood’s unanimous decision win over John Castaneda, he was slated to meet with Umar Nurmagomedov in what would’ve been a high-profile outing for the former Cage Warriors titleholder.
Faltering to Casey Kenney on ‘Fight Island’ in October at UFC 254 in a close back-and-forth, Wood like Vera, slumped to two defeats in his last three. The victor of this possible matchup would likely land in the division’s top fifteen — depending on Vera’s ultimate landing pad following his Saturday defeat to Aldo.