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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Vegas 17: Thompson vs. Neal - Main card preview

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Get the lowdown on UFC Vegas 17, the final UFC card of the year, headlined by karate expert Stephen Thompson looking to turn away up-and-coming KO artist Geoff Neal.

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The UFC used to consistently end the year with a PPV. That isn’t the case this year, but there’s no reason to be disappointed. There are several former champions on the UFC VEGAS 17: ‘THOMPSON VS NEAL’ card, plus several other title challengers and up-and-comers. As far as Fight Night cards go, this is about as good as it gets. Throw in the fact that most major MMA organizations are taking a break over Christmas and New Year’s, it could be a while before most fans get an opportunity to take in some high-level MMA again.

Stephen Thompson vs. Geoff Neal, Welterweight

When Thompson was in the midst of a run that saw him blast through Jake Ellenberger and Johny Hendricks – when their names still had meaning – I never thought I’d see the day when people groaned about seeing the former kickboxer in action. Then a string of contests that saw him largely sitting on the outside doing nothing besides flicking a jab and side kicks and I began to hear groans from those I talk MMA with when his name came up. However, fans should be excited as Vicente Luque proved that if you get someone who is willing to push the action with Thompson, he can still be one of the most electrifying men in sports entertainment this side of The Rock.

No one will ever accuse Neal of being tentative. Five fights into his UFC career, he has secured four finishes and that fifth contest saw him knock the living hell out of Belal Muhammad twice, it was a miracle Muhammad made it to the end. It’s not like Neal wades into the pocket like a crazed madman swinging fists either. Always in control and with no wasted motion, Neal has proven to be far more studious than anyone would have predicted. While he knows his limits, it’s not like he’s incredibly limited as he’s a plus athlete with plus power. He’s got all the tools to be a contender.

However, there are a trio of issues for Neal. First, Thompson is a BIG step up in competition from the likes of Mike Perry, Niko Price, and Muhammad. I’m not saying Neal isn’t deserving of this opportunity, but it’s a larger step than what you’d expect coming off a win over Perry. Secondly, Thompson has a unique skill set that can be difficult to prepare for. Even if forced into a game of patience, Thompson’s impressive array of kicks from all levels and angles can allow him to pick apart an opponent. Neal’s goal will be to force Thompson to respect his power by making him feel it. Thirdly, Neal had a health scare this summer that included temporary organ failure. Neal has been reporting no ill effects, but it’s impossible to know how he bounces back until we see him.

This very much reminds me of Thompson’s contest with Luque. Neal is very similar to Luque and Thompson picked apart the aggressive Brazilian. Neal does pay more attention to defense than Luque and is a bit more selective in when he steps into the pocket, which does portend well. It’s not like Thompson is a defensive savant himself. Nonetheless, this is also Neal’s first time in a five round fight as well. This contest will probably take place on the feet for most of the contest. I expect Thompson to take a decision or score a late finish. Thompson via decision

Jose Aldo vs. Marlon Vera, Bantamweight

I’m not going to pretend Aldo is what he was in his prime. The former featherweight kingpin has been fighting professionally since 2004 and has taken a shellacking over the last few years in his recent contests. Both losses to Max Holloway and his most recent contest with Petr Yan being the best examples. However, unless his loss to Yan is career altering – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was – it’s not inconceivable to believe he can still deliver a few more highlights in the twilight of his career. After all, those losses came to two current champions and another competitor who fought for the title just last year.

The concerns about him cutting to bantamweight reared their head against Yan as Aldo had nothing left of offer by the time the fifth round rolled around. However, he was competitive through three rounds and there is no reason to think he can’t be effective in a three-round contest. His power, though not as diminished as many anticipated, doesn’t appear to be what it was in his prime. Nevertheless, Aldo appears to have a bit more confidence in his ability to take punishment at his new home as he hasn’t been nearly as defensively conscious after years of crafting a defensive first strategy. His expert use of angles is still there, but perhaps the best part of him moving away from being a counter striker is he brought back his long vaunted low kicks against Yan.

Even if Aldo doesn’t rely on his low kicks, we’re sure to see plenty of them in this contest as there are few who throw them with greater consistency than Vera. In fact, it could be argued that’s the center of his attack. It’s hardly the only thing Vera has to offer either, though it is startling to think of his early UFC run prior to the development of his jab and cage awareness. Vera is also one of the ultimate opportunists on the roster, just needing a slight opening for him to launch a head kick, superman punch, or whatever else is offered to end the fight.

I’m happy to see Vera getting this opportunity. He’s come a long way from fighting the likes of Roman Salazar in his early UFC run and is one of the better development stories in the UFC. However, Aldo is only losing to elite opponents. Vera has yet to prove himself to be elite. Barring Aldo being seriously diminished from the late beating at the hands of Yan or a major leap from Vera – a distinct possibility – I can’t pick against the all-time great quite yet. Aldo should have enough in the tank to turn away the likes of Vera. Aldo via decision

Marlon Moraes vs. Rob Font, Bantamweight

Much like Aldo, there’s a sense Moraes may have peaked. Prior to his shot at the title a year and a half ago, Moraes put together three consecutive first round finishes against top competition. Since that point, he’s been finished twice while winning a nip and tuck decision over the aforementioned Aldo. Plus, he’s been fighting since he was a teenager and is now 32. To be fair, it’s not like Moraes has received an easy fight in that time and opponents have adapted to minimize his potential for explosion with greater attention to defense. It is on Moraes to adapt, but it doesn’t appear to be a decline in physical skills.

In fact, it may be more poignant to question the physical skills of Font given the lanky striker is stepping into the cage for the first time in over a year thanks to a knee injury. Font couldn’t hope to compete with Moraes on an athletic level prior to the surgery; he could be in a world of hurt if he has suffered any decline. Of course, athleticism has hardly been the biggest tool. At 5’8” with a 71” reach, Font is one of the longest competitors in the bantamweight division. He used to negate that someone with a heavy reliance on his heavy hooks, but he has learned to supplement his attack with more power straights and jabs. Hell, he’s even used his wrestling with greater frequency and efficiency. Given Moraes’ explosiveness, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him try to ground the Brazilian.

Of course, Moraes is one of the most underrated grapplers on the UFC roster. Showing excellent cage awareness in the process of submitting Raphael Assuncao, a grappling ace in his own right. Font isn’t anything special on the mat, showing only control and defense on the mat. However, what has to provide him with some major hope is the way the similarly lanky Cory Sandhagen handled Moraes with ease by keeping him at bay by mixing his strikes to all levels. Font isn’t big on low kicks, but he isn’t uncomfortable throwing them and his body work is one of the more underrated parts of his game.

However, what this will all boil down to is Font’s defensive abilities. For all the offensive improvements Font has made, he’s still not the best defensive fighter. Even worse, he can be scared off his attack if he eats a hard shot or two. That’s what Moraes does best, especially in the early stages of a fight. Moraes could end up slowing considerably in the second round which would give Font every opportunity to finish him late or take a close decision. However, I think Moraes still has the skill set to produce a highlight. Plus, he appears to be motivated. In fact, I’d say there’s a good chance he gets a Performance bonus. Moraes via KO of RD1

Marcin Tybura vs. Greg Hardy, Heavyweight

While it may be easy to dislike Hardy, it can’t be denied that he has turned himself into a viable UFC heavyweight at this point. Much to the chagrin of his haters, he still appears to be improving. In a division that see all the better athletes eaten up by the better paying sports of football and basketball, Hardy tends to have significant physical advantages in every one of his MMA contests thus far. Sure, Alexander Volkov effectively used his height to turn away Hardy, but Hardy was more explosive and powerful, leading Volkov to play it safe. Plus, Volkov was also significantly more experienced.

That’s going to be the biggest advantage for Tybura. Outside of Volkov, the most fights any one of Hardy’s opponents had going into their contest was 13. Tybura has 26, most of them against high level competition. For all of the progress he’s made, Hardy is still figuring things out. After all, he only began training in MMA after the NFL decided they didn’t want him anymore. Tybura is a finished product, outside of the occasional tinkering. He knows what he wants to do and knows how to do it. Against Hardy, there’s little doubt Tybura will look to ground Hardy. It’s even possible Tybura could get a submission. He hasn’t had much of an opportunity to show his grappling chops in the UFC, but he’s better than your typical heavyweight on the mat.

Some may argue Hardy has shown strong takedown defense, which is true. However, he hasn’t exactly faced an opponent noted for their wrestling, the UFC protecting him to a degree. Even if Tybura can’t get him down – and I think he can – Tybura will probably tie him up in the clinch and challenge Hardy’s questionable gas tank. It’s unlikely to be a pretty contest, but Tybura will show Hardy still has a lot to learn. Tybura via decision

  • There may not be a bigger conundrum in the sport than Michel Pereira. No doubt a freakish athlete, Pereira has cost himself several potential wins due to his tendency to emphasize style over substance. This is the same dude who did a backflip onto his opponent for hell’s sake. Then again, if Pereira were to play things straight, he probably wouldn’t be getting the attention he gets either, even if those losses were to be turned into wins. Thus, I wouldn’t expect him to tone down the flying and/or spinning attacks that has defined the Brazilian’s career thus far. There’s a possibility Pereira would garner the type of results Khaos Williams has been getting in his first two UFC contests: finishes in 30 seconds or less. Williams is another insane athlete who has proven to be exceptionally accurate with his striking, a surprise given he came across as more of a brawler on the regional scene. He’s never been finished, though there is some question how much stock to put into that as he hasn’t faced a murderer’s row by any means. Nonetheless, Williams looks to be durable and has a wrestling game to fall back on if he needs to and Pereira has a history of gassing badly. Given everyone is expecting an insane finish, I’d be wary of that actually happening. Regardless, it doesn’t mean this won’t be fun. Williams via TKO of RD3
  • For all the crap I’ve talked about TUF, I’ll admit Gillian Robertson has been one of the better TUF stories out of the later seasons. She was an incredibly raw product when she went into the house three and a half years ago and has developed into one of the busiest mainstays at women’s flyweight. She’s not even close to a finished product either. An excellent submission artist and scrambler, she’s made strides in both her wrestling and striking over the last couple of years. They aren’t to the level where she’ll win many fights on the strength of those aspects of her game, but they can tide her over enough until she can secure the finish. Of course, doing so against Taila Santos looks like it will be the biggest chore of her career. The Brazilian has never been finished, appears to be one of the better athletes in the division, and – like Robertson – is still improving. Most notably, Santos showed improved distance control in her most recent contest. Given she has a 5-inch reach advantage on Robertson, would be a better striker even without the reach advantage, and also tightened up her grappling, it’s hard to see Santos losing this contest. Then again, I’ll admit Robertson has surprised on more than one occasion. Regardless, I’m siding with the Brazilian. Santos via decision