LAS VEGAS — Stephen Thompson never really complains because, well, he’s just too nice of a guy for that. But throughout his training camp as he prepared to fight Geoff Neal on Saturday at Apex in the final UFC card of the year, he spoke of what he saw as the promotion’s odd matchmaking choices.
Thompson entered the bout ranked fifth at welterweight, and with champion Kamaru Usman preparing to defend against No. 2 Gilbert Burns, his choices were either No. 1 Colby Covington, No. 3 Leon Edwards or No. 4 Jorge Masvidal if he wanted to face a higher-ranked opponent.
He flat turned down No. 15 Khamzat Chimaev because he said the bout did little for him. After attempting to land a bout with a higher-ranked opponent, he saw no other option if he wanted to fight in 2020 than to accept Neal, though he never sounded too thrilled about having to take it.
Saturday, we may have seen why. Neal’s right eye was badly cut from an inadvertent head butt late in the first round, but Thompson was outclassing him throughout. Thompson used his quickness, a wide variety of kicks and a steady stream of strikes to pull away from Neal and win a unanimous decision.
All three judges scored it 50-45, the same as Yahoo Sports.
It was vintage Thompson, and he managed to neutralize Neal’s offense with his movement and his quickness. Neal followed Thompson throughout the bout, trying to make a fight, but he kept his hands high and never really cut off the cage.
It made it easy for Thompson to pop and move repeatedly, never doing much damage beyond the cut from the butt but keeping Neal on the defensive.
Neal entered the bout having not fought since a Dec. 14, 2019, victory over Mike Perry. In 2020, he suffered through a case of COVID-19 and then fell ill in August and was hospitalized, nearly dying. Though his condition wasn’t diagnosed, doctors said he did have congestive heart failure.
They spoke of him not being able to fight again, but he scoffed at it and made his way back. But he had nothing to concern Thompson, who had it his way throughout.
Neal’s powerful hands were never a factor and he went large stretches of the bout without throwing any strikes.
Neal’s most consistent attack came in the early stages of the fifth when, sensing the desperate nature of his situation, he pushed the pace briefly. But Thompson gave as good as he got in that sequence and didn’t suffer any damage.
His best punch of the round was a crushing body shot to the ribs about two minutes in that caused Neal to grimace, but didn’t do much more.
The result proved that Thompson isn’t done as an elite-level contender. Edwards had to postpone his bout with Chimaev because of COVID-19, but when they reschedule, the winner of that would make sense for Thompson.
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