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After KOTY candidate at UFC 228, Geoff Neal is right back to waiting tables

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On Sunday, Sept. 2, Geoff Neal counted a decent night of tips after his shift at Moxie’s Grill & Bar in uptown Dallas. He was waiting tables one last evening before taking a little break to give sufficient time to his other job. Six nights later, he was standing across from Frank Camacho at UFC 228 at the American Airlines Arena, getting ready to deploy old “double zero” — a lethal head kick that dropped Camacho where he stood.

It was a Knockout of the Year candidate for 2018, yet on a night full of unique finishes and memorable fights, it wasn’t even enough to earn him an end of the night bonus from the UFC. Even though he served up a highlight reel KO for everyone to see, there would be no gratuity.

“I thought it was bullshit, man,” Neal told MMA Fighting with a chuckle a couple of days afterwards. “It is what it is, but yeah, it’s bullshit. I felt like that was probably the best finish on the card, you know? There were some solid finishes, and there are a lot of other things in play rather than just the performance, like maybe the toughness of the opponent. Other stuff. Me, I’m an unranked fighter on the prelims, so you get what you get.”

The 28-year old waiter Neal — who goes by the more ominous moniker of “Handz of Steel” when fighting in the cage — had made a pact with his teammate Abdul Razak Alhassan, which started out as a friendly competition. During fight week, Neal told Alhassan he would be taking home a $50,000 bonus. Alhassan thought that it would go to him. Rather than argue the case, they each agreed to split the bonus 50/50 should only one of them win it — $25,000 apiece.

Turns out both got stiffed.

Alhassan needed only 43 seconds to knock out Niko Price, which on most nights would be enough for a bonus. Not on this night. The bonuses were distributed to Irene Aldana and Lucie Pudilova, who put on a bloody back-and-forth war during the prelims, as well as Jessica Andrade (who destroyed Karolina Kowalkiewicz) and welterweight champion Tyron Woodley (who dominated Darren Till).

In Neal’s case, he still thought his headkick KO would stand out at the end of the night, even if his performance occurred fairly early in the action.

“I was looking at a lot of the comments [on social media],” he said. “People weren’t forgetting about it. People were like, Geoff or Razak or Zabit [Magomedsharipov] should get the bonus. I didn’t see nothing about anybody else — they were shouting out about our finishes.”

Neal, a welterweight, trains at Fortis MMA in Dallas around his shifts at Moxie’s, where he is a full-time server. He worked right up until fight week because that’s how he makes the bulk of his money. Many nights, after closing down the restaurant, he gets home in the wee hours of the morning, steals a couple of hours of sleep, then gets up to train. It’s not an ideal set-up, but he says his motto is to “not complain about it.”

“It’s difficult, but it’s doable,” he said. “When I’m tired, I try not to think about it. It’s hard, working until 3 o’clock in the morning, getting home, waking up and having to go train. It does become hard. For my fight camp, I literally had no days off. If I wasn’t training, I was working. If I wasn’t working, I was training. It got hard, but like I said, it’s doable. You’ve got to keep at it.”

The Camacho fight was the third of Neal’s young career. He won his UFC debut against Chase Waldon on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series last July, and followed that up with a victory over Brian Camozzi in February. Neither fight made it to the second round. Neal hammered Waldon for a TKO and submitted Camozzi via a rear-naked choke midway through the opening frame.

On Saturday, Neal lit Camacho up with a steady diet of left hands in the first round, and even scored with a couple of headkicks, too. Those landed, just not flush. By the second, he knew the kick would be there. He and his coach had watched film of Camacho’s previous fight with Drew Dober, and noticed his propensity to “dip” left. Knowing that Neal likes to kick, his coach came up with a code for when that opening might occur.

“Zero zero.”

“We watched the [Dober] fight and we just seen him ducking to that side, so it was just part of the game plan,” he said. “We knew that kick would be there, but weren’t thinking only kick. My coach told me, ‘don’t get kick happy, set it up with your hands.’ My straight left was really landing, finding its home, and it was making him dip hard to that side. Once my coach saw that he yelled out the code, ‘zero zero!’ and I landed the kick.”

Camacho imploded where he stood, hitting the canvas in a pile. Neal celebrated in front of his hometown fans, including some of the managers from Moxie’s, who’d turned up in a show of support. He was certain that he’d just kicked his way into a $50,000 bonus. Or at least a share in the bonus with his teammate Alhassan.

Instead, “zero zero” came to take on another meaning. Though he owns one of the year’s craziest knockouts, he doesn’t have a lot of spending cash to show for it.

“I think it will be a candidate [for KOTY],” he said. “It probably won’t be the best of the year, but it’ll be right up there.”

Neal says he’ll wait patiently for his next fight. He doesn’t have a specific opponent in mind, but wants to fight somebody who is above him in rank.

“I’m in a tough weight class I’m not rushing,” he said. “The more time I have off, the more time I can get better. I still have a lot of holes in my game that need to be fixed. I saw a lot of holes in the fight that need to be corrected ASAP. So I’m back to the gym, and I’m going to correct everything.”

In the meantime, it’s time to get back into the “routine.” Time to stop punching people, and get back to punching the clock.

On Thursday, Sept. 13 — just 11 days from his previous shift, and five days since his fight — Neal is back on schedule at the restaurant, slated to work a full eight-hour shift. The only difference is that if he does his job well at Moxie’s, he’ll be able to count on his tips.

In the Octagon? No such luck.

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