For nearly five years, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson has been a stalwart near the top of the rankings in the welterweight division.
Following high profile wins over ex-champion Johny Hendricks and former title challenger Rory MacDonald, the 37-year-old karate stylist finally positioned himself for a title shot. While he came up short in a pair of fights against Tyron Woodley in 2016 and 2017, Thompson remained a top contender in the division.
While he’s had to suffer through a couple of tough losses in recent years, Thompson has also dismantled Jorge Masvial and earned Fight of the Night honors for his battle with Vicente Luque.
Considering the resume Thompson has put together as part of the UFC’s roster, he hoped that his return to action following time off to deal with some injuries would position him to once again make a run at the title. He tried to land a fight with No. 3 ranked welterweight Leon Edwards but that matchup never came together.
That’s when the UFC came calling with an offer to face Contender Series veteran Geoff Neal, who currently sports a 5-0 record inside the octagon with four finishes along the way. Neal is regarded as one of the best prospects in the division and Thompson didn’t hesitate to accept the fight, although he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t holding out hope for a higher ranked opponent.
“At this point I’m focused on one person and that’s Geoff Neal,” Thompson told MMA Fighting. “Even though he’s ranked No. 12 and I felt like I just fought the No. 12 guy at the time, Vicente Luque, he’s a good test.
“He’s on a streak. I think he’s 5-0 in the UFC. He’s got good hands, very strong welterweight. Definitely got all my attention on this opponent for sure.”
For Neal, a win against an established veteran like Thompson will give him an opportunity to make a major leap up the welterweight ladder. While every victory in the UFC is obviously important, Thompson knows he doesn’t gain the same kind of boost to his own career if he defeats Neal on Saturday night.
That’s why he’s hoping that the UFC isn’t putting him into some kind of gatekeeper role with his second consecutive fight against an opponent ranked outside the top 10 in the division.
“That’s something that I do not want,” Thompson said. “I’ve got to go out there and put on a show come fight time. Go out there and if I don’t finish him, if I don’t go out there and knockout Geoff Neal, it’s got to be a decisive win for the UFC to say ‘let’s give this guy a top five opponent, he’s still got something left,’ which I do. I don’t understand why. Hopefully I’m not becoming a gatekeeper because a year ago, I did fight the No. 11 or 12 guy and I’m doing it again.
“I’m not taking it out on Geoff Neal or Vicente Luque. They’re very, very tough guys. But at the same time it’s like give me a top five guy. That’s what I was looking for in the beginning but when I figured out what was happening, we took this fight with Geoff Neal, who has got the potential for sure to be champion. He’s a very strong welterweight. He’s got very good boxing and good takedown defense as well. He’s going to be tough for sure.”
Thompson has no problem dishing out compliments when it comes to Neal’s potential, especially after he’s essentially run roughshod over the competition he’s faced thus far in his UFC career.
He sees Neal as a legitimate threat to the best fighters in the world at welterweight but without those established wins, this matchup becomes high risk and lower reward for “Wonderboy.”
“You can’t take a guy like Geoff Neal lightly at all,” Thompson said. “He’s been putting people away, not just with his hands. He’s been head kicking dudes. So that’s just another element you have to watch out for. I know he likes to keep the fight standing but he’s an MMA fighter. He’s very well rounded. If you don’t see it a whole lot, he does have some wrestling skills. His ground and pound is vicious.
“I’m treating this fight as if he’s the champion. He’s got the title and that’s who I’m preparing for. He could definitely be a champion for sure in the future.”
Assuming he’s able to get the job done on Saturday night at UFC Vegas 17, Thompson plans on making it clear to the promotion that he’s only interested in those higher ranked and bigger named opponents moving forward.
He had no problem facing Luque last year and he didn’t hesitate to sign to fight Neal this weekend but at some point, “Wonderboy” will need to get insistent about the other name on the end of bout agreement.
“I go out there and put on a good win against Geoff Neal, they’ve got to give me somebody in the top five,” Thompson said. “They’ve got to give me somebody higher ranked. You’ve got to put your foot down sometime and that’s the plan.”