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We made it. Twenty-four straight weeks of UFC cards. At last, an end.

Until the next one.

Not to sound ungrateful to UFC President Dana White or the fighters, coaches, and staff who have worked their butts off to provide entertainment during the pandemic, but I think we’re all due for a break from the face-punching for a few weeks. For fans, take some time to rest, recover, and maybe not think about fighter X’s game plan, 2021 fantasy matchups, or what wacky scorecard judge Chris Lee will come up with next.

Right now, though? We got fights to pick.

Two-time welterweight title challenger Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson has been given a tough task: Find a way to stop the hard-charging Geoff Neal in Saturday’s UFC Vegas 17 main event. Five UFC opponents have tried and five have failed, with only one of those making it to the scorecards against Neal.

Neal has yet to face a veteran of Thompson’s caliber, so this could be a reality check for the first-time UFC headliner. If he can get past Thompson though, Neal immediately becomes one of the most intriguing welterweight contenders heading into 2021.

The co-main event sees Marlon Vera finally getting a shot to topple a marquee name, an opportunity he’s been chasing for ages even as he’s finished one bantamweight after another. That name just so happens to be Jose Aldo, who has his own hill to get over as he is still yet to win a fight at 135 pounds. Is it Vera’s time to shine or does Aldo prevent “Chito” from reaching elite status?

In other main card action, Michel Pereira and Khaos Williams meet in a battle of exciting welterweights, bantamweight contenders Marlon Moraes and Rob Font face off, and veteran heavyweight Marcin Tybura fights Greg Hardy.

What: UFC Vegas 17

Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas

When: Saturday, Dec. 19. The seven-fight preliminary card begins at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN+, with the five-fight main card starting at 7 p.m. ET also on ESPN+.


Stephen Thompson vs. Geoff Neal

There’s a springiness to Geoff Neal’s striking that I really like and that I think will be the key to figuring out the “Wonderboy” conundrum. He’ll have to be in top form against Stephen Thompson, a veteran who has made an art out of making his opponents look silly.

A glance at Neal’s high-finishing rate may paint the picture of a berserker, but he’s actually shown a lot of patience when an opening to flurry arises. He’s quick, accurate, and explosive, all traits that are needed if you want to have a chance against Thompson. The 25-minute duration of this bout may actually benefit Neal as he has the luxury of giving up a round early to gather data.

On the other hand, Thompson’s signature karate style is well-suited to winning judges’ decisions and if Neal isn’t able to push the pace then it’s Thompson who will cruise to a win. He is a master at controlling distance and exploiting the weaknesses of less-experienced opponents like Neal.

I’m going wacky on this one and picking a decision win for Neal, who I think is on his way to a title shot sometime next year. It will be difficult to generate any sustained offense against Thompson, but I expect the bursts of action to favor the younger Neal and that should be just enough to earn him the victory.

Pick: Neal

Jose Aldo vs. Marlon Vera

I hated picking against Junior dos Santos last week and I hate picking against Jose Aldo here. Win or lose, these Brazilian champions deserve our respect.

The fight game doesn’t give a thought to the word “deserve” though, which is how we ended up with a hungry Marlon Vera looking to cement himself as one of the best at 135 pounds over the best ever at 145 pounds. “Chito” has what it takes to get it done too, with high-paced offense that takes some time to get going but once it does, it’s too much for most to handle.

I’m afraid that includes Aldo as well. He’s looked superb at times in his past couple of fights, even in defeat, but I get the sense that he just doesn’t have that ability to put an exclamation point on a performance like he used to. That cost him a close decision against Marlon Moraes last December. It might cost him a few more brain cells against Vera.

Even if Aldo is competitive for the first two rounds, I just don’t see Vera slowing down in the third. He’ll finish strong and put Aldo away, leaving no room for any scoring controversy.

Pick: Vera

Khaos Williams vs. Michel Pereira

Khaos Williams has been finishing fights so quickly he hasn’t had the chance to show how well-rounded he is. He might not get that opportunity against Michel Pereira either.

There’s simply nobody in the UFC quite like Pereira, the human embodiment of chaos. He’s a fighter who dares you to put up with his clownish (read: entertaining) antics while also having to respect his skilled striking. Underneath all the flips and acrobatics lies a fighter with actual technical ability and Pereira has shown that in all of his UFC fights thus far.

Williams’ main issue will be dealing with the unorthodox angles that Pereira is going to approach from. His last two knockout wins have come against opponents who made the mistake of walking forward in a straight line, something that Pereira might not be able to do if he tried. He’s going to work to get under Williams’ skin and if he succeeds, that could be half the battle right there.

Pereira by first-round knockout.

Pick: Pereira

Marlon Moraes vs. Rob Font

Is this a trap game for Marlon Moraes?

On paper, it doesn’t look like there’s anything that Rob Font does better than him. Moraes hits harder, has a stronger ground game, and should be a match for Font in the speed department. I do like the physical gifts that Font brings to this matchup though. Let’s not forget that Moraes just fought a rangier fighter in Cory Sandhagen and he ended up on the wrong end of a spinning wheel kick.

Moraes can deal with having a reach disadvantage, even if it means fighting with a touch more caution than usual. Questions have been raised about Moraes’ ability to put together a complete three-round performance and if Font can get this one to the third round, he might have more in the gas tank than Moraes.

Still, there are too many ways for Moraes to win here and I expect him to be smart and take this one to the ground. He may have to play it safe to avoid his third loss in four fights, but I actually see him securing a submission at some point.

Pick: Moraes

Marcin Tybura vs. Greg Hardy

Apologies for starting this section off with another question, but how good is Greg Hardy actually? The matchmakers have done an excellent job of finding the appropriate matchups for the inexperienced heavyweight, but Marcin Tybura is a big step up for Hardy.

Tybura might never produce tweetable quotes like Derrick Lewis, but the Polish veteran been a solid fighter for years and has a vast experience advantage over Hardy especially when comparing their level of competition. His lack of punching power could prove to be his downfall in this matchup as that’s something Hardy has shown no shortage of.

The athleticism gap between Tybura and Hardy can’t be ignored. Speed and agility can make up for a lot of shortcomings when you’re learning on the fly and though Hardy had nothing to offer Alexander Volkov, the smaller and slower Tybura is a more hittable target. If Hardy’s skills are starting to catch up with his raw ability, Tybura could be next to fall to the former NFLer.

Tybura needs to get this fight to the ground where he’ll have a massive advantage. He’s smart and should find a way to do this multiple times until Hardy tires and succumbs to either ground-and-pound or a submission.

Pick: Tybura

Preliminaries

Anthony Pettis def. Alex Morono

Pannie Kianzad def. Sijara Eubanks

Antonio Arroyo def. Deron Winn

Gillian Robertson def. Taila Santos

Tafon Nchukwi def. Jamie Pickett

Jimmy Flick def. Cody Durden

Christos Giagos def. Carlton Minus