UFC Fight Night best bets: Thompson-Neal

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This week’s UFC Vegas 17 card is the final production of the year, and it may also be as deep a fight slate as we have seen in 2020. Fourteen fights featuring athletes from eight countries equipped with varying combinations of mixed martial arts expertise will give fight fans a fertile arena from which to profit one more time this year.

Let’s also throw a veil of motivation on the athletes in this production as the UFC announced that it expects to cut approximately 60 fighters very soon. The impetus to win Saturday is as strong as it can be for these fighters looking to remain with the UFC.

Last week Charles Oliveira finally received his chance to compete with the elite in the lightweight division. Oliveira dominated Tony Ferguson on his way to a one-sided decision that solidified him as the UFC’s No. 1-ranked lightweight. The result enhanced “Insight the Octagon” profitability with a + 150 winner.

Oliviera poses the biggest threat to Khabib Nurmagomedov in the lightweight division should Nurmagomedov return. I acknowledge Ferguson as a true warrior and all-time great 155-pounder by taking the bout with Oliviera without batting an eye, but his skills have waned, and, as I wrote last week, when it goes … it goes quickly.

2020 profitability: 39-28 + 19.47 units

Note: I’ll be submitting my final releases for all UFC fight cards to VSiN editors each Saturday morning. They send it out so readers will be updated with those final selections and prices.

Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson -120 vs. Geoff “Hands of Steel” Neal + 100 Welterweight (170 pounds), Main Event

I often talk of how styles contribute to the dynamic of MMA competitions, and this main event is a perfect example. Neal is ranked 11th in the division after just five UFC bouts. He’s thick, explosive, powerful, and he fights to knock opponents’ heads off their shoulders. In four of his five UFC bouts, he has finished mid-level opponents impressively. Neal wants to walk opponents down and press the action, forcing opponents into a brawl, which directly into his strength. Neal is there to bludgeon, and while he is basically a stalking southpaw striker, he is a powerful and dangerous southpaw striker.

Thompson is the fifth-ranked welterweight and possibly the most overlooked and underrated fighter on the roster. Thompson, 37, has been in championship-level five-round bouts and faced the best of the division without sustaining a lot of damage. His defensive fluidity and height allow him to effectively evade incoming strikes and kicks while setting himself up to counterattack with his kickboxing prowess.

Movement is another Thompson strength as is distance control, which he must use in this bout to keep from being stationary in front of “Hands of Steel,” who is appropriately named.

Thompson’s experience, athleticism, precision striking, innately evasive defensive skills and unorthodox kicking game are fueled by his incredible combination of fighting specialties as he is a fifth-degree black belt in Tetsushin Ryu Kempo, a first-degree black belt in Jujutsu, a black belt in American kickboxing and a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Carlos Machado. 

It’s my judgment that Thompson, who opened -155, is well-prepared for this bout as he competed against a similar-sized stalking striker, Vicente Luque, in his last bout. Thompson won a one-sided decision, and though Luque and Neal are not identical, the Luque bout more than prepared Thomson for Neal.

Thompson is now + 100, and the price is working in my favor, so I’ll monitor it closely to see if Wonderboy moves to a dog price. Wonderboy + 100 or at an underdog price is a release.

Fight total: 4.5 Under -120.

Jose Aldo -160 vs. Marlon Vera + 140 

Bantamweight (135 pounds), Co-main Event

Aldo, 34, was once the GOAT of MMA but now is ranked seventh in his division. It seems as if he now serves as a barometer for other fighters in the division to measure themselves against.

Aldo is 2-5 since 2017, but the losses were to current featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, then-bantamweight champion Max Holloway (twice), current bantamweight champion Petr Yan in his last fight and Marlon Moraes, who is on this fight card, in a fight that many, including me, thought Aldo won. That’s absolutely elite competition.

Vera, the 15-ranked bantamweight, finished the highly touted Sean O’Malley in August. Vera has deep experience, though not against the level of competition that Aldo has faced. Vera’s a black belt in BJJ and an aggressive, forceful striker who can start slow but finishes with fury and freneticism.

Since 2018, Vera is 6-1, though I consider him on a 7-0 run as I believe he beat Song Yadong in May in a fight that now serves Vera well in preparing him for Aldo.

Vera is younger and taller than Aldo and on the ascent in the division, while Aldo is trying to hold on to his ranking with the hopes of another title shot. It’s easier to hunt than be hunted, and on Saturday it is Aldo whose pelt will be hunted.

Vera needs to protect himself by not engaging Aldo immediately in the firestorm of the first round. Aldo’s aggression, devastating kicks and combination striking are keen in the first five minutes, but after that, the old champion does begin to slow.

Vera must remain calm and use constant movement with a piston jab to force Aldo to expend energy early. Controlling the pace early is mandatory for Vera, then as the proud old lion begins to slow, Vera can sit on his strikes more and try to take Aldo out.

Aldo spent his entire career at 155 pounds and often struggled with weight there, so Friday’s weigh-ins are important, but Vera + 125 or better is the goal.

Fight total: 2.5 Over -180.

Michel Pereira -140 vs. Khaos Williams + 120 

Welterweight (170 pounds)

This is a fight in which two speeding, out-of-control trains are on the same track hurtling toward one another on a collision course. The victor most likely will earn a top-15 ranking within the welterweight ranks, with the rest of the division doing their best to avoid that man.

Williams burst onto the scene after an amazing first-round knockout two fights back against Alex Morono (also on this card). He followed that effort by destroying his last opponent, Abdul Razak Alhassan, in 30 seconds, and Alhassan is a highly respected athlete in the division. Williams uses few tricks or gimmicks. What he does wield is an abundance of quickness, explosive power and bad intent, but his most impressive trait may be the extreme confidence and swagger he carries with him into the cage.

I faded Williams in his last bout because I believed Alhassan would be able to take him deep and force him into fighting past a minute or so in the first round, but Alhassan got starched. Someone needs to test Williams and force him to compete past five minutes, but that seems to be a fighter who uses movement and defense as opposed to his opponent Saturday, who uses aggression and flamboyant striking.

That opponent is Pereira, who is perhaps the most aggressive fighter in the UFC. He is accomplished in a unique combination of fighting expertise, which gives him the ability to punish opponents on the feet, floor or fence.

He’s a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and in karate. While Pereira is the more versatile, experienced fighter, he is also the fighter more prone to attempting unique flamboyant striking, which can manifest itself in tactical mistakes against the wrong opponent. Any mistake against Williams will end Pereira’s evening, so it will be fascinating to watch how this bout unfolds.

Both of these destroyers are 26 and similar in their physical characteristics, save that Williams sports a four-inch reach advantage. This is worth mentioning as these guys are going to stand and mix it up in the middle as soon as the bell rings. 

The statistics tell us that fighters in stand-up fights that have at least a two-inch reach advantage win 60% of the time.

Pereira may have more ways to win this bout and he’ll appear to be the larger man in the octagon, but there’s something about Williams, his camp, his confidence and his natural knockout ability that force me to treat him as no underdog in this bout.

Williams + 120

Fight total: 1.5 over -115.

Marlon Moraes -135 vs. Rob Font + 120 

Bantamweight (135 pounds)

For five minutes, Moraes is pound-for-pound as lethal and devastating a striker as there is in the entire organization. After five minutes, however, Moraes has shown to slow considerably in his bouts, the most glaring example coming last December in his fight with Jose Aldo. Moraes won a controversial decision, but he showed me how ineffective he became as the fight wore on.

Third-ranked Moraes followed that effort with a second-round submission loss earlier this year, so he comes into this fight pretty much in a must-win situation, especially considering the impending layoffs.

Moraes has fought elite competition, he’s an experienced, well-rounded mixed martial artist with lethal power, but he has been playing musical chairs with his fight camps, which is a sure tell that a fighter is searching. Entering a bout off a couple of losses with little continuity in a fight camp is not ideal.

Moraes’ opponent, 11th-ranked Font must adhere to a plan of attack that has him managing distance, using constant movement and pumping a stiff jab to temper the pressure that forward-charging Moraes will unleash in Round 1.

Font must navigate the early explosive striking from Moraes and grind the Brazilian into the second round, where the tide may begin to turn. Font’s chances of winning this fight come down to his ability to use his size and reach advantages to blister Moraes early from the outside, then as the fight wears on, bludgeon him with power shots as Moraes gasses.

Font + 130

Fight total: 2.5 Over -140.

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