Sign up for ESPN+, and you can then stream the UFC live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday finally reaches the station with its last card of 2020 after an unprecedented stretch of boobytrapped events. UFC Fight Night 183 is practically overloaded with talent, with several bouts meriting headliner status in this COVID-19 landscape. A striker’s delight in the main event deserves some recognition, while two slight underdogs with clear paths to victory—and a prospective brawl that should not end up in the hands of the judges—draw up this calendar-closing edition of Prime Picks.
Geoff Neal (-120)
History is littered with technical boxers who thought they could hang with Stephen Thompson, only to get shut down or taken out by the karate stylist. “Wonderboy” has over the years one-upped the likes of Robert Whittaker, Rory MacDonald, Jorge Masvidal and Vicente Luque, all of whom are highly regarded strikers. On the other hand, the only men to beat him were a grappling-focused Matt Brown, Tyron Woodley (thanks to a right hand in the fifth round), Darren Till in what many consider to be a “robbery” and Anthony Pettis, by virtue of clean Superman punch. None of those losses show a clear path to victory for any Thompson opponent, although Neal is the kind of talent who can rise to the occasion as a very slight favorite to become a top contender.
Neal finds himself on an impressive winning streak and with a solid set of names on his list, including Belal Muhammad, Niko Price and Mike Perry. Away for just over a year, Neal “almost died” a few months ago after a staph infection hospitalized him and resulted in his being put on dialysis when his kidneys and heart started failing. As long as he is at full strength, Neal is a ruthlessly powerful striker who puts volume on his opponents until they wilt. In his five-fight UFC tenure, Neal has recorded five knockdowns, including two against two different opponents. If he can close the distance on a rangier striker who uses side kicks as jabs, he can do some damage. Thompson’s chin is not what it used to be, as Pettis, Till and Woodley all dropped him in their matchups.
Hands down, chin up is a weakness on which a technical boxer like Neal can feast, but “Wonderboy” has made a name for himself over the years by being hard to hit cleanly. His first-ever knockout loss resulted from Pettis springing off the cage into a Superman punch, so it would appear that was an outlier judging by his ability to go toe-to-toe with Luque for three thrilling rounds. While “Wonderboy” is quick and elusive, his style does not age well; and Luque landed on him more than any opponent by a wide margin. Lyoto Machida is a prime example of a karateka whose superior speed faded, and his chin was there for the taking. Turning 38 in a few months, Thompson may be in the twilight of his career, and a layoff of more than a year may not bode well for someone who needs to feel comfortable finding his range in the cage.
An underrated facet of Neal’s game has been his ability to mix in takedowns to keep his adversary guessing. Neal took advantage of Kevin Holland’s porous takedown defense by landing several of them when they met in 2017, although the “Trailblazer” turned up the heat and garnered a stoppage late in the third round with a Tekken-style combination of ferocious unanswered blows. That setback remains Neal’s only one resulting from strikes, and it has aged well, as Holland recently punched his ticket into the middleweight Top 10 by bludgeoning Ronaldo Souza. Neal’s chin has held up across a few slugfests to date, although both he and Price dropped one another in a furious flurry of punches in the first round. Walking down Perry and kicking him in the head repeatedly leaves a lasting impression, but he will not likely encounter a man in Thompson who stands right in front of him.
This could be at times a frustrating pairing, as Neal swings and misses and “Wonderboy” dances out of the way. It could also turn Thompson into a bit of a matador as he tries to stave off an advancing Neal in the early going. Neal has done some of his best work in the first seven minutes of a fight, and Thompson could find himself in extreme danger if the Dana White’s Contender Series graduate pushes the pace on him. “Handz of Steel” has never found himself in the championship rounds, so Thompson could have an advantage with this experience and cardio management. With that said, the Fortis MMA product is far younger, appears to have a lot of momentum behind him and hits excruciatingly hard. While “Wonderboy” could win and regain his old form, the line is intriguing enough that, at -120, Neal merits attention.
Kalinn Williams (+105)
This welterweight feature has the potential to be one of “those” fights, where we see feet and fists flying in a mad cloud akin to one from an Andy Capp comic. On the one side, we have 57 seconds of total Octagon time for Williams, who punched out Alex Morono and Abdul Razak Alhassan in his first two UFC appearances. On the other, we have Brazilian madman Michel Pereira, who has jumped off the cage with a back flip like Vega from “Street Fighter” on more than one occasion—even though stomps to a grounded opponent are banned. When we have a fighter who appears composed and laser-like focused in comparison to a wildman who dances around the cage before throwing down, the calmer competitor should prevail. In this instance, Williams should not get caught up in the theatrics of the battle and should instead maintain an ice-cold demeanor with one singular goal: punch out “Demolidor.”
Much like during Francis Ngannou’s current run, where he has blitzed four consecutive opponents all within 71 seconds, Williams’ devasting power leaves us asking questions. What happens when a fighter survives the early onslaught? Does his power carry with him into the second round and beyond? The man who calls himself “Khaos” has notched just one stoppage victory in his career after the first round, pounding out Carrese Archer at a King of the Cage event after body slamming him to the canvas. Otherwise, first-round stoppage or decision has been his trajectory, and given the opponent he now faces, this trend looks like it should hold up.
Pereira has proven to be hittable when he attempts all of his various flying, spinning and leaping attacks. Both the setups and the follow-throughs allow him to get tagged, like when he resets after throwing a spinning backfist into a capoeira kick. These small openings are minute but significant enough for a fighter on his A-game to exploit. Unlike his other recent bouts, “Demolidor” managed his tank far better against Zelim Imadaev in September, outlanding the Russian before putting him to sleep with a choke with just seconds to go. The first round is where Pereira typically goes all-out with his unorthodox barrage of strikes, including Showtime kicks and plenty of “spinning stuff,” to paraphrase Nick Diaz. As long as Williams does not walk into these fairly telegraphed shots and throws straight down the middle, this should be his fight to win. Fundamentals can beat flashy much of the time. Look no further than our aforementioned pick for Neal to beat “Wonderboy” and his karate style. This pick for Williams would pair nicely with Under 1.5 Rounds (+105), as half of Pereira’s wins have come by first-round stoppage and all of Williams’ career finishes have come within that window.
Marcin Tybura (+105)
Poland’s Tybura has quietly put together a winning streak this year and looks to go 4-0 in 2020 with a win over the polarizing Greg Hardy. In fairness, a large part of Tybura’s unheralded success lends itself to his style, which is a grueling, grinding and not particularly thrilling process that wins him rounds but not necessarily fans. Tybura mixes in takedowns while leaning heavily on the clinch game to stay close to his opponents and wear them out, so those expecting two 250-plus-pounders swinging for the bleachers may be sadly mistaken coming into this one. What Tybura does bring to the table is a very effective and nullifying style—one that Hardy may not be schooled enough to thwart.
Although lauded as a huge heavyweight and an A-level athlete with dynamite in his fists, none of Hardy’s performances on the major stage have been particular thrilling. Some of his wins have been the result of an overmatched opponent pursuing a takedown, not getting it and falling to his back to get pounded out. Additionally, “The Prince of War” has accumulated a lengthy ledger of various fouls, most recently receiving a stern warning for gouging Maurice Greene’s eyes from top position. Hardy’s best chance for success is unquestionably in his hands, as he is quite capable of hurting any opponent. Hardy rocked Greene and finished the fight with a flurry of ground strikes, and even though the latter popped up to protest the stoppage, he had been hurt badly by a powerful jab that set him down. Hardy should look to counter Tybura, who will charge at him in a bid to set up a clinch early and often.
Tybura’s clearest path to victory is to be at his suffocating best, bullying his opponent into the cage wall before changing levels for a single- or double-leg takedown. It is at this moment where he might be most vulnerable, as Hardy can club him on the side of the head while attempting to remain upright. Although he may not use elbows like Travis Browne against Josh Barnett, his striking-while-defending-takedowns approach could hurt a man not known for his chin. “Tybur” has been put away throughout his UFC tenure by Derrick Lewis—a forgivable defeat given Lewis’ body of work—and Shamil Abdurakhimov, along with Augusto Sakai. The latter two post a good deal of knockouts in their careers, but most of them had come by an accumulation of damage or from ground-and-pound, not by dropping and dispatching a man like they did Tybura. “Embrace the Grind” is the perfect expression for this matchup, and Tybura has done this to more highly regarded opponents than Hardy, even on this stretch. The line of Fight Goes to Decision at +150 is one that could accompany a Tybura win, as it does not appear that he will be the one finishing the fight and should only be broken up with a Hardy knockout. If you think Hardy will win, Hardy by TKO/KO is a palatable +135.