Stephen Thompson (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 42 Preview and Predictions

Matthew Petela Staff Writer

After the most tumultuous year in the organization’s history, the final UFC event of 2020 — UFC on ESPN+ 42 — is upon us at last. With the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it is a safe bet that the early fight cards of 2021 will struggle with the same scheduling difficulties as the events of 2020, but the UFC closes the year with a card filled with rising stars and grisled veterans.

The headlining affair was slated to pit breakout phenom Khamzat Chimaev against Leon Edwards, but alas, that fight fell through due to the coronavirus. In its place, Fortis MMA standout Geoff Neal now takes on former two-time title challenger Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson in the evening’s main event.

Neal is undefeated inside the UFC and will look to improve to 6-0 on Saturday night when he squares off against Thompson. Meanwhile, the veteran kickboxer will look to record back-to-back wins for the first time since the majority draw in his first title bid at UFC 205. A win over “Wonderboy” would be far and away the most notable of Neal’s career.


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A former long-reigning champion will look to return to his winning ways in the co-main event when José Aldo enters the cage to take on Marlon “Chito” Vera. Aldo has lost three consecutive fights, including both of his appearances at bantamweight in the UFC. Vera, meanwhile, is riding high off the biggest win of his career: a first-round stoppage over “Sugar” Sean O’Malley.

The feature bout, dubbed so by UFC play-by-play man Jon Anik, is a clash of styles between welterweights Michel Pereira and Khaos Williams. Pereira, known for his flashy antics on the way to the cage and while in action, will have a stiff test ahead of him in Williams, who has disposed of his two most recent opponents inside of the first minute.

The main card contains six fights, with notable other match-ups including Marlon Moraes against Rob Font at bantamweight and Anthony Pettis in a clash with Alex Morono at welterweight.

The 15-fight event will take place inside the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, the now long-standing domestic home for the UFC during the pandemic. The entire card can be viewed via the ESPN+ streaming platform, with the preliminary bouts beginning at 4 p.m. ET and the main card getting underway at 7 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Geoff Neal has been perfect since entering the UFC. He now has five wins with the organization, including stoppages of Niko Price and Mike Perry over his last two appearances. Is Neal ready for the next step up in welterweight competition that he’ll be tasked with in the evening’s main event against Stephen Thompson?

Sumian: Ever since entering the UFC after a thunderous knockout of Chase Waldon on Dana Whites Contender Series three years ago, Neal has dazzled fans with a series of memorable performances that have certainly elevated him to this high-profile fight. In addition to his wins over Price and Perry, the native Texan has effectively erased any doubts about his future contender status by defeating Brian Camozzi, Frank Camacho and Belal Muhammad. His knockouts victories over Price and Perry were exceptionally brutal and effectively launched him into the top 15 of the always talent-rich welterweight division.

Neal enters this bout with a 13-2 professional record and has not lost since suffering a knockout defeat at the hands of Kevin Holland in January 2017 prior to joining the UFC. The Fortis MMA protege is a powerful puncher capable of putting the lights out on any opponent that dares to stand across him and be bold enough to engage in a slugfest. Neal enters this bout averaging six significant strikers per minute, 2.25 knockdowns per 15 minutes, and an impressive 93 percent takedown defense, all of which combines to make him one of the most impressive knockout artists on the UFC roster. However, for Neal to realize his goal of an eventual title shot, he will have to get through one of the division’s most consistent and talented strikers.

Despite no longer being considered an immediate title contender and carrying a 2-3 record over his last five UFC appearances, Thompson is still in all likelihood the most crafty and smooth striker in the division. After dropping a questionable decision to Darren Till and suffering a surprising knockout loss to Anthony Pettis, he rebounded in November 2019 with a dominant decision victory over rising contender Vicente Luque at UFC 244. After a back-and-forth first frame that resulted in two broken hands for the former title challenger, Thompson still managed to take over using his unorthodox kickboxing style to utterly decimate Luque on the feet and drop him multiple times in the final round to earn the victory. After a year layoff, the UFC’s No. 5 welterweight enters the Octagon for his 16th time in a very similar situation as his last bout.

This card has lost a very enticing headlining bout between Leon Edwards and Khamzat Chimaev, but this replacement main event, a welterweight clash between two of the most entertaining strikers in the division, is undoubtedly the next best thing. Neal’s success will depend on his ability to negate Thompson’s fluid movement and adapt to the constant switching of stances that Thompson so famously incorporates into his striking. Neal will have to march Thompson down, fire off powerful leg kicks on a consistent basis, and look to land his powerful “hands of steel.” Thompson, on the other hand, will look to consistently move and avoid the power of Neal while landing his own infamous counters, including his laser-precise right and left crosses.

Neal is a very promising contender with an exciting future ahead of him, but Thompson is all too familiar with being able to control rising contenders and effectively carry out his bulletproof game plan. Neal has not faced anyone remotely as talented as Thompson, and this will show in their five-round battle on Saturday. Thompson will earn another dominant decision and remind fans why he is still one of the best welterweights in the world.

Petela: Neal is certainly ready for a major step up in competition. His skills have matured to the point where he is more than just an entertaining knockout artist. He would no doubt be competitive against the elite at welterweight and could likely come out victorious in match-ups with a number of the division’s top 10. Unfortunately, his first foray into the upper echelon of talent comes against the most unique striker the division has to offer.

Neal likes to move forward and force his opponent to follow his lead. Thompson’s greatest strength is his ability to counter his opponent — the more aggressive the better. There is no questioning Neal’s ability or the ability of his coaches at Fortis MMA, particularly Sayif Saud, to build an effective game plan. However, “Wonderboy” has been fighting in this style nearly his entire life. One training camp of preparation won’t be enough for Neal to fully implement what he needs to do in order to upset Thompson.

Don’t expect much more than the snoozer we witnessed in the aforementioned Till fight. Neal will be too cautious to get caught by a perfectly placed Thompson counter, and Thompson will be too elusive to be put to sleep by the thunderous Neal. This will be a hiccup on the road to the top for Neal, but he will find success against ranked opponents eventually. It’s almost a shame that he drew the one fighter whose style is tailor-made to derail the train of momentum he has built over his first five UFC appearances.

The bantamweight division features prominently on this card, with Marlon Moraes up against Rob Font and José Aldo set to battle Marlon Vera. Will the up-and-comers Font and Vera emerge with victories over the respective former contender and champ?

Petela: They most certainly will.

Font has hit a stride recently where he has shown that he is a complete mixed martial artist and that he can more than hold his own at an elite level. He will continue to demonstrate improvements and hand Moraes a second consecutive loss.

Moraes made a name for himself in the World Series of Fighting, but the truth is he was never the best of the best in his weight class. The move to the UFC has made this evident. He doesn’t get blown out of the water against elite competition and has picked up notable wins over guys like Raphael Assunção, Jimmie Rivera and Aljamain Sterling. Yet, he will always struggle to reach the top of the mountain. He has come up short twice when he had the opportunity to add a notable name to his record, first in the title fight against Henry Cejudo and then against Cory Sandhagen. While a loss to Font will immediately have fans thinking that Moraes is past his prime, it will actually speak more about the caliber of Font as a fighter.

Aldo is somewhere between his prime and shop worn, whereas Vera is a rising star who is just entering his own prime. This fight will be a turning point for both men. The years of wars in the gym at Nova União, combined with four knockout losses, have taken a toll on Aldo that no amount of career rejuvenation at a new weight class can reverse. Despite criticism that his win over Sean O’Malley was a fluke, Vera is riding high and now has the confidence to match his robust skill set. This one won’t be pretty. Vera will get the stoppage before the final bell.

Sumian: Both Aldo and Moraes have had numerous memorable moments in the Octagon over the course of various headliners, title fights and more. However, Saturday will mark the end of contention status for both men.

Font will take a convincing unanimous decision over Moraes, while Vera will score a devastating TKO victory over Aldo. Moraes will still be considered a top-15 bantamweight after the weekend concludes, but Aldo won’t be so fortunate. The former champ will fall out of the rankings and may be restricted to only “fan-friendly” bouts for the remainder of his UFC career.

Tafon Nchukwi, Jamie Pickett, Drako Rodriguez and Jimmy Flick — do we need to know these names?

Sumian: Flick is the only name from this list that can be confidently endorsed as a need-to-know name. He joins the UFC bantamweight division after securing a third-round arm-triangle choke on Nate Smith in their September fight on the Contender Series. The 30-year-old boasts a 15-5 career mark and is currently riding a three-fight winning streak. He has established himself as a submission specialist by defeating 13 foes via tapout. Flick draws Cody Durden, who is coming off a draw to Chris Gutierrez in August. Flick and Durden have combined for 23 professional finishes and will most certainly put on a show this weekend.

Nchukwi and Pickett are making their debuts against each other after successful knockout victories on the Contender Series. Nchukwi’s head-kick finish of Al Matavao is certainly worth a quick visit to the UFC’s YouTube channel. The Cameroon native has compiled an undefeated 4-0 mark as a pro, which includes two wins at heavyweight, one at a catchweight, and one at light heavyweight. He makes his UFC debut as a middleweight against fellow newcomer “The Nightwolf” Pickett, who enters the Octagon after compiling an 11-4 record. Pickett is a proven finisher, with eight of his 11 victories coming by way of knockout, and he’s currently riding a two-fight winning streak. The winner of this bout will gain both notoriety and momentum as they prepare for their sophomore UFC appearance.

Rodriguez makes his debut as a bantamweight against Aiemann Zahabi, who is 1-2 in his UFC career. The Iowa native is a stellar submission grappler who is riding a three-fight winning streak. While Rodriguez will defeat Zahabi, it will take a couple wins before people start paying attention to him.

Petela: This incoming class definitely falls into the “wait-and-see” category of prospects. While an impressive performance by any of these fighters might provide job security in the immediate future of the tumultuous fight game, it could be a detriment in the long run. One of the worst things that can happen to a prospect is that they get pushed too quickly, which can lead to a rough patch that stops them from ever reaching their future potential. Take Aaron Pico, for example. The Bellator matchmakers had one of the best prospects in MMA history and rushed him into fights with skilled veterans after only a few impressive wins. This will have people questioning his durability forever. Pico has now rattled off three wins against fighters of a lower caliber since those two setbacks, but it is still left to be determined whether he will be able to build himself into a contender. Fighting isn’t like a video game, you can’t press the reset button on someone’s chin.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Petela: Anthony Pettis. His last outing was a decision victory over Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone that not even Pettis thought he won. With upwards of 60 fighters expected to be cut by the UFC before the end of the year, a veteran former champion who is no longer a true contender is a prime candidate for release. Outside of his one shining moment against this weekend’s headliner Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, “Showtime” hasn’t looked great recently. At times, it’s fair to question whether or not he truly wants to continue fighting. A loss to Alex Morono might signal the end of the road for the first UFC fighter to be on the cover of a Wheaties box.

Sumian: Deron Winn. The Daniel Cormier protege has been severely underwhelming since joining the company. He has compiled a 2-2 record thus far, and he’s in the midst of a two-fight skid with losses against Darren Stewart and Gerald Meerschaert. The undersized Winn will need a big statement victory against Antônio Arroyo to keep his roster spot. If he falls victim to Arroyo, who is coming off a UFC debut loss, then it will likely be the end of Winn’s time in the UFC.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Sumian: Belal Muhammad and Dhiego Lima. This card is loaded from top to bottom with potential “Fight of the Night” candidates, but expect the welterweight clash between these two under-the-radar combatants to steal the show. Both men are riding three-fight winning streaks and are potentially on the verge of earning a top-10 UFC ranking with a win on Saturday. They will come out eager and willing to trade wherever the fight takes place.

Petela: Good call, but let’s also not forget about the match-up between Michel Pereira and Khaos Williams. What a fun clash of styles these two bring to the cage. Williams’ last two victories have been brutal knockouts in a combined 57 seconds. Pereira typically spends that long dancing around the Octagon before engaging with his opponent. The fighter who is able to dictate the pace in this affair will get their hand raised, leaving us with either a very frustrated Williams or a totally unconscious Pereira. You don’t want to miss this one.

Pair this card with…

Petela: Champagne. It’s the last UFC fight card of the year, and there is nothing to do but celebrate a great year of fights by any standard, not to mention a year in which a worldwide pandemic crippled many sports. Given the current state of affairs and numerous lockdowns, you probably don’t have many holiday parties to go to and therefore less gifts to buy. So, open up your wallet and celebrate in style with a nice bottle of Dom Pérignon.

Sumian: Well said. Despite this last card being a Fight Night rather than a pay-per-view, it is loaded with amazing fan-friendly affairs featuring UFC favorites like Stephen Thompson, José Aldo, Anthony Pettis and more. With social distancing and safety practices in place, keep the gathering small and enjoy a night of what is sure to be memorable, fun and entertaining. While you’re at it, bring out a bottle of Blue Label, 1942 or El Dorado and celebrate the end of the UFC’s 2020 campaign with a bang.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
WW: Stephen Thompson vs. Geoff Neal Thompson Thompson
BW: José Aldo vs. Marlon Vera Vera Vera
WW: Michel Pereira vs. Khaos Williams Williams Williams
BW: Marlon Moraes vs. Rob Font Font Font
HW: Marcin Tybura vs. Greg Hardy Hardy Tybura
WW: Anthony Pettis vs. Alex Morono Pettis Morono
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET)
WW: Belal Muhammad vs. Dhiego Lima Muhammad Muhammad
Women’s BW: Pannie Kianzad vs. Sijara Eubanks Kianzad Eubanks
Catchweight (195 pounds): Deron Winn vs. Antônio Arroyo Arroyo Winn
BW: Drako Rodriguez vs. Aiemann Zahabi Rodriguez Zahabi
MW: Tafon Nchukwi vs. Jamie Pickett Nchukwi Pickett
LW: Rick Glenn vs. Carlton Minus Minus Glenn
FlyW: Jimmy Flick vs. Cody Durden Flick Flick
Women’s FlyW: Gillian Robertson vs. Taila Santos Robertson Santos
MW: Karl Roberson vs. Dalcha Lungiambula Roberson Lungiambula