Geoff Neal takes on Neil Magny at this weekend’s UFC Fight Night: Rodriguez vs. Waterson show. The bout was originally scheduled to take place on Aug. 29, 2020, but it was cancelled after Neal withdrew due to health issues. Now, Neal looks to take the next big step of his career and move further up the UFC welterweight rankings.
Neal’s last fight was against Stephen Thompson in December. It was his first main event in the UFC. Going into this contest, Neal was on a seven-fight winning streak and was unbeaten inside the Octagon. In his previous bout, the 30-year-old delivered a stunning finish of Mike Perry at UFC 245. By this point, Neal had established himself as a dangerous striker with great timing, hand speed, and accuracy.
Thompson was the highest ranked opponent yet in Neal’s UFC career and undoubtedly the most skilled opponent that Neal had ever encountered. From the start of the contest, it was clear that Neal was being lured into the trap to which most of Thompson’s previous opponents had also fallen victim.
Neal exerted forward pressure and put Thompson on the back foot, but by doing so he played into the 38-year-old’s strengths. Thompson has built his success on the basis of his elusive karate counter-fighting style. Neal did not throw much output and was flat-footed, allowing Thompson to tee off on him and circle out of range. Neal also did not throw enough leg kicks to slow down Thompson and reduce his mobility.
Neal kept his guard high, wary of Thompson’s array of kicks, but “Wonderboy” rendered this obsolete and was still able to land a significant number of strikes, which eventually drew blood from Neal’s face. This was the theme for the first four rounds, with Neal having intermittent success in the moments where he was able to clinch Thompson against the cage.
Neal picked up the pace in the final round, knowing that he would need a finish to secure the victory. He managed to do some more damage, but it was ultimately too little and too late. Thompson was victorious with a unanimous decision, posting 50-45 scores on all the judges’ cards.
Neal can take solace from knowing he isn’t the only fighter to struggle to solve the puzzle of one of the best strikers in MMA. The native Texan showed great heart and courage to survive until the final bell despite being on the receiving end of a striking masterclass.
It should be noted that Neal’s preparation for the Thompson fight was far from ideal. The bout took place a mere four months after he was hospitalized for congestive heart failure and sepsis, which he later said he “almost died” from and which had forced his withdrawal from the Magny bout. This inevitably would have had a detrimental effect on Neal’s performance and perhaps explains his lack of explosiveness in the fight.
This weekend’s bout will be a better opportunity for Neal to show his full capabilities against a top-10 ranked welterweight in Magny.
On paper, the ninth-ranked Magny has the attributes to pose a very difficult test for Neal. He is primarily a grappler, but he has improved his striking exponentially in recent years. Magny makes the most of his 6-foot-3 frame and 80-inch reach, which is one of the longest in the UFC. He does not possess the striking arsenal of Thompson, but he is fundamentally sound on the feet. He showcased this against Robbie Lawler when his jab helped to completely neutralize the offense of the former welterweight champion.
Neal’s takedown defense is likely to be tested in this fight, but he will be confident in knowing how well he has performed in this department in the UFC thus far. This was most notably illustrated in his fight with Belal Muhammad, where he was able to prevent all seven of Muhammad’s takedown attempts. This has contributed to his impressive 92 percent takedown defense in the Octagon. This is an important element to Neal’s game, given the presence of elite grapplers ahead of him in the division, such as champ Kamaru Usman and contenders Colby Covington, Gilbert Burns, Michael Chiesa and Demian Maia.
If Neal can keep the fight standing, then he will need to be wary of Magny’s jab. Neal will be at a four-inch height deficit and a five-inch reach deficit against his upcoming opponent. It will be imperative that he shows better head movement and footwork than he did against Thompson, otherwise he will struggle to deal with Magny’s length and will be picked apart from the outside.
Offensively, Neal has many tools he can utilize to hurt Magny. He possesses an outstanding head kick that he used to finish Frank Camacho and the aforementioned Perry. If he executes this kick when Magny looks to level change, then it could bring him plenty of success.
Neal will likely need to close the distance and display the power that earned him his “Hands of Steel” nickname. Neal’s strength comes when he’s fighting in the pocket, and this approach allows him to deploy his trademark power left hand. Magny is durable — he has only been knocked out twice in 30 professional fights — but Neal has proven that he has the explosive punching power to take out anyone in the division.
Neal is likely to be the physically stronger fighter in the cage and could use this to his advantage by engaging in the clinch and pushing Magny against the fence. This will allow Neal to keep Magny in close quarters and man-handle the 33-year-old to drain his gas tank.
This weekend’s fight is a chance for the UFC’s 10th-ranked Neal to make the biggest breakthrough of his career and launch himself into what is becoming an increasingly crowded welterweight title picture. The champion Usman is running out of fresh match-ups, and his management seem reluctant for him to fight those that he has already defeated. A win on Saturday over a longtime ranked veteran such as Magny might end up taking Neal further than what he initially anticipated.
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