MMA Real or not: Khaos Williams cracks top 15; Rumble Johnson vs. Yoel Romero in ’21

Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is no stranger to UFC main events, but there is one role the two-time welterweight challenger doesn’t want to get accustomed to: gatekeeper.

Thompson faces Geoff Neal in Saturday’s Fight Night headliner in Las Vegas, and it’s the second time in a row Thompson, 37, will be fighting a younger opponent on the rise. Neal, 30, has won seven straight, and he would parlay a victory over “Wonderboy” into a top-10 ranking. Thompson’s last fight was a unanimous-decision triumph over Vicente Luque, 29, on Nov. 2, 2019.

The UFC ranks Thompson No. 5, and he wants another shot at the title, not the role of being an opponent fighters need to beat on their way up the ladder.

Saturday’s card, which is the last UFC event of the year, is packed with familiar names and fighters who might be on the verge of breaking out. ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy breaks down what’s real and what’s not in the MMA world.

Real or not: Neal is one of the most underrated fighters in the UFC, but that will change with a win Saturday.

Wagenheim: Neal is the real deal — and this weekend, he will show the world on MMA’s most brightly lit stage. There’s a wave of turbulence in the sport right now, with new names bubbling up into prominence, and Neal has an opportunity to ride that kahuna in his first UFC main event.

The timing is right for Neal, who for years has been sharpening his skills while on the job. Fighters are fond of pointing out, “There are levels to this game.” What they don’t always acknowledge is that, much like a good wrestling attack, the level changes can come seemingly out of nowhere.

As recently as a couple of years ago, a fight against Thompson would have been a mismatch. Wonderboy competed for the welterweight title in 2016 and again in 2017, and both times, Thompson gave champion Tyron Woodley all he could handle. Thompson earned those shots by beating ex-champ Johny Hendricks and Rory MacDonald. Thompson’s karate-rooted kickboxing was hard to get a handle on for even the battle-tested, and the neophyte Neal would have been in over his head.

But now Thompson is 37. Last year, he suffered his first knockout loss. He has not fought in over a year. Neal has been idle for nearly as long, but he is riding a seven-fight winning streak, with all but one of those victories a stoppage. Saturday’s bout represents a step up in competition — a level change, if you will — but Neal is ready. It’s his time now to seize the moment.

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