Dig into the main card non-title fights, featuring welterweight heat seeker looking to continue his undefeated run against the always dangerous Geoff Neal.
No disrespect intended towards Justin Tafa and Parker Porter, but there’s no wasted space on the main card of UFC 285. Sure, there’s a fighter making his UFC debut on the card, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a more hyped prospect making their debut than Bo Nickal. Not even Alex Pereira – the current middleweight champion – seemed to have as much excitement around him as Nickal has. That’s saying something.
The other two non-title fights on the card have significant meaning in their divisions too. Many believe Shavkat Rakhmonov is a champion in waiting. He has yet to face an opponent as dangerous as Geoff Neal. Like Rakhmonov, many believe Jalin Turner will have gold strapped around his waist before long. He has yet to face someone with the experience and discipline of Mateusz Gamrot. Given how excited fans are about Nickal, it doesn’t matter who he’s facing. Fans just want to see him finally touch down in the UFC.
For the early prelims preview, click here. For the prelims preview, click here.
Geoff Neal vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov, Welterweight
It’s amazing how quickly Neal became persona non grata. It wasn’t that long ago he was thought to be one of the rising stars of the UFC. Y’all remember him headlining a Fight Night with Stephen Thompson… and it was a pick ‘em contest? Neal’s performance against Thompson was lackluster, but his performance against Neil Magny was really lackluster. Add in that Neal had an interesting DUI situation immediately before his contest with Santiago Ponzinibbio and everyone opted to begin writing him off. Even though Neal has looked great since that incident, the stink has yet to completely wash off him.
It’s too bad, at least for Neal’s opponents. Neal seems to be at his best when everyone is doubting him. Well, at the very least, he’s been fighting with a mean streak since everyone has been jumping off his bandwagon. It isn’t changing as he’s never been a bigger underdog than he is against Rakhmonov. For many, Rakhmonov is the next big thing at welterweight
It isn’t hard to see why so many believe that. Rakhmonov has secured a finish over every one of his UFC opponents thus far. The Kazak fighter fights with the type of unshakable confidence that tends to shake the confidence of his opponents. Thus far, no one has been able to take him down and Rakhmonov has proven to have the type of power and dynamism that isn’t to be trifled with. Given the accuracy and precision in which he throws, no one has been willing to engage in a fire fight with Rakhmonov.
Granted, none of Rakhmonov’s opponents have been Neal. It’s hard to believe any of Rakhmonov’s opponents thus far have been able to match the power that Neal can produce. It’s only been in the last few fights that Neal has proven he can maintain his power late while pushing a pace. Perhaps most importantly, Neal proved he’s not just a one-dimensional boxer on the feet either. Not to say it wouldn’t hurt if he could diversify his attack some, but he caught many by surprise when he proved to be the more efficient clinch fighter against Vicente Luque. Given Rakhmonov’s willingness to fight in that area, it might be worth noting.
Then again, some will argue it doesn’t matter where Rakhmonov fights; he’s comfortable everywhere. While I agree Rakhmonov has been effective everywhere, it’s hard to believe he’ll want to mess with Neal’s power more than he has to. Where Rakhmonov appears to have the biggest advantage would be on the mat. It isn’t just that he’s proven to be a powerhouse on the mat with his grappling; he’s proven to be quite technical on the mat too. Just ask Magny how easy it is to get out from underneath the rising star. Plus, he may have one of the tightest guillotine squeezes on the roster.
However, the question is who effective Rakhmonov will be at getting the fight to the mat. While Rakhmonov had no problem getting Magny to the ground, he’s struggled with some of his other opponents. Neal hasn’t exactly proven himself to be a skilled grappler, but he has proven himself to be exceptionally difficult to take down. Even if he does have his back put on the mat, Neal tends to bounce back up to his feet quickly. It’ll be hard for Rakhmonov to submit Neal if he can’t take him down. Not impossible – just ask Alex Oliveira – but difficult.
While I understand the sentiment of Rakhmonov being the favorite, he shouldn’t be as heavy of a favorite as he is. Neal has legit fight ending power and he’s proven to be the busier fighter. If Rakhmonov has as many problems as I expect putting Neal on his back, that makes Neal more likely to secure a finish if it goes to decision. After all, it’s not like Rakhmonov has ever won a decision. That said, Rakhmonov tends to get a read for his opponents, identifying their weaknesses and exposing them. Neal is durable, he hasn’t faced someone with the level of discipline and power possessed by Rakhmonov. All the betting value is on Neal, but Rakhmonov is the most likely to leave with his hand raised. Rakhmonov via TKO of RD3
Mateusz Gamrot vs. Jalin Turner, Lightweight
Make no mistake, the size dichotomy between Gamrot and Turner is going to cut quite the visual. Turner is one of the largest — if not the largest – lightweight to step fight in the Octagon in its history. On the flip side, Gamrot has cut to 145 successfully in his career. He’s not the smallest lightweight, but you’ll be excused for thinking he is when he’s battling Turner.
Despite the size disparity, Gamrot enters the contest the favorite. The former KSW two-division champion is an intelligent fighter and an underrated athlete. Given he hasn’t scored too many highlight reel finishes in combination with his high volume of decision victories before coming to the UFC, his physical gifts tend to be overlooked. That he doesn’t necessarily excel at any one thing doesn’t exactly help his standard either. Regardless, he has the fundamentals down pat, exemplified by his jab, one of the best in the division. If you’ve watched his contest with Arman Tsarukyan, you have a pretty good idea of what a fantastic scrambler he is as well.
It’s more than likely we’re going to see the scrambly aspect of his game. For how technically sound his striking is, size does matter. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Turner isn’t exactly an expert at keeping opponents on the outside with his reach – his striking defense is an atrocious 44% — but he’s getting better. More importantly, it tends to make his opponents hesitant, allowing him to find the shots he’s looking for. It isn’t like he’s helpless should they get inside on him. Turner’s clinch is dangerous too. Think about the leverage he can get with his knees given his massive frame….
While we know Gamrot isn’t going to want to spend long periods of time striking, it’s hard to know how much success he’ll find on the mat. Turner isn’t necessarily impossible to take down, but he tends to make his opponent work hard to complete the takedown. Plus, while the threat of a guillotine isn’t generally sound defense to prevent takedowns, Turner’s physical gifts add a level of danger that isn’t there for most. And while there’s no doubt Gamrot is the more technical grappler, Turner has surprised plenty of opponents with his own scrambling ability. The thing he’s mastered the most with his long limbs is the ability to wrap up his opposition.
I’ve had a very difficult time figuring out this contest. Turner has looked unstoppable in his last few contests, but he hasn’t faced someone with the combination of smarts, skill, and versatility Gamrot possesses. Plus, the one time Turner faced an opponent who was primarily a wrestler in the UFC, he ended up with the only loss at 155 he has suffered in the organization. I question Turner’s ability to consistently get up off his back too. Then again, part of the reason Gamrot has so many takedowns in his UFC run is due to his inability to keep his opponents down. What I expect is Gamrot will take the fight right at Turner, force the massive lightweight to expend a lot of energy, and see what he has down the stretch. It’s hard to believe Turner has a deep gas tank given what he has to cut to make weight. Despite that, Turner has some of the best finishing instincts on the roster. Gamrot may not get the chance to see what Turner has deep into a fight. Even if he does, a knockdown or two from Turner could put Gamrot impossibly behind on the scorecards. I’ll say the durable Gamrot goes for takedown after takedown, wearing down the up-and-comer, before finding a late finish. Gamrot via submission of RD3
- For wrestling purists, Bo Nickal’s UFC debut is the main event. One of the best freestyle wrestlers on the planet, Nickal has bowled over his opposition on his way to the UFC… all three of them. It’s rare the UFC fast tracks someone of the level of Nickal, but Nickal appears to be a worthy exception. While there are plenty of credentialed wrestlers who have floundered under the MMA spotlight – Steve Mocco and Ed Ruth come to mind – Nickal has completely embraced being the center of attention. Plus, while he only made his MMA debut last year, he has been prepping for his post-Olympic career for a while. Perhaps most importantly, Nickal doesn’t show the fear of getting hit in the face that has held many wrestlers back from matching their accomplishments in the collegiate ranks. He’d better be prepared as Jamie Pickett is a HUGE step up from what Nickal has faced before. That said, Nickal is a stylistic nightmare for Pickett. Pickett has a big reach and some good power, but he hasn’t mastered using his length on the counter. In fact, Pickett tends to wilt under pressure. Pressure is all he’s going to get from Nickal. Plus, while Pickett is a good clinch fighter, fighting in that range allows Nickal to get his mitts on him, the last thing Pickett wants. This may be MMA, but Pickett’s MMA wrestling hasn’t been anything to indicate he can stop Nickal from doing whatever he wants. Nickal via submission of RD1