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UFC Vegas 17 predictions: ‘Thompson vs Neal’ early ‘Prelims’ undercard preview

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Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is bringing more “Prelims” fights to ESPN+ this weekend (Sat., Dec. 19, 2020) when UFC Vegas 17: “Thompson vs. Neal” returns to UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada. MMAmania.com’s Patrick Stumberg kicks off the UFC Vegas 17 “Prelims” party with the first installment of a two-part undercard preview series below.

UFC Fight Night: Ramos v Murphy Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Ultimate Fighting Championsh caps off a roller coaster year with some quality violence, as elite Welterweight strikers Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson and Geoff Neal headline the promotion’s final event of the year this Saturday (Dec. 19, 2020). Down at Bantamweight, Jose Aldo attempts to rebound from his destructive loss to Petr Yan against Marlon Vera, while Welterweight slugger “Khaos” Williams looks for his third consecutive first-round knockout against Brazilian wild man Michel Pereira.

Despite several cancelations and reschedulings, we’ve still got eight “Prelims” undercard bouts to set the ESPN+ main card stage. Here’s the first batch ...

135 lbs.: Aiemann Zahabi vs. Drako Rodriguez

Aiemann Zahabi (7-2) — brother of legendary trainer Firas — entered UFC with six first-round finishes under his belt and enjoyed a successful debut against Reginaldo Vieira. He’s yet to taste victory since, suffering a knockout loss to Ricardo Ramos and subsequent decision loss to Vince Morales.

This will be his first fight in 19 months and just his second in the last three years.

Wins in his first three King of the Cage appearances led Drako Rodriguez (7-1) to a title fight against future UFC competitor Tony Gravely, who overpowered him with wrestling for a late finish. Three fights later, he took on prospect Mana Martinez on “Contender Series,” catching him in a contract-winning triangle choke midway through the first round.

He went undefeated (13-0) as an amateur before turning professional in 2017.

This would be a difficult task for Zahabi even at the best of times, as he lacks to wrestling to grind Rodriguez down the way Gravely did and doesn’t seem to have a notable edge on the feet. To defeat a well-rounded, well-seasoned finisher like Rodriguez after such a layoff looks to be beyond the Canadian’s capabilities.

Zahabi’s got a chin on him and Rodriguez is willing to chase subs off of his back, so the former surviving on the feet and leaning on top control to eke out a decision isn’t totally out of the question. It is, however, far likelier that Rodriguez lands the heavier shots and dictates the ground exchanges to claim a debut victory.

Prediction: Rodriguez via unanimous decision

185 lbs.: Tafon Nchukwi vs. Jamie Pickett

Three consecutive amateur knockouts gave way to three consecutive pro knockouts for Tafon Nchukwi (4-0), one of which came over recent Octagon signee William Knight. This led him to “Contender Series,” where he wiped out Al Matavao with a vicious head kick to earn a contract.

He faces a three-inch reach deficit and a two-inch height disadvantage.

The first two bids for Jamie Pickett (11-4) on “Contender Series” went poorly, as he suffered a submission loss to Charles Byrd and a decision loss to Punahele Soriano. The third time proved the charm, resulting in an impressive second-round knockout of Jhonoven Pati that earned him a contract.

He has knocked out eight professional foes and submitted one other.

Nchukwi would have been better served with a developmental contract than a direct invitation to the Octagon. He’s clearly a terrifying physical specimen with some nice tricks on the feet, but there remains work to be done. I’m also not sure Middleweight is the best place for him, as he was painfully slow even at 205 pounds.

Even with those misgivings, however, I like him to win here. Pickett has a lot of the skills that Matavao used to great effect, namely his movement and long-distance offense, but his fight with Soriano showed that he can also be backed to the fence with unfortunate ease. If Nchukwi simply presses forward consistently and works the body, he’ll catch Pickett circling sometime in the second round.

Prediction: Nchukwi via second-round technical knockout

125 lbs.: Jimmy Flick vs. Cody Durden

Wrote this two weeks ago when they were first booked to fight. Waste not, want not ...

Jimmy Flick (15-5) — two fights removed from a loss to future UFC competitor Ray Rodriguez — needed just 38 seconds to choke out Greg Fischer and claim the LFA Flyweight title. His grappling prowess showed itself again on “Contender Series,” where he choked out unbeaten Nate Smith in a contract-winning effort.

Thirteen of his professional wins, including all of them since 2011, have come by submission.

Seven finishes in seven consecutive wins carried Cody Durden (11-2-1) to a late-notice Octagon debut against Chris Gutierrez this past August. He spent nearly the entire first round attached to the favorite’s back, but found himself unable to secure takedowns in the second and third rounds, resulting in a draw.

Though the taller man by one inch, he gives up 3.5 inches of reach.

There’s two ways this fight can go: either we get an incredible ground battle between a phenomenal submission ace and a pedigreed wrestler, or we get an awful standup slog. Luckily for us, I’m thinking the latter; both men are far more comfortable initiating the wrestling than trying to sprawl-and-brawl.

Not that it’s necessarily the best idea for Durden — he’s the better takedown artist, sure, but Flick’s front chokes, sweeps and scrambling skills more than offset that difference. Whether by putting Durden on his back or punishing him for attempting to do the same in return, he gets his arms around Durden’s neck before long.

Prediction: Flick via first-round submission

155 lbs.: Rick Glenn vs. Carlton Minus

Rick Glenn (21-6-1) upset Bellator veteran Georgi Karakhanyan for the World Series of Fighting (WSOF) Featherweight title in 2014, only to lose it to Lance Palmer in his first defense. After three more wins, “The Gladiator” entered the Octagon in 2016, ultimately amassing a 3-3 record with notable wins over Gavin Tucker and Dennis Bermudez.

This marks his first fight in more than two years.

After a career spent almost exclusively in Alaska FC, Carlton Minus (10-2) unsuccessfully stepped up on short notice against Rick Story in Professional Fight League (PFL). Following an 18-month layoff, he returned to AFC with a decision win, leading to a UFC debut loss against Matthew Semelsberger in August.

Though the shorter man by two inches, he’ll enjoy a 4.5-inch reach advantage.

Minus had better have learned something against Semelsberger, because Glenn offers that same sort of unchecked aggression. Though he figures to be the larger man, as he’s dropping from 170 while Glenn moves up from 145, his inability to blunt Semelsberger’s offense with his superior technical boxing bodes ill.

If Glenn is rusty and winds up stuck on the end of Minus’ jab, “Clutch” has a shot at a decision win. Otherwise, Glenn outworks him on the feet and mixes in a takedown or two to claim his first uncontroversial win since 2017.

Prediction: Glenn via unanimous decision

Four more UFC Vegas 17 “Prelims” undercard bouts remain to preview and predict, including an intriguing Middleweight fight pitting Karl Roberson against Dalcha Lungiambula. Same time tomorrow, Maniacs!


Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 17 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 17: “Thompson vs. Neal” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.