LAS VEGAS — Geoff Neal is a promising mixed martial artist, who on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN+) will fight in his first UFC main event when he takes on Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson at Apex.
Neal is 13-2 overall and 5-0 in the UFC and has an entertaining style as well as the look of a future champion.
No matter what happens from this point forward in his career, Neal will already have had the fight of his life.
In August, Neal had congestive heart failure and was admitted to the intensive care unit of a Dallas hospital. Doctors never diagnosed exactly what was happening, but it is something Neal will never forget. And just three-and-a-half months after he was released from the hospital, the 30-year-old Neal is fighting his most highly ranked opponent.
Never did he think of hanging up the gloves. He was, he said, going to find a way to do what he loves.
“I never considered it,” he said of retiring from fighting. “I kept a positive outlook. When they were telling me, when the doctors were telling me, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to be able to fight again,’ I just looked at them and laughed. I was like, ‘OK, no. That’s not happening.’ It never crossed my mind.
“I knew I would recover. I never had a doubt in my mind that I would recover. They were trying to give me a vest, like a shock vest that would wake my heart back up [if it stopped]. I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing that.’ They said, ‘No, you need to do this. You might die.’ I’m like, ‘I’d rather die.’ I really didn’t mean to say that, but like, shock vest or maybe die? Nah, I’m not doing a shock vest.”
Neal never received an official diagnosis. His theories are that he either had meningitis or a bad tooth. He said he did research that showed if a tooth gets infected, the infection could get into the bloodstream and cause major problems.
In this crazy year, Neal of course also tested positive for COVID-19 in June, though he does not believe the coronavirus had an impact on his health issue in August.
He was released from the hospital in mid-August, he said, and spent the rest of the month at home recuperating. All the while, he was plotting his return to action.
He ended 2019 on a high with a first-round finish of Mike Perry at UFC 245 that left him as a fighter to watch this year. But Saturday’s fight with Thompson will be his first since that night against Perry a year ago.
When he first returned to the gym, he concedes it took him some time to adapt. When you hear the words congestive heart failure, it’s kind of hard to get it out of your mind, especially the first time you’re doing something that forces the heart to work hard.
“It took me a little bit [to get back to normal] because when I first got back in, nothing felt the same,” Neal said. “I was constantly checking my heart rate, and more of it was fear, you know? Would my heart stop if I pushed it too hard? But the more comfortable I got, the more my body got used to being back in the gym, the harder I started working.
“Once I got this fight, I was already in the gym full swing and I was starting to push it and really, really start grinding.”
The fight is hugely important for Neal, who could vault into the Top 10 with a win over No. 5 Thompson. That will set him up for a potential title run in 2021, which is his goal.
First, he’ll have to get through Thompson in what figures to be a striking battle. Even against Tyron Woodley, the former welterweight champion who was an All-American wrestler in college, Thompson was able to largely stay standing.
So Neal is under no illusions he’ll be able to take Thompson down. If he’s going to win this, it’s likely going to be that he does it while standing.
“I don’t want to waste energy trying to take him down because he’s not an easy person to take down,” Neal said. “It would be stupid for me to try to waste my energy taking him down and him getting up and then look at me, now I’m tired and his striking would flourish after that.
“So right now, I’m working on what I’m really good at and implementing that. And that’s punching people in the face.”
He laughed at the thought, and it’s easy to laugh now, given his full recovery. But 2020 has been a terrible year for Neal health-wise, and health is all any of us really have.
He’s not the type to look back or be fearful. And he knows a win over Thompson sets him up perfectly for 2021 to get to where he really wants to be.
There’s a lot to be said for doing what one loves. And that’s exactly what Neal is doing right now.
More from Yahoo Sports: