After handing Vicente Luque his first knockout loss in his most recent outing, Neal (15-4 MMA, 7-2 UFC) was looking to secure a matchup with a top-three fighter in the division. His desired showdown with Gilbert Burns didn’t materialize, and all the while Rakhmonov (16-0 MMA, 4-0 UFC) was calling Neal’s name.
Neal obliged to the request, and despite the hype around Rakhmonov, “Handz of Steel” is supremely confident going into the Jan. 14 clash, which takes place at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas and streams on ESPN+.
“I really feel he’s just good everywhere,” Neal told MMA Junkie. “I haven’t seen anything that’s spectacular that he does. Just as long as my cardio is there and I’m focused mentally, I think I’ll take the win. Easy.”
Despite having just four fights in the UFC, Rakhmonov has garnered much attention in rapid fashion. He’s finished all of his fights with the organization, including a second-round submission of Neil Magny at UFC on ESPN 38 in June. There’s much excitement around his potential, and the UFC clearly agrees as Rakhmonov already has been added to the “EA UFC 4” video game.
Neal, meanwhile, made his UFC debut in February 2018, and despite being on the roster for nearly five years, he’s nowhere to be found in the game.
“At this point don’t even put me in the damn game,” Neal said. “I’m good. You’re going to put Shavkat in there before me? It is what it is. I guess it has something to do with your popularity. I don’t even want to be in the game now. I’m good. Super disrespectful. Don’t put me in the game now. Once I have the belt around my waist, don’t put me in the game. Just leave me out.”
Ultimately, Neal will be ready to put his frustrations aside and take action inside the octagon. His past two wins over Luque and Santiago Ponzinibbio have been among his more notable, but Neal also holds victories over the likes of Belal Muhammad and Mike Perry.
Neal thinks he’s done the work to be viewed as a legitimate contender, and he intends to put himself in the title conversation with a statement performance against Rakhmonov.
“I really feel like if I get through this fight and take him out in the first round, I rally feel like I’ll be in title contention or have a contender fight or something,” Neal said. “I really feel like I deserve it at this point. I’m taking out the guys – I’ve taken out somebody no one else wants to fight – so I feel like I would deserve a title shot after that.