Aljamain Sterling looks to become the first fighter to record three straight successful defenses of the UFC bantamweight title, but much of the talk surrounding his next championship bout is centered around his opponent. That’s because UFC 288 also marks the return of two-division champion and Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo. “The King of Cringe” walked away from competition on his own terms in 2020, but marches right back into a title shot when he takes on Sterling at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. this Saturday.
MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Alexander K. Lee, and Damon Martin sit down to figure out what Cejudo has planned for his future (if any) and discuss the biggest storylines heading into UFC 288.
1. Is a Henry Cejudo win on Saturday what’s best for business?
Al-Shatti: In the short term? Sure. Henry Cejudo is an objectively bigger name for the UFC than Aljamain Sterling. He’s improbably managed to not only maintain some relevance over his three-year layoff, but his profile is comparable today to what it was when he walked away in 2020 due to the work he’s put into coaching and content creation. All credit to him. As cringe as his persona often is, the Olympic gold medalist and former two-division champ is still likely to draw more eyeballs to the UFC bantamweight division as champion than Sterling, who despite all his successes, isn’t exactly a fan favorite among the MMA masses.
But in the long term? Cejudo winning could be a nightmare for the division.
It’s no secret at this point what the objective is here for Cejudo. If he wins at UFC 288, he’s going to stick around at 135 pounds long enough to get his payday against bantamweight’s cash cow (Sean O’Malley), then he’s going to try to move heaven and earth to finally get his shot at the UFC featherweight crown. Regardless of whether the UFC bites or not, that just means further clogging up one of the best divisions in the sport, for a fight that won’t be any more lucrative than your average featherweight title bout, which would likely lead to long stretches of inactivity and confusion at the top of the 135-pound ranks, with the threat of another sudden retirement and vacated belt forever looming around the corner.
Sterling may not be the UFC’s most popular figure, but he’s still an active champ who fights contenders and keeps the train moving at bantamweight. I’m not convinced Cejudo’s star power is meaningful enough to offset the potential headaches his second reign may bring.
Lee: It’s funny that the guy who left the UFC high and dry three years ago could suddenly bolster one of its hottest divisions with a win on Saturday.
Look, I hate Cejudo waltzing back into a title shot. I hate it. Even given his undeniably impressive credentials, it’s not like he had this indomitable championship run that justifies him leapfrogging over a slew of worthy contenders. And I’ve still yet to see concrete evidence that he’s a draw outside of Cejudo constantly saying it to anyone who will listen. Frankly, for a guy who was an Olympic champion and a two-division UFC champion, it’s kind of embarrassing how little mainstream cachet he has.
All that said, I’m convinced that the only reason Cejudo has been granted the title shot is because the UFC has some assurances that he will stick around for a few more fights and not just walk away again after receiving a pay-per-view paycheck. If that’s the case, then there are definitely opportunities to be seized.
Cejudo vs. Alexander Volkanovski for the featherweight title? Intriguing. Cejudo vs. Sean O’Malley? Kind of weird, but I’m into it. Cejudo vs. Umar Nurmagomedov? Oh look, Henry is retired again.
The point is that, as loath as I am to admit it, Cejudo at least knows how to market himself — and that’s a major asset to the UFC, which hasn’t typically excelled at creating stars. He’s also a hell of a fighter, and the threat of him coming back from a long layoff and shaking up multiple apple carts is enough to convince me that Dana White will be more than happy to wrap a title around his waist again.
Martin: When Henry Cejudo pulled off the upset to beat Demetrious Johnson and become flyweight champion, that kicked off arguably one of the best four-fight runs in the history of the UFC. He never again had to face Johnson, who left to join ONE Championship, but instead Cejudo demolished then-bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw in just 32 seconds in a flyweight title fight, and then he moved up to 135 pounds to become a champ-champ while scoring back-to-back wins over Marlon Moraes and Dominick Cruz.
It looked like Cejudo was poised to become exactly the kind of star the UFC had always wanted in either the bantamweight or flyweight divisions. But then a funny thing happened out of nowhere — Cejudo abruptly announced his retirement.
Most believe Cejudo was hoping that the UFC would suddenly fall over in despair about possibly losing him and offer hefty eight-figure paychecks to keep him competing. That never happened, so Cejudo sat out for the past three years until finally deciding it was time to return — which brings us to UFC 288, where he will challenge Aljamain Sterling for the bantamweight title he never lost in the cage.
Now the reason for that whole history lesson was to show that Cejudo was wildly unreliable back then, when it seemed like he was on top of the world at the peak of his physical prowess. So what’s to stop Cejudo, who just turned 36 two months ago, from winning at UFC 288 and then pulling the same move again or maybe even hijacking the title so he can go up to 145 pounds and potentially face Alexander Volkanovski in an attempt to become a three-division champion?
That’s long been a goal for Cejudo, and unless he would just give up the belt again, the thriving bantamweight division would just get put on hold again.
It’s thanks to Cejudo’s unpredictable decision to retire back in 2020 that a win over Sterling puts the UFC right back in a position to either cater to his demands or just let him walk away again. Sterling may not be the most popular champion on the roster and he’s openly shut down any chance that he’d ever face teammate and best friend Merab Dvalishvili — which could arguably be the most intriguing storyline the UFC could sell to consumers when promoting a future pay-per-view — but he’s also reliable enough to know he’ll still be around come Sunday morning and he’ll face whoever the UFC throws at him next.
There’s absolutely no telling if Cejudo would even entertain doing the same.
2. Can Belal Muhammad or Gilbert Burns swoop into a welterweight title shot?
Martin: There’s a real possibility that Gilbert Burns or Belal Muhammad earns a title shot at UFC 288, but only if the winner is willing to sit and wait for the better part of the next year, with absolutely no guarantees that a championship fight would actually happen.
For some unknown reason, the UFC seems dead set on Colby Covington — who is riding an impressive one-fight win streak — on getting the next shot at welterweight champion Leon Edwards. As much as Edwards has scoffed at Covington being declared the No. 1 contender, he only holds so much power when it comes to the title wrapped around his waist, which means more than likely he’ll end up doing exactly what the UFC wants.
Burns and Muhammad should both be showered with praise for stepping up on extremely short notice to fill a much-needed co-headlining spot on UFC 288’s pay-per-view. The UFC adores when fighters are willing to make those concessions to save an event, but considering both of them were rebuffed when asking for Covington as an opponent, it seems like a lock that Covington is still going to get that next title shot.
So that means the best Burns or Muhammad can hope for is a backup role to the title fight between Edwards and Covington, before then moving on to face the winner, most likely sometime in 2024. That’s entirely possible.
As far as the winner jumping over Covington and challenging Edwards next? Yeah, Dillon Brooks had a better chance at actually shutting down LeBron James in the playoffs, and we all know how that turned out.
Al-Shatti: In a just world, yeah, of course a title shot would be up for grabs this Saturday. Belal Muhammad and Gilbert Burns are both infinitely more deserving than the division’s least active contender, and the fact that Muhammad could potentially reach a 10-fight unbeaten streak without being guaranteed the next welterweight title shot is patently absurd, especially when you consider Muhammad and Burns stepping into this spot and mortgaging their momentum on two weeks’ notice to help save a lackluster card.
Both welterweights are taking bigger career risks at UFC 288 than Colby Covington has taken over the past four years, especially Muhammad. Ideally, they’ll be rewarded for that. I’m just not convinced they will be — or at least not in the way they should. Because sure, there’s a decent chance the winner of UFC 288’s impromptu co-headliner swoops into a welterweight title shot for their next fight. But that doesn’t mean Saturday’s winner will actually displace Covington. From everything I’ve heard and continue to hear, the UFC remains dead set on doing Edwards vs. Covington next come hell or high water.
Instead, the best outcome Saturday’s winner can hope for is the exact scenario my pal Damon Martin so presciently laid out above me — a backup role to the eventual Edwards vs. Covington title fight in late 2023, then a potential shot at the winner, which likely means wasting away on the sidelines all the way until some time in 2024. Fun times at 170 pounds!
Lee: Outside of Burns or Muhammad landing a four-second flying knee knockout, I struggle to picture a scenario where the UFC guarantees either fighter anything. And even that might not do it.
Once Leon Edwards defends against Colby Covington (and trust me, they’re not veering from those plans), regardless of who wins, they’re not going to just anoint the UFC 288 co-main event victor a title shot. It’s never worked that way for Burns and Muhammad and it’s not going to start now. They’re both well-liked and recognized as company men, which is why they agreed to book this fight to add some substance to Saturday’s main card, but the problem with being a company man is that the company usually doesn’t feel like it has to pay you back. Whenever their runs with the promotion end, it’s just going to be so long and good luck (and maybe not even the good luck).
So they’ll be happy to put Burns or Muhammad on standby, while considering other options. If Covington wins, Kamaru Usman will be chomping at the bit for the chance to beat him a third time and regain his belt. If Edwards wins, he’s expressed zero interest in rematching Muhammad after their March 2021 no contest, and he’s more likely to target a fight with someone like Stephen Thompson than Burns, fair or not. And then there’s the looming Shavkat Rakhmonov, who could end up passing both guys.
If the UFC had plans for Muhammad or Burns to fight for the title, Covington wouldn’t be getting a shot in the first place. So I don’t see how the events of UFC 288 will change much.
3. What undercard fight is most intriguing?
Lee: You don’t need to look much further than the fight that precedes our previous two points of discussion: Jessica Andrade vs. Yan Xiaonan.
Nothing is guaranteed with Andrade, a two-division threat who is currently in the top 5 of both flyweight and strawweight in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings, but it makes a lot of sense for Andrade to stick around at 115 pounds after she cuts back down to that weight this Saturday. Her only losses in this division are to Zhang Weili, Rose Namajunas (who Andrade beat in their first fight to claim a belt), and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. With Namajunas nowhere to be seen, Zhang needs a challenger, and a rematch with Andrade fits the bill.
On the other hand, a fresh matchup with fellow Chinese star Yan Xiaonan makes a ton of sense if Yan gets past Andrade. Yan and Zhang have always spoken highly of one another while also not shying away from a potential fight, and you can bet the UFC would love to market this pairing to their home country. You could argue there’s a lot more money to be made from a Zhang vs. Yan fight than a Zhang vs. Andrade rematch.
Then there’s the fact that Andrade fights always frigging rule, and when you throw her in there with a gamer like Yan, you’re guaranteed excitement. The strawweight division continues to be an underappreciated source of bangers, don’t make me say it again.
Martin: The featherweight fight between Movsar Evloev and Bryce Mitchell is a fascinating matchup between two top grapplers, but the only real answer to this question is the fight that will headline the prelims when Drew Dober faces off with Matt Frevola.
There’s not as much on the line in that matchup, but Dober is a Fight of the Night machine just waiting to be unleashed, and Frevola has always lived in his life by the philosophy of go big or go home. That’s the kind of fight where you just sit back, grab some popcorn, and wait for the explosions to start erupting.
Maybe Dober pulls off another jaw-dropping finish, or perhaps Frevola scores the upset and picks up a third straight knockout. It’s entirely possible Dober and Frevola just throw caution to the wind and beat the hell out of each other for 15 minutes and provide the kind of violence candy that we’ll all be savoring well after Saturday night is over.
Whatever the outcome, these two are likely going to steal the show, and it’s going to be a whole lot of fun to watch them do it.
Al-Shatti: Damon was oh-so-close to stumbling upon the right answer, only then he pivoted away from the grappler’s delight that has all the makings of a great time.
Give me anything involving either Movsar Evloev or Ilia Topuria at 145 pounds and I’m all in. These two men are at the vanguard of featherweight’s next generation and it’s only a matter of time before every conversation about 145 pounds involves either one or both of their names. It’s a tough ask for Bryce Mitchell to land both as back-to-back assignments, but plenty of people would’ve included Mitchell in that same conversation of top-tier featherweight prospects as well before UFC 282, so Saturday is a perfect opportunity for Arkansas’ finest to reclaim all the momentum he lost this past December.
There’s always a good chance two prodigious mat masters nullify each other into a subpar kickboxing match anytime they meet, but Evloev vs. Mitchell feels like the type of aggressive grappler vs. grappler showdown that’ll actually live up to expectations.
UPDATE: Aaaaaaaand it’s gone.