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Jon Anik talks ‘underappreciated’ Aljamain Sterling, burning questions about Henry Cejudo before UFC 288

For Jon Anik, the upcoming bantamweight championship main event between Aljamain Sterling and the returning Henry Cejudo is happening at the right time.

Sterling vs. Cejudo caps off Saturday’s UFC 288 fight card at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Anik, who will call the action alongside Joe Rogan and UFC Hall of Famer Daniel Cormier, admits he was somewhat lukewarm on the idea of Cejudo getting a title shot in his first fight after coming back from a three-year retirement, but as the matchup gets closer and closer, the longtime play-by-play voice is excited for it.

“I think for a lot of us, in a true meritocracy in what we would argue [No. 1] through 75 in the UFC’s deepest division, 135 pounds, there’s a wealth of No. 1 contenders,” Anik told MMA Fighting. “Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera was title shot worthy before he took the Cory Sandhagen fight. I told him not to take that fight. So there was not a lack of contenders, and I think even the undisputed UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling was outwardly surprised when he polled the masses between Henry Cejudo and Sean O’Malley, and there was a lot of support for Henry Cejudo.

“I would even take it a step further and suggest to you that I feel like maybe Dana White even had some initial reluctance to immediately let Henry Cejudo return into a championship setting. But I do think when you look at all factors, internal metrics, what Henry Cejudo has accomplished as a combat sports athlete, the opportunity for Aljamain Sterling, in my mind, to cement himself as the greatest bantamweight of all-time with the strength of a win over Henry Cejudo, there’s a lot at play.

“My enthusiasm, my appetite for this fight has sort of perpetually steadily grew as opposed to my reaction for Belal Muhammad and Gilbert Burns, which as soon as it was announced, I just didn’t even know what to do with my hands or my feet.”

Sterling looks to defend his title for the third time, while also putting his eight-fight win streak on the line. “Funk Master” captured the title via disqualification, went on to defend it in a close fight against the man he defeated via disqualification to win the belt in Petr Yan more than a year later, then stopped T.J. Dillashaw at UFC 280 in October, a fight that has not aged well due to Dillashaw revealing that he entered the bout with a shoulder injury.

In Anik’s eyes, Sterling is one of the more undervalued fighters on the roster, yet still has a case with another win or two to solidify himself as the best fighter in the division’s history.

“Well, I think it’s tri-fold really: I think No. 1, no undisputed champion in UFC history has won the title for the first time quite like the way he did against Petr Yan at UFC 259,” Anik said of how fans view Sterling. “Then the T.J. Dillashaw fight left people feeling short changed because Dillashaw came in with a devastating, potentially career-ending injury. So there’s those two factors, and then, just in the court of public opinion, or in terms of mass appeal, he was someone who had to, I think, gradually resonate with people. It was sort of a gradual appreciation for those of us that maybe didn’t know exactly who he was and what he was all about early on.

“Ray Longo has even suggested that I sort of planted my flag on that athlete even before Ray himself had, that I thought that the ceiling was championship and I really felt like he had the mettle to go with the back taking and all of the other skills. But he’s married to the game. He’s smart when it comes to his training. He’s not afraid to have some recreational time after a fight and then get back to it, he knows his body exceedingly well. He has masterfully set up training camps in both Las Vegas and New York, knows exactly what he needs to prepare for these championship fights.

“With respect to the incumbent greatest bantamweight of all-time Dominick Cruz, who is one of my best friends in the world — if I got married this weekend, he might even be a groomsman — but when you look at Aljamain Sterling’s body of work, and you look at the length of this unbeaten streak, were he to be able to add a finish of Henry Cejudo to this legacy, heaven forbid a win over Sean O’Malley thereafter, Aljamain Sterling is one of the greatest bantamweights of all-time, if not No. 1, and certainly still underappreciated despite the wealth of UFC accomplishment.”

For Cejudo, he returns for the first time since stopping Dominick Cruz at UFC 249 in May 2020, where he announced his retirement. Many have wondered, including Anik, about why the Olympic gold medalist and former two-division champ is coming back to compete.

“If ever there were an athlete on this roster top to bottom who could come back and do so with flying colors after an extended layoff like this, I think it’s Henry Cejudo,” Anik explained. “Now we did notice that he had a pretty significant cut that seemed to happen early on in this training camp, so perhaps that had some sort of factor in terms of the optimal nature of this training camp. But I pulled out my Henry Cejudo notes earlier today and just the appetite for training, the appetite for knowledge, altitude capsules, cognitive work, nutrition, brain analysis, all of that was accompanying his championship run while he was still here.

“Now, he’s had the opportunity as the mental giant that he already is to step away and watch film and be a coach and ingest everything that the sport has had to offer. He has stepped away [from the] physical, to be sure, but mentally, I think he’s even more embedded than he was when he left. So I do think it stands to reason that he could come back and be great. But yeah man, the five-round cardiovascular base is always gonna be a question for me touching down on that octagon canvas. You can simulate it as best you can, but it’s just different being in an active competition cycle.

“And I guess my wide ranging question is why did he come back? Perhaps we’ll get a clear answer in the fighter meeting as to whether or not it was financial, or if he really eventually sees this as a path to becoming ‘C-4’ and dethroning Alexander Volkanovski or Yair Rodriguez in becoming a three division UFC champion. And how long is he gonna be here? Because I don’t know that either, but who knows if we’ll get clear answers in the fighter meetings, but I’m very excited to see what he can do, especially given this extended layoff.”

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