Henry Cejudo is back, but for how long?
On Saturday, Cejudo returns to the cage after a three-year retirement to challenge reigning bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling in the main event of UFC 288. It’s a battle between the former two-division champ and the man who has brought stability to 135-pounds since Cejudo’s sudden retirement. Who will reign supreme? Let’s dive in to find out.
Paths to Victory for Aljamain Sterling at UFC 288
To become a UFC champion, you have to be able to do everything at a high level, but insofar as there are specialists in this day and age, Sterling is one of them. The Funk Master’s game is defined by his ability to create contact and initiate grappling sequences from there, be they takedowns or scrambles. Once he can create that sort of engagement, Sterling is arguably the best back-taker in MMA, and he excels at maintaining that position either until the round expires or he can secure a finish. This is going to be key for him against Cejudo.
Cejudo is an Olympic gold medalist wrestler. Those don’t come around every day. No disrespect to his NCAA Division III accolades, but Sterling isn’t winning a wrestling match with Cejudo. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to, as most of Sterling’s best work comes from tie-ups and clinches, were he can sneak his way to the back or create a scramble and find his way to the better position. Every time they clinch, it’s another opportunity for Sterling to find his way to a fight-winning position.
Now let’s talk about the striking.
Sterling is three inches taller and has a seven-inch reach advantage over Cejudo, and it shows whenever they stand near each other, but he’s still not a great striker. Don’t get me wrong, he’s competent, and he throws decent kicks, but everything has a general feeling of discomfort — like he’s throwing strikes because he’s afraid of not throwing them. Cejudo, by contrast, has a much more natural feel for striking, and has shown a good ability to adjust to his opponents and create offense off of their tendencies. For a rote striker like Sterling, that can present serious danger.
In my opinion, Sterling is best served by acting like a true out-fighter: All the way out, or all the way in. Stick a jab in Cejudo’s chest and chop kicks in, making Cejudo explode in to cover distance and land offense. When Cejudo does, either circle away, or grab those tie-ups. Never get stuck in the intermediate range with Cejudo. Make him work around your physical attributes. At some point, Cejudo will start gambling much more to create his offense, opening up opportunities for Sterling to find his way to prime positions.
Paths to victory for Henry Cejudo at UFC 288
Power shots, baby!
Much has and will continue to be made about Cejudo’s Olympic gold medal, and it should be. Cejudo is at worst the third-best wrestler to ever seriously pursue MMA, with a legitimate case to be top overall. That’s awesome, and it’s plays a major role in his MMA game. But in this fight, it’s probably not a good idea to lean on that.
As mentioned above, Sterling is an elite MMA grappler. He’s not a very successful wrestler statistically, but that doesn’t matter because mostly he wants to create scrambles and find his way to dominant position. Cejudo should do everything in his power to limit those chances, mostly by keeping this fight upright, and preferably not hanging out in the clinch too long.
My preferred path to victory for Cejudo is in his surprisingly sophisticated striking game. Cejudo’s striking game is a bit stripped down but he backs it up with an exceptional mind for the game. Watch Alan Jouban talk through Cejudo dropping Dominick Cruz here. The man uses layered offense to create opportunities. Against Sterling, those opportunities are going to be there as the champion still prefers to limit engagements by constantly circling and switching stances. This means Sterling ends up standing square an awful lot, and assuming Cejudo can get his reads early like he’s been known to do, Triple C can find success attacking in these interim moments. Cejudo is certainly faster on the feet and looks to have more power as well, so I would advise him to lean into that on Saturday.
Or, Cejudo could just score a bunch of takedowns under the assumption he’s a good enough top position grappler to win the fight from there. After all, he is an an exceedingly good wrestler in his own right.
There are two main questions heading into this fight, and both surround Cejudo: How we he look coming off a three-year layoff, and will his age catch up to him?
On the first point, it’s hard to say. Ring rust is very real for some fighters and doesn’t show up at all for others. Will it effect Cejudo? No clue. My best guess is no since Cejudo is already somewhat of a slow starter, but if it does, things heavily tilt in Sterling’s favor. More concerning though is the age consideration.
REMINDER: Record of UFC fighters over 35 years old between 125 & 170 in title fights: 2-28. Those 2 belong to Tyron Woodley.— Luke Thomas ️ (@lthomasnews) April 30, 2023
WRT to #UFC288, Aljamain Sterling is 33 years of age. Henry Cejudo is 36.
Of note, Cejduo was 33 in his last UFC bout in 2020 against Dominick Cruz.
Not a single fighter 35+ in title bouts below 170 pounds has ever won. That is an alarming stat, to say the least. Now, you can make the argument that Woodley was able to buck this trend because he is an incredible athlete, and Cejudo is certainly one of those, but it’s still very concerning, particularly when you add in the layoff. Is Father Time finally going to catch up to Triple C?
Sports in general, and MMA particularly, are not the purview of the old. Cejudo is one of the better athletes to ever step foot in the octagon, but he is almost certainly past his athletic prime, and that will be a huge blow for a fighter who, even at his best, often relied heavily on his burst and explosion. Add in the fact that Cejudo isn’t competing at his ideal weight-class and this has the makings of a tough night out. Sure, Cejudo has won at bantamweight, but the Marlon Moraes win aged like milk, and even at the time beating Dominick Cruz felt iffy. Meanwhile, Sterling has been consistently defeating the best opponents 135-pounds has to offer, for nearly five years. That’s enough to give me confidence in picking him here.
Aljamain Sterling def. Henry Cejudo by unanimous decision
Who wins at UFC 288?
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