For Aljamain Sterling, there’s more on the line than just his title.
“Funk Master” goes for the third straight defense of his bantamweight championship when he faces the returning Henry Cejudo in the main event of UFC 288, a matchup that seems fitting given Sterling’s strange run at the top so far.
After winning the title from Petr Yan by disqualification (the only fighter ever to acquire a UFC belt in this fashion), Sterling won a narrow split decision in their their rematch, and then received little credit for running through a compromised T.J. Dillashaw. Now he takes on a former two-division champion who is coming out of retirement after three years on the sidelines. Even with a win, it’s impossible to guess how Sterling’s reign will be viewed after this one.
For Henry Cejudo, he’s playing with house money. The Olympic gold medalist waltzed right past a loaded contenders’ line into a title shot and is already angling for a superfight with featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski. Nobody enters the octagon looking to lose, but should Cejudo fall short of his ambitious comeback plans, he can simply enjoy his payday and return to civilian life and none will be the wiser; if he wins, the self-proclaimed “King of Cringe” could take his act to a whole new, insufferable level.
In other main card action, Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad meet in a fight that should make the winner the No. 1 contender for the welterweight title, strawweights Jessica Andrade and Yan Xiaonan also compete in a matchup with title implications, Movsar Evloev takes on short-notice replacement Diego Lopes, and grappling ace Kron Gracie returns from a layoff of over 1300 days to fight Charles Jourdain in a featherweight bout.
What: UFC 288
Where: Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
When: Saturday, May 6. The card begins with a three-fight early prelims portion on ESPN+ at 6:30 p.m. ET, with continuing coverage of the four-fight prelim card on ESPN and ESPN+ beginning at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Aljamain Sterling (1) vs. Henry Cejudo
I’ve picked against Aljamain Sterling in his past two title defenses and it’s about time I learned my lesson. He’s stayed sharp as an active champion while Henry Cejudo has been on vacation, which gives him a major advantage in my eyes. Yes, we just saw Jon Jones return from a long layoff to win the UFC heavyweight title in dominant fashion, but Cejudo ain’t Jones.
Much like with T.J. Dillashaw, I think people will be surprised at just how much bigger Sterling is than Cejudo on fight night. Sterling is on the larger end of the bantamweight scale while Cejudo is a natural flyweight, so size is a factor here, more so in how it affects the striking as opposed to the grappling. Much of the exchanges will take place at range and that favors Sterling, who has shown he can do damage from distance even if his combinations are lacking.
The size difference will impact their wrestling too as Sterling’s strength makes him difficult to take down. Conversely, I don’t expect him to be able to put Cejudo on his back either, but taking Cejudo’s back is another matter altogether. Look for Sterling to try and bully Cejudo against the fence when Cejudo closes the distance and surprise the Olympian by outmaneuvering him for choke attempts.
A lot of that is easier said than done, of course, because Cejudo is so damn skilled and has incredible fight I.Q. Sterling will have a difficult time upping his aggression because Cejudo will box him up if he advances irresponsibly. And while it won’t be easy for Cejudo to take Sterling down, it’s by no means impossible. Having to respect Cejudo’s wrestling offense will slow Sterling’s attacks.
As much as I’ve complained about Cejudo receiving an undeserved title shot, this has all the makings of a fascinating chess match and I expect it to develop masterfully over five rounds, with Sterling earning a competitive decision win.
Belal Muhammad (6) vs. Gilbert Burns (5)
Belal Muhammad, this is your time.
For a moment, let’s put it aside the debate over whether this fight truly has No. 1 contender stakes or if it was just put on this card for convenience’s sake following the postponement of the original co-main event between Charles Oliveira and Beneil Dariush. Let’s instead focus on what a fantastic showcase this should be for both men.
Muhammad has taken a lot of flack in the past for a few forgettable decision wins, which is fair, but I believe that he’s shown another level of offense in his past few fights. At 34, his skills have caught up with his talent and it’s now or never for him to show that he belongs in the top 5 welterweight discussion, which is fitting as he now faces No. 5 Gilbert Burns.
Burns is a model for how one can alter the course of their careers with a strategic weight change as he’s been fantastic since committing to 170. Before his loss to Khamzat Chimaev and the rise of Leon Edwards, Burns was firmly positioned as my No. 2 welterweight, so trust me when I say that picking Muhammad to beat him is a serious vote of confidence for the Chicago native.
Skill-for-skill, you can make a strong case for Burns being the better fighter, but the fact that this is five rounds tilts the odds in Muhammad’s favor for me. He’s a cardio machine and if he can avoid the early blitzes of Burns (keep in mind, Muhammad has been finished once in 26 fights) then he’ll look even better as the fight goes on. When Burns starts headhunting and going for homerun swings in the later rounds, Muhammad will stick with a steady diet of singles and doubles to frustrate him.
Those hits add up and eventually Muhammad will circle the bases enough to win a decision and leave no doubt that a title shot is in his future.
Jessica Andrade (3) vs. Yan Xiaonan (7)
This matchup, on the other hand, should be front and center in the strawweight contenders’ discussion.
With respect to Rose Namajunas, who has two wins over current champion Zhang Weili, the division can’t wait for her to return any longer and Zhang needs a challenger. You don’t have to look much further than Jessica Andrade, the woman Zhang beat to win her first title, and Yan Xiaonan, Zhang’s countrywoman.
As impressive as it is that Andrade has excelled in two weight classes, it’s at 115 where her next title opportunity should happen. In this division, the Brazilian powerhouse has only lost to Zhang, Namajunas (who she has also beaten), and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, so it’s only fair that Yan go through Andrade to earn her first championship fight. Andrade is a buzzsaw no matter what weight she’s competing at and if Yan wants to go hammer and tongs with her, it could be a short night for the Chinese contender.
Where Yan can win this fight is with sharp, tactical striking, which happens to be her specialty. She has fast hands and attacks with volume and accuracy whether she’s advancing or countering. She also has great cardio, which could give her the edge if this is a fast-paced 15-minute fight.
In the end, I have to go with Andrade because of her finishing ability, though it’s possible that Yan can do enough of a Jedrzejczyk impression to eke out a decision. My money is on Andrade overwhelming her with power though and scoring a knockout in the second round.
Movsar Evloev (10) vs. Diego Lopes
Mutant matchup alert!
This spot on the card originally belonged to Bryce Mitchell and Jonathan Pearce, but Movsar Evloev was called upon to replace an injured Pearce on short notice and a Mitchell injury precipitated an even shorter-notice call to the debuting Diego Lopes. So Mitchell vs. Pearce mutated into Evloev vs. Lopes. You’ve got to love it.
Credit to Lopes for accepting a fight against a top 10 opponent on less than a week’s notice, a risk that could pay off if he cores the biggest upset of the card, but it could also get his UFC career off to an ignominious start if he is brutalized by Evloev as expected.
This is no disrespect to the experienced Lopes, but Evloev has simply fought and excelled against a significantly higher class of competition than Lopes. He’s a plus athlete who mixes his striking and wrestling beautifully and as long as he’s not overlooking Lopes, he takes this fight by however he wants.
The only question is whether he can finally earn an elusive UFC finish, which I think he does in the first or second round.
Kron Gracie vs. Charles Jourdain
Charles Jourdain is the savvy pick here with both youth and MMA experience on his side. We saw how Kron Gracie struggled against Cub Swanson and while Jourdain isn’t Swanson, he does have the striking to make Gracie’s comeback a painful one if he can’t get Jourdain to the ground.
It’s been three and a half years since we’ve seen Gracie fight and we’ve heard little from him in the interim. He hasn’t even participated in any official grappling competitions. Henry Cejudo fought more recently than Gracie! If he’s serious about fighting again, he has to focus on his strengths and not look like he’s auditioning to be an influencer boxer. Just do the jiu-jitsu thing, Kron.
He’ll have to improve his takedowns if he’s going to force this fight to the ground and I’m not confident that Jourdain is susceptible to that game. Gracie is no spring chicken at 34 with plenty of combat sports wear and tear, so it will only get harder for him to impose his will on the fight as the bout progresses.
I understand the intrigue around Gracie as his grappling is truly a thing of beauty, but his inability to mix the martial arts effectively will be his downfall here. Jourdain beats Gracie on points or possibly takes him out in the third.
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Marina Rodriguez (6) def. Virna Jandiroba (12)
Braxton Smith def. Parker Porter
Ikram Aliskerov def. Phil Hawes