Aljamain Sterling defied the odds once again as he took out former two-division champion Henry Cejudo to defend his title in the UFC 288 main event.
It was a back-and-forth battle over all five rounds but Sterling managed to keep his lead in the scoring thanks to solid striking, takedowns and superior grappling at opportune times to secure the victory. When the fight was over, two judges scored the fight 48-47 for Sterling with the third judge handing the same 48-47 score to Cejudo.
That was still enough for Sterling to get the nod and earn arguably the biggest win of his career.
“Hats off to Henry Cejudo,” Sterling said afterwards. “I wasn’t sure which way the decision was going to go. I thought I had it 3-2. I wish I could have done a little bit better. Henry’s a f****** dog. He’s a legend.”
It was a war of attrition across all 25 minutes with Sterling and Cejudo definitely both having their moments, although there were no near finishes so that likely made scoring even tougher when the fight was over.
There was a lot of movement from Sterling early but closing the distance backfired with Cejudo grabbing a body lock that transitioned into a quick takedown. Sterling was quick to get back to his feet before pressing the action again while using his reach advantage to keep Cejudo on the end of his punches and kicks.
Sterling then reversed fortunes by taking Cejudo to the ground where he began blasting away with knees to the body before nearly taking the back just before the opening round ended.
When Cejudo started getting more aggressive, he connecting with more of his strikes but he was still struggling at times to deal with the size and length from the reigning bantamweight champion. Sterling was also sticking a straight left in his face and then following with a stiff leg kick that continued to chip away at the 2008 Olympic gold medalist.
With urging from his coaches after the second round, Cejudo started throwing with a lot of power, perhaps sensing that he needed to finally turn the tables on Sterling. Cejudo slammed home a pair of knees that definitely got Sterling’s attention but the New York native was quick to close the distance, which allowed him to once again impose his power in the clinch.
Sterling was working for takedowns and he managed a nasty knee of his own that clipped Cejudo as he was stuck playing defense. When the fighters separated, Sterling was shooting for the legs from distance, which allowed Cejudo to stuff him with a good sprawl and display the wrestling that made him the best in the world.
With 10 minutes remaining, Cejudo really started ratcheting up his forward pressure and that allowed him to tag Sterling with some of his best punches. In return, Sterling was throwing a straight punch and a calf-kick that was really chipping away at Cejudo’s foundation.
Cejudo was still landing punches but he was typically only connecting with a single shot at a time, although he was connecting with more power than Sterling. For the first time all fight, Cejudo was just popping Sterling on the feet and he even managed a late takedown just before the clock ran out.
Sadly for Cejudo that just wasn’t enough as he lost the split decision, which left him questioning whether or not his fight with Sterling would ultimately be the last of his career.
“He’s tougher than what I thought,” Cejudo said. “He’s a gamer. It’s been a few years but no excuses.
“It was close but Aljamain did his job, he got the victory. I think we go back and think about it. If I’m not first, I’m last. Who knows this may be the last time you see me in the octagon.”
Almost as soon as the fight was over, Sterling turned his attention to Sean O’Malley, who soon made his way into the cage for a heated faceoff with the champion. Things nearly turned ugly after O’Malley got into an altercation with Sterling’s teammate Merab Dvalishvili but security intervened before anything got out of hand.
“’Suga Sean,’ where the f*** you at b****?” Sterling shouted. ““Daddy Dana [White] ain’t gonna babysit that ass no more. So why’d you run? Why’d you turn down the title shot? That’s what I thought. Cause I’ll drag your ass up and down this octagon. Get the f*** out my cage. Get this piece of s*** out my cage.”
As he came nose-to-nose with Sterling, O’Malley was answering back as the fighters continued to snipe at each other.
“You better hope you look better than that,” O’Malley said. “You look like s***.”
The stage is now set for Sterling to clash with O’Malley later this year in what will undoubtedly become one of the most anticipated fights in bantamweight history. As for Cejudo, he appears reticent to commit to another fight, although he’s not making any decisions yet about where his career will take him.