UFC 288: Sterling outpoints returning Cejudo, after Belal’s big decision win

Aljamain Sterling of Jamaica fights against Henry Cejudo during their bantamweight title bout at UFC 288 at Prudential Center on May 06, 2023 in...

UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling secured his third title defence with a split decision nod against two-division champion Henry Cejudo, who acquitted himself well after a three-year layoff but wasn’t active nor urgent enough to consistently trouble the 135lb titlist over 25 minutes. Prior, there were big wins for Belal Muhammad and Yan Xiaonan among others.

Sterling seals third title defence as O’Malley unimpressed

Sean O'Malley and Aljamain Sterling have words after Sterling's victory over Henry Cejudo in the UFC bantamweight championship fight during the UFC...
O’Malley and Sterling are separated after a heated exchange – Dana expects that fight will happen in August

47-48, 48-47, 48-47: Sterling bt. Cejudo via split decision, retains UFC BW title

  • “Hats off to Cejudo, I wasn’t sure which way it [the judges’ decision] would go. A legend, a dog, it’s not an easy task to run through him. His takedown defence [was a surprise], but like I said that Olympic gold medal doesn’t mean shit in the Octagon, persistence gonna shine and I won it with the striking – look at our faces!” Sterling’s post-fight interview
  • Cejudo admits he’s confused about what’s next and may retire after suffering a competitive comeback defeat: “It was close but Aljo did his job, it sucks and I hate losing. My biggest goal was to go up to 145lbs, I’ll go back and think about it, this may be the last of me in the Octagon.”
  • “You better be ready to cut weight, and look better than that,” Sean O’Malley repeatedly says during heated post-fight exchange between #2 contender and champion, as promoter Dana White confirms to press their plan is to book that title fight for UFC 292 in Boston, August 19

Even after tonight, greeted by a chorus of boos as the final scorecard was read out – a feeling only intensified by what happened afterwards – Aljamain Sterling’s detractors will remain. Not that he cares, nor should he. Still the king at 135lbs, as promised.

Former two-division champion Henry Cejudo played the perfect foil in Sterling’s master plan, two more title defences then a featherweight move so his teammate and close friend Merab Dvalishvili can get a championship shot of his own.

Not everyone is Jon Jones and the longer this went, his three-year absence became increasingly apparent against a champion growing in confidence and showing as much despite many picking holes in the legitimacy of his current reign.

R1 was close but Sterling edged it. Cejudo got a big pop after securing an early takedown against the fence, before Aljo had two of his own in quick succession then finished the round on top. That optic is largely decisive for any scoring judges.

The defending champion’s forward pressure was apparent early in R2, as he couldn’t allow Cejudo an opportunity to meticulously plan attacks three steps ahead.

A high head kick landed flush for the Olympic champion, in what quickly became leg kick roulette with both landing heavy strikes.

Sterling outworked his adversary, but still the danger lurked and was in full display after showing some indecision when he shot for a takedown.

His corner were right to flag that up between rounds, getting lazy with head movement as Cejudo caught him clean too easily.

1-1 through 10 minutes, Sterling landed a series of kicks early in the third. A flying knee and follow-up punch connected for Cejudo, as Sterling defended himself in a grappling exchange, then looked to secure a takedown up against the fence.

Great clinch strikes were working for the champion, though former two-division champion Daniel Cormier criticised Sterling’s failure to set-up his takedown attempts, making it easy for Cejudo to counter with better defence. A step through trip takedown saw Cejudo finish R3 on top, in another competitive stanza.

Aljo was told, in no uncertain terms, not to go back ‘on all fours’, as he looked vulnerable there – a distinct difference to his stand-up game – while Cejudo found himself punished for lacking significant output during their lull moments.

The fourth was another competitive round, Cejudo getting the crowd amped up with significant shots – perhaps it lulled him into a false sense of security.

That being said, Sterling eventually got back to flicking out his jab, landed multiple calf kicks, and showed his physical strength with aplomb.

He reversed a head lock position and secured a takedown up against the fence, showing awareness and repeated willpower to block Cejudo’s brighter moments.

Volume was needed in the fifth by the challenger and he obliged: chasing the champion early, failing to cut off the Octagon as Sterling happily circled around the cage, keeping him at distance and content absorbing some kicks as a consequence.

Cejudo landed a big right, moments after a sneaky left got through, as well as some low kicks to boot. Knees to the body in the clinch did the trick, as the crowd roared him on for a furious finish – but he needed more. It simply wasn’t enough.

This was a good, tactical battle between two world-class fighters with little to split them over 25 minutes. Ultimately the right man won, and now Sean O’Malley will relish the impending task of dethroning a champion many still haven’t warmed to.

Belal’s big win overshadowed by an injured Burns

Belal Muhammad embraces Gilbert Burns of Brazil after their welterweight bout at UFC 288 at Prudential Center on May 06, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey....
Belal embraces Burns (right), who was visibly compromised with a left arm injury

Belal Muhammad [4] bt. Gilbert Burns [5] via UD5 (50-45, 49-46, 49-46)

Through no fault of his own, Belal Muhammad stepped up to the plate on short-notice – 16 days after Ramadan ended – thrust into a five-round co-main event slot that finally had title implications at 170lbs. He’s now on a nine-fight winning streak.

The problem was, the man standing opposite him in the cage was insistent just last month that his next fight would be for welterweight gold. How quickly things change, as they did in the build-up to this impromtpu matchup.

Burns was rightly applauded for his activity and willing attitude, stepping into the breach after Charles Oliveira vs. Beneil Dariush was moved to the June 10 UFC 289 card in Canada following the Brazilian’s recent injury. It ultimately proved costly.

He was visibly compromised by the midway point of round one: unable to throw, set up takedowns or intelligently defend with his left arm – as Durinho’s corner urged him to throw kicks, bite down on his mouthpiece and walk through the pain.

That approach was much easier said than done for a 36-year-old who, aware of the championship circumstances at stake, couldn’t help but feel sorry for himself.

Why now? Why here? Muhammad couldn’t focus on the specifics of the injury as he still absorbed some big shots for his troubles and was largely content to overwhelm him with volume (132 significant strikes landed), keeping him at distance.

Instead of gain the credit this win would’ve normally received, Belal has come under scrutiny for a failure to finish a one-armed competitor as his title push has only been accelerated with this latest effort. Leon Edwards won’t be worried after watching this.

Rest of main card

Yan Xiaonan of China reacts after her knockout victory over Jessica Andrade of Brazil in a strawweight fight during the UFC 288 event at Prudential...
Xiaonan reacts after her R1 stoppage vs. Andrade, who didn’t see the counter coming

After a six-fight win streak in the promotion was snapped rather emphatically by former two-time strawweight champion Carla Esparza two years ago this month, Yan Xiaonan [6] suffered a split decision defeat by Marina Rodriguez ten months later.

She responded with a majority decision win over Mackenzie Dern in her first five-round main event, and began her new multi-fight contract extension with aplomb.

A first-round finish against former titlist Jessica Andrade, catching her clean with a counter right as the Brazilian overextended, shaking up the 115lb division once more.

Top of the women’s strawweight rankings
Champion: Zhang Weili
1: Carla Esparza, pregnant and expecting her first child
2: Rose Namajunas, who hasn’t fought since losing title
3: Amanda Lemos, R3 TKO vs. Marina Rodriguez in November
Andrade was #4 heading into this weekend, #5 ranked Marina Rodriguez lost to #9 ranked Virna Jandiroba on the prelims

She turns 34 next month and 2023 marks her 14th year as a professional, so perhaps there’s no better time than now as far as her title ambitions are concerned. But all things considered, some perspective is needed after such an impressive win:

#10 ranked featherweight Movsar Evloev was the card’s biggest betting favourite after finding himself against a short-notice opponent, one making his UFC debut no less.

28-year-old Brazilian Diego Lopes might’ve been underestimated because of his relatively low profile among the casual audience, but certainly gave the 16-0 unbeaten Russian all he could handle over 15 minutes to the surprise of most.

That included a pair of particularly tight submission manoevures that had the 29-year-old in trouble on the ground, something he conceded during his post-fight interview after what quickly evolved into a Fight of the Night encounter.

The PPV opener was also at featherweight, albeit a grim watch as Charles Jourdain thoroughly outpointed Kron Gracie over 15 minutes, as the Brazilian ended a three-and-a-half year layoff but didn’t win any new fans with his dated fighting style.

Prelim, early prelim results

Matt Frevola punches Drew Dober in a Lightweight bout during UFC 288: Sterling versus Cejudo on May 6 at Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.
Frevola (left) became the first fighter to knockout Drew Dober in 21 UFC fights

Lightweight: Matt Frevola bt. Drew Dober via R1 TKO (punches)
Light-heavy: Kennedy Nzechukwu bt. Devin Clark via R2 sub (guillotine choke)
Welterweight: Khaos Williams bt. Rolando Bedoya via split dec (27-30, 29-28, 29-28)
Women’s Strawweight: Virna Jandiroba bt. Marina Rodriguez via UD (29-28 x 2, 30-27)
Heavyweight: Parker Porter bt. Braxton Smith via R1 TKO (punches)
Middleweight: Ikram Aliskerov bt. Phil Hawes via R1 KO (punches)
Catchweight (189lbs): Claudio Ribeiro bt. Joseph Holmes via R2 TKO (punches)

Up next: UFC Charlotte on May 13, headlined by heavyweights – Jairzinho Rozenstruik [9] vs. Jailton Almeida [12], with LHW contender Anthony Smith and welterweight hopeful Ian Garry featuring on intriguing Fight Night card

Picture source: Getty Images