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UFC 288 has been nipped by a snake. I don’t want to say snake bitten as the UFC brass has done well to fill in the lost fights with quality replacement fights. But it isn’t just the lost fights that has held UFC 288 back from being the card it should have been. The main event, while it hasn’t suffered any changes due to injury, has been nipped by a snake too.
Aljamain Sterling has suffered from a pair of circumstances that were beyond his control. Fans have been sour towards him since he won the bantamweight title via DQ from an illegal Petr Yan strike. It didn’t matter that Sterling beat Yan in the rematch; it was a close enough contest that the stench remained. After that, many declared his next defense to be a load of bunk when TJ Dillashaw entered the contest compromised with a bad shoulder, basically ensuring a Sterling victory. It isn’t Sterling’s fault Dillashaw entered with the injury, but it did cheapen the quality of the win and hurt his ability to build up his legacy.
Cejudo’s legacy has taken a hit too. His most recent wins haven’t aged well, the last one coming three years ago. Cejudo retired at a time when most would say he was in his prime, perhaps wasting away his chance to solidify his status as an all-time great. Perhaps that’s why he’s coming back. Regaining the belt he never lost would be one hell of a statement. The question is whether his King of Cringe schtick has driven away more fans than it has endeared….
Aljamain Sterling vs. Henry Cejudo | Bantamweight Championship
This is one of the most difficult fights to decipher in a long time. It’s hard to know where either combatant wants to take the fight. Cejudo is the more powerful puncher, but Sterling’s length and ability to keep opponents at the end of his kicks and punches could prevent Cejudo from landing something heavy. Cejudo is a superior wrestler – he did win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling — but he’s also 36 and fighters tend to wrestle less as they get older. Plus, Sterling is one of the craftiest grapplers on the roster.
Whether Cejudo can remain effective over five rounds is a question too. After all, three years is a long time to be away from the sport. And while Cejudo’s punching power does make it more likely he’d secure a finish of the two combatants, Sterling has proven durable over his career. Sterling has also gone five rounds recently without gassing. Sure, he was fading hard in his first contest with Yan, but he learned from it. Cejudo has gone five rounds, but that was almost five years ago. Asking him to go five rounds without a tune up from his absence is a tall ask.
Perhaps the long absence was good for Cejudo and will allow him wrestle effectively. After all, Cejudo had been competing in combat sports for a long time, going from wrestling into MMA. That’s three years of wear and tear that he won’t have on his body. It isn’t just that he didn’t put any additional wear and tear on his body; it also allowed him to heal up any long-term injuries he might have been dealing with at the time. Despite his age, Cejudo could very well be in the best physical state he’s been in for a long time.
However, it’s also fair to question Cejudo’s ability to make a comeback. After Cejudo won Olympic gold in 2008 – when he was 21 – he took an extended break from the sport. In fact, it was roughly the same amount of time he has been gone from the UFC. Despite still being young, Cejudo was unable to even make the US Olympic team, much less defend his top spot at the games. Is it an indication that Cejudo doesn’t have the fire in his belly to climb the mountain once he’s been to the top? I’m not so sure.
When Cejudo first began his MMA career in earnest, he struggled to make weight. He missed weight in his first flyweight contest and even had his UFC debut canceled due to medical complications from his weight cut. He never missed weight after that. It seems more likely Cejudo was young and foolish, thinking he could just turn it on whenever he wanted. After all, he won an Olympic gold medal at 21. Cejudo has matured since then… provided you believe his King of Cringe really is a schtick.
There’s reason to question where Sterling’s head is at too. He’s been talking about moving up to featherweight. While I understand the weight cut being more difficult as he gets older, it’s never a good sign when I fighter begins talking about moving up in weight. Kamaru Usman was doing the same thing prior to losing his belt to Leon Edwards. Could he be looking past Cejudo, taking his eyes off the prize?
Then again, Sterling has also been increasing in confidence as his reign progresses. Sterling has been carrying himself every bit the champion that he is. There’s a fine line between confidence and overconfident, but Sterling is one of those who performs better the more confident he is. He’s studious as well, finding holes in his opponents game. Plus, taking next to no damage from his Dillashaw fight means he didn’t spend a lot of time rehabilitating in between fights.
There’s no way in hell for anyone to feel confident picking this fight. There’s so many intangible questions and curiosities on how they match up against one another that it’s impossible to say how the fight turns out. My picks haven’t been great in these close fights as of late, so I’m going to lean towards statistics in this case. Sterling is two-and-half years younger than Cejudo and has a 7-inch reach advantage. It sounds too simplistic, but I’ve already explored just about every other avenue and couldn’t find anything to sway me one way or the other. That’s enough for me to go with Sterling.
Prediction: Sterling via decision
Click here for all that’s interesting with the UFC 288 prelims and here for the rest of the main card.
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