If UFC 288 didn’t look like the most star studded PPV on paper, unfortunately it also failed to exceed expectations. Both the main event between Henry Cejudo and Aljamain Sterling, and the co-main between Belal Muhammad and Gilbert Burns ended with the crowd loudly booing the winners as they made their case for future title fights they planned on booking. Not a great way to wrap up an event.
So, can Sean O’Malley bring the heat to Aljamain Sterling’s next bout in the Octagon? Does anyone want to see Leon Edwards rematch Belal Muhammad for the welterweight title? And is Yan Xiaonan about to make for an all-China strawweight championship bout?
To answer those questions—plus a few other things—I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking methodology from the UFC of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. Hopefully, by following that model, a few of these bout ideas will actually make it off the page and into the Octagon. Now, let’s get to the fights!
It really is remarkable how great a resume Aljamain Sterling has managed to build atop what still feels something like a house of cards. He’s clearly very, very good—no doubt one of the very best bantamweights on the planet. In fact, it seems almost cruel not to simply call him the best bantamweight in the world, considering that he has victories over Cejudo, Dillashaw, Yan, and Sandhagen at this point. But other than Sandhagen, whom he thoroughly dominated, those other victories feel like strange circumstantial breaks or near scrapes. Sterling has yet to find his title defining performance.
This win over Henry Cejudo was solid. He scrambled excellently with ‘Triple C’, even taking him down at one point. He out-struck him from range, and he did well to survive any close-in exchanges. He kept Cejudo from ever really finding his fight until the final round. But, it wasn’t pretty, and it never feels like Sterling is having the fight he wants to have. Which is something that truly defines the very best fighters at the elite levels.
Still, much like Belal Muhammad’s bout set him up for what seems to be a surefire next booking, Sterling’s next opponent in the Octagon appears to be already set in stone. Unlike ‘Remember the Name’ however, it’s the champion having his challenger thrust upon him. Sean O’Malley was cageside for UFC 288 and more than happy to jump into the ring for an impromptu face-off with the the ‘Funk Master’. Sterling said he wanted the fight for September, and the UFC has five PPVs planned between July and October. So I guess we should expect them to meet at UFC 291, 292, or 293. Sean O’Malley vs. Aljamain Sterling is on the horizon.
It’s almost a shame that Henry Cejudo didn’t get the nod against Aljamain Sterling. Not because I think that Cejudo vs. O’Malley is some kind of obviously, instantaneously better fight or anything. But, purely because I’m sure Sterling had other plans to continue fighting even if he lost, and Cejudo apparently put every single last one of his eggs in the ‘just win baby’ basket.
Despite a hard scrabble, competitive five round performance off a three year layoff, Cejudo seemed entirely dumbfounded by the idea that he’d failed to get his hand raised after the fight. Not even necessarily upset that it had been scored against him, but just that he hadn’t considered anything of what he might do if he walked out of the Octagon that night without the belt.
He took his gloves off in the cage and intimated that he might be done with MMA altogether, but he was barely back in the first place. If anything, it looks like his UFC 288 fight was a break from retirement more than retirement was a break from him fighting. That’s kinda too bad, because Cejudo’s a fun fighter to watch. Even off a loss I wouldn’t mind seeing him test his luck at 145 for the pure carnival aspect of it. How would he do against Max Holloway? Probably bad! But who cares, throw him in there.
Given Dana White’s long held disinterest at seeing Cejudo make that jump, it almost certainly doesn’t happen now. Which means we have to reckon with the idea of Cejudo at bantamweight in a non-title bout. Part of me wants to argue for a fight with Merab Dvalishvili. It seems like a very obvious booking. More than that, though this is the time to get Deiveson Figueiredo out of flyweight. Figueiredo vs. Cejudo is must see action.
I don’t really know how this fight would have played out had Gilbert Burns not apparently injured his arm sometime early in the fight and spent the rest of the bout essentially one handed. But, the way it ended up was more or less in line with my expectations. Which is to say that while Burns is a hard-throwing striker standing, when he can’t get takedowns, his kickboxing can get awfully predictable.
For a crafty fighter so used to fighting behind his jab as Muhammad is, that always felt like a bout ‘Remember the Name’ could take over the longer it went. It wasn’t a thriller in the end, but it was a rock solid win for the man training out of Chicago Fight Team.
Unfortunately for the UFC, this was also a hard reminder of why the promotion hates to promise people title shots ahead of fights. By the end of this contest, the crowd was thoroughly disinterested in the whole thing and booing Muhammad relentlessly after the final bell. Muhammad tried to turn that into some heel heat, but it didn’t really feel like it got him anywhere. There’s a reason that the UFC has been so loath to run him up to title contender status, and this was it.
That said, they did make the damn promise, and they absolutely should stick by it. There’s no reason that Belal Muhammad should take any other fight beyond a chance at UFC gold. For the UFC’s part, they’ll have to hope that it’s Covington, because the idea of an Edwards/Muhammad rematch as a PPV headliner is one of the least thrilling PPV propositions of all time. Might be the first welterweight title fight to lose top billing to a flyweight bout. Belal Muhammad vs. the Edwards/Covington winner is the fight that Muhammad has earned.
A remarkably great performance from Yan Xiaonan considering the swarming pressure that Jessica Andrade can bring, and a remarkably miserable performance from Jessica Andrade—who looked gunshy and like she was swimming through cement from the jump. Andrade has done a lot of moving between weight classes lately, and it’s worth wondering if the cut isn’t now taking a bigger toll on her than it used to.
She looked incredibly unsure of herself approaching Yan in the cage, and the results were the kind of flurries that just about any fighter should have been able to make her pay for. It’s still a credit to Yan that she did the job, but it’s hard to think of a prolonged series of exchanges where Andrade has looked so lost.
After the fight, Xiaonan made a roundabout callout of champion Weili Zhang, which doesn’t seem like a fight she’d be lined up for, but everyone other than Amanda Lemos is coming off a loss right now in the top 5—and Andrade almost certainly would have been first in line if she’d beat Xiaonan. Maybe Lemos gets the fight, but I did argue that Lemos should be fighting Jandiroba. So, what the hell… Yan Xiaonan vs. Weili Zhang for the China vs. China title battle.
Given the short notice nature of this booking and all of Movsar Evloev’s success to date, this wasn’t nearly the walkover that it looked like on paper. Diego Lopes came to bang things out on the feet standing whenever he could get the chance, and to attack constantly on the ground from every position possible. That meant that while Evloev still dominated the longest portions of the fight, every time Lopes got something going it seemed like he came within a hairsbreadth of getting the finish. Was he ever actually that close? Who can say…
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