Aljamain Sterling’s third consecutive defense of his bantamweight title at UFC 288 turned out to be a highly competitive affair, validating the difficulty that plagued anyone tasked with making a pre-fight prediction. High level fights in deep divisions typically carry with them a number of X-factors, but this matchup seemed inordinately defined by its list of unknowns. 

How would Henry Cejudo look after a 3-year hiatus? Can Aljamain Sterling take down an incredibly stout defensive wrestler with credentials that far outstrip his own? How much would size play a factor, given that Sterling is one of the largest bantamweights imaginable and Cejudo is a former flyweight? If Sterling can get to his favorite and most threatening position, the back mount, how good is Cejudo’s submission defense? 

The best fights usually answer many of the questions asked in anticipation of them, but often they can leave us with new queries as well. 

Moving Forward = Winning?

What was clear right out of the gate at UFC 288 was that Aljamain Sterling knew he needed to press the action both in terms of volume and direction. Even in the opening moments of the fight, an important pattern that would characterize the entire fight was evident – the fighter who moved forward generally found more success.

This is not an uncommon dynamic in MMA and the sheer diversity of offensive options means that it’s a more dubious strategy to lean on responsive tactics rather than taking the initiative. Recently we’ve seen both Leon Edwards and Israel Adesanya flip difficult matchups into more even encounters through increasing their willingness to stand their ground. 

Many MMA fighters use range as their primary method of defense, meaning that they keep a longer distance than is seen in boxing or Muay Thai and look to hop back out of range to avoid their opponent’s strikes. Again, the great variety of different attacks combined with the threat of takedowns makes standing in the pocket and looking to block, slip, or parry strikes more difficult. However, if the go-to response when faced with offense is to retreat, pressuring your opponent to the fence is most easily achieved by throwing out a lot of strikes. 

Sterling’s constant stance switches at UFC 288 facilitated his high-volume pressure by allowing him to quickly close the distance behind the threat of his kicks, which he kept throwing from both stances. The problem was exacerbated for Cejudo because of his shorter reach, which exposed him to the risk of getting caught at a range where Sterling could attack him without Cejudo being able to easily return fire.

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After finding his own success on the front foot in the second round, Cejudo’s corner implored him to be the one moving forward for the remainder of the fight. Even though Cejudo heeded his corner’s advice, Sterling did his best to limit exchanges through a steady diet of reactive takedown attempts. But when it was Sterling with his back to the fence, Cejudo found it easy to sprawl out on Sterling and trap him in the front headlock. Cejudo’s commitment to standing his ground meant that even when Sterling tried to push him back instead he ended up falling into a range where Cejudo could counter him.

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Miguel Class
Miguel Class

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