5 biggest takeaways from UFC 288: Main event’s top prize wasn’t the title

What mattered most at UFC 288 in Newark, N.J.? Here are a few post-fight musings …

5. A massive win for China

May 6, 2023; Newark, New Jersey, USA; Yan Xiaonan (blue gloves) react to defeating Jessica Andrade (red gloves) during UFC 288 at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Who would’ve just a few years ago that the foundation was being laid for an all-China title fight in 2023?

The UFC has done an excellent job of cultivating talent in areas that were long underdeveloped in MMA. While the spotlight has been mostly on Mexico lately, and its trio of UFC gold title-clad champions Brandon Moreno, Alexa Grasso and Yair Rodriguez, China’s talent crop is rapidly improving, as well.

With Yan Xiaonan’s impactful, statement-making TKO win over Jessica Andrade on Saturday’s main card, she positioned herself perfectly in an otherwise uncertain division to get the next crack at champion Zhang Weili.

While the UFC’s travel schedule is seemingly a logistical nightmare at times and it’s unclear what the feasibility is an event in China could take place, a Weili vs. Xiaonan title fight should be massive for that market regardless of where it happens.

With the UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai and the “Road to UFC” series continuing to platform top talent from all around Asia, this matchup will be the first China vs. China title fight – but far from the last.

4. In MMA, your background helps you – but it can't save you

May 6, 2023; Newark, New Jersey, USA; Aljamain Sterling (red gloves) fights Henry Cejudo (blue gloves) during UFC 288 at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

In MMA, the selling point of a fighter sometimes becomes what they’ve accomplished before their feet ever touch down on a UFC canvas. And weirdly enough, sometimes it overshadows their abilities inside the cage. But it’s important to remember while wrestling, jiu-jitsu and boxing are all helpful foundations, MMA is a different beast where sometimes the math doesn’t add up regardless of the gold medal or black belt a fighter has.

A Division-III collegiate wrestler took down and controlled an Olympic gold medalist Saturday in the UFC 288 main event. While Cejudo succeeded in the wrestling department, too, he couldn’t rely on his wrestling enough to completely nullify Sterling there.

Then there was Kron Gracie, who perhaps had the most disappointing performance of any athlete on the card – or in recent memory. While Gracie always has been a project in development, brought into the spotlight by his excellent jiu-jitsu credentials, once again a cagefight proved to be different.

Gracie struggled to muster up any offense and was even controlled on the ground by opponent Charles Jourdain, a fighter with four submission wins in 21 professional fights. He looked like a jiu-jitsu fighter in MMA, rather than a budding MMA prospect with excellent jiu-jitsu abilities. Herein lies the problem.

While it’s all well and good to promote fighters based off of accomplishments in other combat sports, just always remember: MMA hits different.

3. When he wasn't handed respect, Belal Muhammad took it instead

It’s a tired statement at this point, but no less true: Belal Muhammad does not get the respect he deserves.

How can someone justify any position other than Muhammad being the rightful next title challenger? A legitimate argument to the contrary does not exist.

Just look at the scorecard sweeping co-main event performance Saturday. It’s a bout he took on short notice to save the UFC’s butt, and I hope he was rewarded amply (monetarily) for the risk despite the reward of a title shot.

As for the apparent arm injury Gilbert Burns sustained, I hope first and foremost he is OK. He’s one of MMA’s good guys. At the same time, unless he entered this fight debilitated, I don’t think the injury can be used to demean Muhammad’s victory.

Why? Because, well, Muhammad was likely responsible in some way, shape, or form for Burns’ impairment. It’s a fight. That’s the goal.

Hopefully after his domination of Burns, things change. Sure, critics can say his fights don’t top Fight of the Year lists. When it comes to his talent and ability to win a fight, the man hasn’t been handed credit – he’s had to take it.

2. Merab Dvalishvili continues to be a wild man

When all eyeballs were on Sean O’Malley and Aljamain Sterling as they barked at each other in a rare in-cage faceoff, Merab Dvalishvili somehow found a way to both totally fly under the radar and completely steal the show.

Dvalishvili picked up O’Malley’s Michael Jackson “Thriller” era-style jacket during the post-fight kerfuffle. Most people would probably hold it, or maybe since O’Malley was on the opposite team, a toss to the ground would be disrespectful enough.

Instead, Dvalishvili went one step further – grinning ear to ear the entire time.

In quick-witted move Dvalishvili put the jacket on and slid into the background of the frame, visibly proud of his doing. It wasn’t until Dvalishvili hopped up on the cage that O’Malley noticed and went to retrieve his clothing. Dvalishvili’s move broke the internet.

In a world full of crazy and whacky individuals, Dvalishvili continues his ascent to the uncharted territory of “flying f*ck-lessness.” Since he split his head open diving into an iced-over pond in February 2021, it’s been evident. But in recent weeks, Dvalishvili has been spotted scaling arena rails with a broken hand at a UFC event to get at a crap-talking fan, tempting fate on a ledge of an Italian high rise, and even allowing unidentified lady friends to test their grip on his genitals in an unorthodox rear-naked choke defense seminar.

Dvalishvili is the No. 1 contender and he won’t fight the champion, which puts him in a weird place. It’s unclear what’s next for him. But regardless of whether or not he fights, the MMA community can all enjoy the hell out of whatever entertainment he provides in the meantime.

1. The biggest prize won during the UFC 288 main event

Sean O’Malley

In certain regards, the UFC 288 main event felt like a title eliminator rather than a title fight. Not in terms of talent, but in terms of promotion this rang true.

O’Malley was prominently featured front and center cage-side and even brought in the cage for a rare faceoff with Sterling immediately afterward.

While his star power in a pay-per-view headlining scenario has not yet been tested, it’s safe to say at this point O’Malley will likely draw the biggest amount of eyeballs to a bantamweight title fight in quite some time.

The targeted placement of this fight in Boston seems intentional, to pit a Irish-surnamed budding star against a New Yorker with a title on the line.

The UFC is in the star-creating business and alongside O’Malley has done an excellent job of crafting him into one – a really damn legitimate talent.

While the jury is still out on who will be favored to win, it seems indisputable who has the biggest star power in this division right now.

It’s kind of awkward for a champion to come in with less buzz than a challenger, yes, but when it comes down to pay-per-view buys, Sterling should (at least internally) be thrilled things are playing out as they are.

Not only will he likely pocket more pay-per-view buys than he has before, there’s a very solid chance he could steal O’Malley’s thunder and momentum, at least partially.

One way or another, circle (with pencil) Aug. 19 on your calendars, folks.

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie