UFC 288: Aljamain Sterling, Henry Cejudo headed in opposite directions after close title fight

Henry Cejudo said he tried to climb Mount Everest, and took little solace that he nearly reached the summit. The 2008 Olympic gold medalist ended a three-year retirement from the UFC with a near-miss. He dropped a split decision to bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling in the main event Saturday of UFC 288 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.

It was a fight that could have gone all the way, with all three judges scoring it 3-2 in rounds. Mike Bell had it 48-47 for Cejudo, giving the one-time flyweight and bantamweight champion Rounds 2, 3 and 5. But he was overruled by judges Derek Cleary and Eric Colon, who each scored it 48-47 for Sterling. Cleary gave Sterling Rounds 1, 4 and 5 and Colon gave him Rounds 1, 2 and 4. Yahoo Sports had it 48-47 for Sterling.

It was a brilliant performance by an exceptional champion, but it was also an incredible performance by a guy who is now 36 and hadn't fought since the early days of the pandemic.

"The guy is freaking smart," Sterling said of his vanquished opponent. "I don't think a lot of people could even appreciate what was going on in the middle of that Octagon. Both of us [were] making adjustments to each other's adjustments. It was a high-level, physical chess match."

Cejudo praised Sterling and spoke of how awkward he was to fight. Cejudo has repeatedly referred to himself as the greatest combat sports athlete of all time, but when he was asked if he felt Sterling deserved to be regarded as the best bantamweight ever, he gave him extraordinary praise.

Cejudo expects a lot of himself and, as a result, is often harsh on others. But when he mulled over the question, he gave a surprising answer.

"I think he is," Cejudo said.

That's open for debate, but Sterling's record, particularly recently, is not. In his past five fights, he's beaten three former champions, downing Petr Yan twice, T.J. Dillashaw and Cejudo. He also submitted Cory Sandhagen in the first round and Sandhagen is ranked, at this point, No. 3 in the bantamweight division.

Sterling has been unfairly mocked and ridiculed because he was the victim of an illegal, and very ill-advised, knee thrown by Yan. He came back to beat Yan, ran through Dillashaw and then bested one of the best in UFC history.

He may not be the best bantamweight in UFC history, but he's not far.

His height and range were problems that Cejudo never fully solved, and Cejudo was left lamenting missed opportunities. All three judges gave Sterling the first, a round Cejudo felt he had in hand.

"I let that first round slip away," Cejudo said. "He kind of stole it after I'd taken him down. I relaxed too much against the cage. I probably should have respected his cage a little more. I was trying to catch a breather in there."

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - MAY 06: Aljamain Sterling react after his victory over Henry Cejudo in the UFC bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 288 event at Prudential Center on May 06, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Aljamain Sterling plays to the crowd in Newark, New Jersey, after a split decision win Saturday over Henry Cejudo in the main event of UFC 288 at the Prudential Center. (Chris Unger/Getty Images)

It was the kind of fight where the most minute errors were magnified. Cejudo isn't sure what the future holds for him. UFC president Dana White praised him for his effort after the long layoff, but said he believes in ring rust and it's hard to overcome such long layoffs.

"Even Muhammad Ali," White said. "He was gone for three years and when he came back, he was never the same. I'm not saying he wasn't good. He won a lot of fights and he did some great things, but he was never the same as he was before those three years."

Cejudo's wife, Karolina, is pregnant with the couple's second child. Cejudo said he never wanted to fight as a father because the life of a fighter requires one to be selfish. He did it Saturday, but he's not sure whether he has another in him.

He seemed to be leaning toward it, though, when reporters pressed him about various potential fights and he talked about the UFC showing him the money.

"Even these last two to three months, not being able to give my kid that attention. ... I'm a good father and I love spending time with my kid," Cejudo said. "I love playing with her. But it's just like, cutting weight, not holding her, kind of neglecting her, having a lot of my training partners play with her. That's the stuff that, I know a lot of you guys don't give a f***, but to me, time with my kid means the world to me."

As Cejudo faces an uncertain future, Sterling knows exactly what's in store for him. White confirmed that he'd face No. 2-ranked Sean O'Malley on Aug. 17 in Boston. O'Malley came into the cage Saturday to confront Sterling. Things got heated between them and nearly became physical, as Sterling vowed to destroy him. Sterling hopes the win over Cejudo will finally earn him respect from the keyboard warriors who take to social media to taunt him with words they'd never dare say to his face.

Sterling clearly has been tired of it all.

"Put some respect on my name," he said after he went out and earned that respect. Asked about O'Malley, he started to breath fire.

"My thoughts on Sean O'Malley are that that mother f***er is frail," Sterling said. "Frail. If I can take down a short, stocky guy like Henry who is actually a gold medalist and has good takedown defense, what am I going to do to Sean O'Malley? Let's be honest here, guys. Yeah, he was promised a title shot. He opted not to take the title shot and gave Henry a chance to come back and chase history. I beat Henry and now there is no more running.

"You either want to swim with the big boys or you don't. If you don't, get the f*** out of the pool."