UFC 288 breakdown: Wrestling is paramount in Aljamain Sterling vs. Henry Cejudo, so who wins?
MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main event for UFC 288.
UFC 288 takes place Saturday at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. The main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on ESPN/ESPN+.
Aljamain Sterling (22-3 MMA, 14-3 UFC)
Height: 5’7″ Age: 33 Weight: 135 lbs. Reach: 71″
Last fight: TKO win over T.J. Dillashaw (Oct. 22, 2022)
Camp: Serra-Longo Fight Team (New York)
Stance/striking style: Switch-stance/kickboxing
Risk management: Good
+ UFC bantwamweight champion
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt
+ 2x All-American wrestler
+ Regional MMA titles
+ Amateur MMA accolades
+ 3 KO victories
+ 8 submission wins
+ 4 first-round finishes
+ Tricky feints and footwork
^ Variates looks and levels
+ Improved boxing
+ Dynamic kicking attacks
^ Functional from both sides
+ Diverse takedown ability
^ Chains trips, singles and double-legs
+ Crafty transitional grappler
^ Combines funk and submission stylings
+ Dangerous from back mount
Henry Cejudo (16-2 MMA, 10-2 UFC)
Height: 5’4″ Age: 36 Weight: 135 lbs. Reach: 64″
Last fight: TKO win over Dominick Cruz (May 9, 2020)
Camp: Fight Ready MMA (Arizona)
Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
Risk management: Good
+ UFC flyweight and bantamweight champion
+ Olympic wrestling gold medalist (U.S.)
+ Bronze Gloves boxing champion
+ Regional MMA title
+ 8 KO victories
+ 5 first-round finishes
+ KO power
+ Solid footwork
^ Seldom out of position
+ Improved overall striking
^ Coming forward or off of the counter
+ Hard kicks and knees
^ Targets the body well
+ Strong inside the clinch
^ Solid grips/hand-fighting
+ Excellent wrestling ability
+/- Coming off of a 3-year layoff
Point of interest: Kicks and counters
Oct 22, 2022; Abu Dhabi, UAE; Aljamain Sterling (red gloves) and T.J. Dillashaw (blue gloves) during UFC 280 at Etihad Arena. Mandatory Credit: Craig Kidwell-USA TODAY Sports
The main event for UFC 288 features a bantamweight title fight between two championship-level fighters who are familiar with kicks and their associated counters.
Despite not being a traditionally trained striker, Aljamain Sterling has made some undeniable strides in his striking game throughout his UFC tenure.
With his funk style of wrestling initially following him into his striking endeavors, Sterling busted out of the gates as an awkward stick-and-move stylist. But after a few years of valuable lessons and experiences, the Serra-Longo product is much more comfortable expressing himself standing.
Continually switching his stances while moving laterally, Sterling makes himself hard to read or get a beat on. Incorporating his fair share of feints, the 33-year-old traditionally has worked his way into the fight behind a wall of dynamic kicking variety.
From his snapping front kicks and traditional teeps to his Thai kicks that he parlays into sidekicks, Sterling can execute attacks soundly from either stance. Addressing the criticisms of his game at boxing range, the Long Islander has also shown upgrades to his pocket presence.
Attaching more purpose (as well as punches) to his trunk movements, Sterling will now offer everything from checking jabs and hooks to cheeky elbows over the top. Although Sterling’s head can be hard to find at times, his legs and body arguably present more tangible targets that a clever fighter could pick up on.
Enter Henry Cejudo.
An Olympic gold medalist wrestler with some boxing experience, Henry Cejudo initially came onto the scene implementing somewhat of a stick-and-move curriculum. Seldom throwing himself out of position, Cejudo packs cross-hook combinations that are often punctuated with hard kicks to the body.
Back when Cejudo fought Joseph Benavidez, the former freestyle wrestler displayed an upgraded muay Thai arsenal from his time spent at CSA in Northern California. And in his fight with Wilson Reis in 2017, Cejudo took things to yet another level, coming out in a sharp karate stance that he picked up while working down in Brazil with the Pitbull brothers (Bellator’s Patricio and Patricky Freire).
Showing off an improved sense of range, Cejudo appears more capable of timing and countering his opponents precisely with palpable speed and power. That said, Cejudo will need to be mindful of counters himself, particularly when throwing kicks.
Sterling has a knack for countering kicks with takedowns that – as we saw in his second fight with Petr Yan – can lead to some opportunistic openings
Point of interest: Winning the wrestling
May 9, 2020; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Henry Cejudo (red gloves) fights Dominick Cruz (blue gloves) during UFC 249 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Given the current champion’s noted ability to become a human backpack, winning wrestling exchanges should be paramount for both fighters.
A two-time All-American wrestler, Sterling has demonstrated a diverse array of takedowns in his arsenal since arriving in the UFC. From reactive shots in the open to chaining to and from single-legs in the clinch, the 33-year-old champion has shown that he can hit crafty finishes on the feet when he needs to.
But between Sterling not being beyond getting stuffed to Cejudo’s wrestling credentials, secured takedowns are not exactly a certainty this Saturday.
Despite carrying the on-paper edge in the wrestling department, Cejudo has spent a large part of his career in the octagon utilizing it more for defensive purposes.
Henry Cejudo takedown defense and scrambles. pic.twitter.com/7ZiZLDn43f
— Miguel Class (@MigClass) April 25, 2023
From a grappling perspective, Cejudo has traditionally done well at stifling his opponents in the clinch with fundamental hand-fighting and controls (outside of his first fight with Demetrious Johnson, of course). And when Cejudo is able to establish any combination of over or underhooks, the 36-year-old is quick to use those opportunities to hit inside trips or other forms of takedowns that chain off the motion he creates.
Cejudo is not beyond changing his level in the open to score, but he does seem to favor chaining his way toward the clinch to get his takedowns. That said, it should be noted that grappling often only begets more grappling – especially with someone like Sterling.
“Sorry, Will” #UFC273 pic.twitter.com/Zj6QAb5Quk
— Dan Tom (@DanTomMMA) April 6, 2022
A wrestler who’s not afraid to fight out of bad positions, Sterling shows no problems when having to attack or create scrambles off of his back. And once touching down on the mat, Sterling’s funky flow comes even further to life.
Melding his wrestling base into his innovative jiu-jitsu, Sterling will combine things like chair-sits into leg weaves and rides, seamlessly climbing the walls of his opponent’s defenses. Not afraid to jump on a back, Sterling has also shown to be content in punishing opponents positionally, landing solid ground strikes when submissions are not available.
That said, taking Cejudo’s back – much less controlling him positionally – has been incredibly difficult to do due to the former champion’s insane defensive instincts and proprioception. But if Sterling is able to catch a kick and get to the back in a scramble, then I’ll be very curious to see how Cejudo’s defenses hold up.
Point of interest: Odds and opinions
Despite the champion opening as the favorite, public money has come in on the challenger, listing Cejudo -115 and Sterling -105 as of this writing. Aside from the fact that Sterling hasn’t traditionally gotten a lot of love from MMA gamblers, I am not at all surprised to see the betting lines settle toward pick’em odds.
Both fighters carry resumes that are deceptively filled with a lot of strange circumstances, so do not be surprised if we witness some weird moments this weekend.
I suspect that Sterling will have a hard time taking Cejudo down, but the
“Funk Master” needs only a slip or a caught kick to completely change the dynamic of a round (or the fight itself).
The reach discrepancy will also likely have Cejudo pressuring forward for offensive opportunities, which could open up spots for Sterling’s underrated elbows and knees.
That said, I still find myself slightly siding with the challenger here.
Although Cejudo is coming off the longest layoff of his professional career (roughly three years), the former champ-champ has built his brand off of overcoming adversities and has stayed active in coaching roles throughout his first retirement.
Fight Ready is also a gym that has proven its worth in salt in regard to physically and tactically preparing its fighters.
So, with that in mind, I (and I imagine Sterling’s team) will be expecting Cejudo to come into Saturday’s contest in top form. Cejudo is beginning to enter red flag territory being a 36-year-old at bantamweight, but the Olympic gold medalist is an undeniable athletic outlier who typically needs a minute or two to find his proverbial sea legs in fights.
If Cejudo is able to successfully apply his gym’s modus operandi when it comes to leg kicks, then I believe that his chances of building into the other phases of his offense could greatly increase.
Not only will Cejudo have the power edge as the smaller athlete, but the man’s gigantic head appears to be as durable as a 1961 Lincoln Continental with the way in which head kicks (even when thrown by Marlon Moraes) bounce right off of him.
Add in the fact that Sterling has still shown signs of fading in past five-round affairs, and Cejudo could find himself in the driver’s seat if this fight gets into the later rounds.
Regardless of who you favor, I suspect we get a competitive 25-minute fight to close out UFC 288. I wouldn’t mind being wrong on this one, but I’ll side with the wrestling dictation and power shots of Cejudo to sway the judges’ scorecards his way.