UFC 288 took place last night in Newark, New Jersey, and while it wasn’t as eventful or entertaining as UFC 287 last month for example, it still had plenty of talking points. Aljamain Sterling successfully defended his bantamweight title for the third time after a razor-thin split decision win over Henry Cejudo. His next fight was then set up with Sean O’Malley entering the cage to face off with him. Meanwhile in the co-main event, Belal Muhammad extended his unbeaten streak with a dominant unanimous decision victory over Gilbert Burns.
With plenty of other major talking points, here are five things we learned from UFC 288.
Henry Cejudo is still elite and showed little signs of ring rust
Henry Cejudo was competing in his first fight since May 2020 and although there were some small signs of ring rust which is only natural, he looked like he never left for the most part. Of course, he did struggle with the reach at times and that’s also natural given that Sterling had a massive seven inch advantage, but that aside, Cejudo took shots well, made great adjustments, defended a number of takedowns, landed three takedowns of his own and had a solid argument for winning the fight. In fact, Cejudo would have won if judge Derek Clearly had scored the fifth round to him — only to bizarrely give it to Sterling.
Judging aside, if this is Cejudo in his first fight after a three-year hiatus, one can only imagine how much better he’ll be in his next fight should he opt to continue fighting.
Aljamain Sterling secures his money fight with Sean O’Malley
It was a close fight, but Sterling came out on top in his first UFC main event. As a result, he now has three consecutive title defenses which is the most for any bantamweight champion in UFC history. Prior to UFC 288, Sterling stated how he didn’t have many fights left in the bantamweight division with Cejudo and Sean O’Malley being his last two potential opponents before eventually moving up to 145 and challenging featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski. With the face off with O’Malley, Sterling’s manifestation is clearly coming true.
SEAN O’MALLEY ENTERS THE OCTAGON TO CALL OUT STERLING #UFC288 pic.twitter.com/6WREFjS9cc
— UFC (@ufc) May 7, 2023
It will also serve as a “money fight” for Sterling as O’Malley is a huge name not only within the sport, but with casual fans as well. One would imagine Sterling would be a pretty big favorite for it as well with the plan being for it to take place at UFC 292 in Boston later this year. But money aside, leaving the bantamweight division with four title defenses against the likes of Petr Yan, TJ Dillashaw, Cejudo and potentially O’Malley would certainly be some legacy.
Belal Muhammad earns his UFC title shot (again)
Belal Muhammad had a case for a title shot before UFC 288, and now it’s only further cemented. The Chicago native dominated Gilbert Burns on the feet to win a comfortable unanimous decision victory in the co-headliner last night. Although Burns was severely compromised and didn’t use his left arm at all after seemingly injuring it in the first round, it was still an impressive showing from Muhammad who is now undefeated in his last 10 outings.
Colby Covington is still guaranteed the next title shot which should happen later this year. Barring any crazy circumstances, Muhammad will be next, and if current champion Leon Edwards successfully defends against Covington, the storyline is already there for Edwards vs. Muhammad II.
UFC strikes gold with Weili Zhang vs. Yan Xiaonan matchup
Yan Xiaonan earned arguably the biggest and most impressive win of her UFC career after a first-round knockout victory over former champion Jessica Andrade. She has now won two in a row while she is 8-2 in the UFC overall. Xiaonan called for a title fight with fellow Chinese compatriot and current champion Weili Zhang in her post-fight interview soon after and UFC president Dana White seemed receptive to the idea of making it happen in China during his post-fight press conference.
Given the COVID restrictions, it remains to be seen if a return to China is possible. But there’s always the option of doing it in Singapore — having a significant Chinese population — especially after last year’s successful UFC 275 event. And while a Chinese vs. Chinese fight seems counterproductive, if anything, it shows how far the nation has come in the sport in such a short amount of time.
Any hype for Kron Gracie’s return was unwarranted
Like Cejudo, Kron Gracie was also returning to action for the first time since 2019 and there was definitely some hype and anticipation for his return. But as the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder and the reality is any excitement for Gracie’s return was completely unwarranted. It was a poor performance from the Gracie family member who was extremely limited in his approach by repeatedly pulling guard and was even butt scooting at one point in the fight.
It drew criticism from fans while even White was not impressed. Relying on jiu-jitsu alone would worked 20 to 30 years ago, but today, one simply has to mix up all the arts to do well at this level. After this performance, it’s hard to see anybody getting excited for Gracie’s next fight…assuming he’s not given a gimme opponent next.
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