Aljamain Sterling (Justyn Likes/Combat Press)

UFC 288: Sterling vs. Cejudo Preview and Predictions

Cinco de Mayo weekend is typically the biggest weekend of the year in boxing. However, on Saturday, May 6, the mixed martial arts world is putting on its own big fight card, when it returns to the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. for the ninth time. UFC 288 will feature the return of Mexican-American former double champion Henry Cejudo, as he looks to take back his bantamweight title against the incumbent champion Aljamain Sterling. The fight will take place nearly three years after Cejudo retired and vacated the title.

Sterling won the bantamweight belt in controversial fashion, picking up a disqualification victory over Petr Yan in Mar. 2021. He would then go on to retain the title in a close fight when the pair rematched in Apr. 2022. His next title defense against T.J. Dillashaw came under scrutiny, when it was revealed that Dillashaw had a severe shoulder injury and shouldn’t have taken the fight. This fight against a former two-division champion is his chance to solidify his legacy as champion. For Cejudo, a victory would be a monumental occasion, as he looks to jump right back to the top of the deepest division in the sport.

The co-main event came together at the last minute, with Belal Muhammad and Gilbert Burns agreeing to compete in a five-round fight with potential status as the next title challenger in the welterweight division. Muhammad hasn’t lost since 2019, and the only blemish on his record since then is a no-contest against current champion Leon Edwards. Edwards unleashed a hellacious eye poke early in the second round of their fight. Should he come out on top, there is a built-in story line for a rematch with Edwards. Burns fought less than a month ago and absolutely rag-dolled Jorge Masvidal en route to a unanimous decision victory. Should he come out on top this weekend, it would be three straight wins since his war with Khamzat Chimaev.


Opening up the main card is the return of Kron Gracie. The son of all time great submission grappler Rickson Gracie has not competed since losing for the first time as a professional mixed martial artist. He returns to action against Charles Jourdain, a fighter who will likely try to keep this fight standing as long as possible.

The UFC 288 early prelims air live on ESPN, ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass at 6 p.m. ET. The preliminary card stays on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The main card airs on ESPN+ pay=per-view starting at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go toe-to-toe.

It will be almost exactly three years since his last fight when Henry Cejudo steps into the cage this weekend; does the former double champ reclaim the title he relinquished when he retired?

Sumian: It is hard to know what type of Henry Cejudo we are going to get this coming Saturday. The former flyweight and bantamweight champion has been out of the game for so long, while Aljamain Sterling has looked better than ever and has defended his belt. The bantamweight division is so deep, and there is certainly a case to make that other contenders were more deserving of this opportunity. Nevertheless, this fight is happening and the two clashing personalities should put on a good show.

Despite being known as the “King of Cringe,” Cejudo can certainly fight. His last run in the UFC was nothing short of impressive which included victories over Demetrious Johnson, T.J. Dillashaw, Marlon Moraes and Dominick Cruz. However, the bantamweight division has only become more competitive during the former champion’s absence from competition.

Cejudo is a prolific wrestler capable of taking down and controlling not only wrestlers, but far stronger opponents. He utilizes his stocky build to quickly explode and get under the striking guard of his opponents before executing a perfect takedown. Prior to his retirement, his striking had only gotten better. However, he averages less than 50 percent in both striking and takedown accuracy. His strength is overwhelming his opponents with volume, which he is more than capable of doing given his stellar cardio. The only question that we really have going into this fight is how Cejudo is going to look after layoff of almost three years.

Sterling may rival Cejudo for the King of Cringe, but he has definitely proven he deserves to be considered the current king of bantamweight. Sterling has rattled off eight straight wins over the likes of Cory Sandhagen, Dillashaw, and Yan. His game plan generally revolves around utilizing his athleticism and strength to get in close and eventually land a takedown, so that he can gain top control. Sterling is one of the more powerful fighters at 135 pounds, and his strength has served him well during his UFC run. I do not believe a win over Cejudo cements Sterling as a GOAT, but it will definitely help in building his legacy as a premier UFC fighter when it is all said and done.

Whatever happens in this fight, it is going to end in a split decision. It will be close, controversial, and likely not as eventful as people hope. Both are great fighters, but I believe their respective game plans will cancel out and lead to a competitive, drawn-out decision. I favor Sterling to win by a close margin, given he is the active fighter and has the home crowd advantage.

Petela: There aren’t many things that I dislike more than having to agree with Andrew. This fight will be won by Aljamain Sterling. Fortunately for me, Andrew is wrong that it will be a close split decision, and I can explain why and how he is wrong about that.

Three years away is a long time, especially when the return bout comes at age 36 in the lower weight classes, where fighters typically age out earlier. I expect Henry Cejudo to be a step slower than he was in his last contest, when he captured the belt from Dominick Cruz. That will pose a major problem for him against someone as fleet-of-foot as Sterling. Sterling’s movement will keep Cejudo from implementing a wrestling-heavy game plan early on in the fight, and all of that attempted offensive wrestling will tire out the former champion. Once Cejudo is feeling the fatigue of a fight for the first time in several years, he will begin to get picked apart on the feet by Sterling, who uses strikes from strange angles to set up his own wrestling offense.

The superior MMA wrestler in this showdown will be Sterling. That might even be the case if the Olympic gold medalist wasn’t coming back from a long layoff. Sterling scrambles incredibly well, and his slick submission skills make him the all-around better grappler between the two fighters. By the third round of this contest, the “Funkmaster” will get Cejudo to the mat, and, almost immediately, he will work to take the back of the former two-division champion. As we have seen in previous fights, once Sterling gets onto the back of his opponent, the fight changes drastically. He will either wear out his opponent by being a smothering backpack and controlling the position, or hunting for a neck or limb to take home with him, along with his belt.

Cejudo is a tough customer, and he will come as prepared as possible, but I don’t see him returning at 36 years old and lasting the entire 25 minutes with Aljamain Sterling. Probably a fourth-round submission finish is how this ends, and the bantamweight title stays in the Serra-Longo camp.

Belal Muhammad and Gilbert Burns meet in a five-round, co-main event that was put together on short notice; what does this fight look like between two top welterweight contenders?

Petela: On paper, this is a great fight, but I don’t understand the timing. Gilbert Burns fought less than a month ago against Jorge Masvidal, and now he’s turning around to compete for potentially 25 minutes against a very well-rounded opponent for which he has had hardly any time to prepare. It just doesn’t make sense. With that being said, I still think that he comes away with the victory.

Belal Muhammad does everything well, but he doesn’t have an ace up his sleeve the way that Burns has with his submission grappling. Eventually, Burns will get this fight to the mat, even if he has to eat some big shots to do it. He showed in the Khamzat Chimaev fight that he has a heck of a chin, so he won’t be slowed down too much by the pressure and punches of Muhammad. Burns will work his way into a clinch and get double underhooks in order to drag Muhammad down to the mat. From there, it will be academic. Burns will move into side control and notch an arm-triangle choke that forces Muhammad to tap. Expect this one to end before the fourth and fifth rounds come about.

Sumian: Gilbert Burns is the perfect UFC company man. This guy fights everyone and anyone, whether it’s a full training camp or short notice. He had no reason to take this fight, but he did it anyway to continuously prove he is deserving of another title shot. Like my colleague said, I favor Burns to win this one, but by way of TKO. He is the stronger and superior striker, and this will be obvious on Saturday night. Burns will come away with a huge victory and hopefully cement himself as the next contender for the belt.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 288?

Sumian: The UFC bantamweight division. This division is one of the best divisions in all of combat sports, and the outcome of this fight will only add to its competitiveness and fanhood. There is a plethora of contenders waiting in the ranks for either man in the main event, and fans can expect to see several years of high-profile fights regardless of the outcome.

Petela: Gilbert Burns. He will earn another crack at welterweight gold after a stellar short-notice appearance against Belal Muhammad. This time around, he won’t be facing the toughest matchup in the division for him, now that Kamaru Usman no longer holds the belt. Whether he jumps over Colby Covington to get a shot at Leon Edwards, or he waits for Covington and Edwards to fight, and Covington snatches the title, either of those two matchups are favorable for the Brazilian submission ace.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 288?

Petela: Henry Cejudo. He’s making a bold move coming back after three years to challenge for the bantamweight title. There are certainly some elite fighters that Cejudo could beat, but Aljamain Sterling is a tough stylistic matchup. Cejudo may be the better pure wrestler, but, when it comes to MMA wrestling, Sterling might be the best the division has ever seen. On the feet, a rusty Cejudo will get picked apart, so I don’t see any clear path to victory. With a loss in his return, Cejudo runs the risk of tainting his legacy, and he really has nowhere to go from here.

Sumian: The Newark crowd. I hate to say it, but this card is not worthy of a pay-per-view, and the numbers will be proof of that. The UFC should have put together a much better card in their return to Jersey, but not every event can be a winner. Outside of the last two fights, there really isn’t must-see action for Saturday.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Sumian: Charles Jourdain is not in danger of being cut, but a loss on Saturday night will definitely end any discussions about his status as a future contender. He has suffered two back-to-back losses, and a third to Kron Gracie, who has not competed in MMA since 2019, will be a huge blow to his stock.

Petela: Parker Porter. The heavyweight has lost two straight fights and has been finished in both of those losses. He takes on a newcomer to the UFC this weekend in Braxton Smith, and, if he can’t notch a victory over someone with only a 5-1 record who is stepping up to the big show for the first time, he likely doesn’t belong inside the UFC. Porter needs a win or else he will unfortunately find himself in the unemployment line come Sunday morning.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Petela: I try to avoid main-card fights as my sleeper picks, because it kind of feels like cheating, but the return of Kron Gracie is flying well under the radar. It’s been roughly three years since he lost to Cub Swanson in a fight that he almost abandoned his grappling and was satisfied to turn into a kickboxing match. Expect him to get back to his roots this weekend against Charles Jourdain and remind fans of his potential for greatness.

Sumian: Drew Dober vs. Matt Frevola is going to be the fight of the night. This fight is absolute fireworks, and both men know how to stand and bang until somebody goes down. Both are coming off knockout streaks, and they will be ready to thrown down and provide the fans with a much needed banger on Saturday night.

Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?

Sumian: Gilbert Burns. He will finish Muhammad and cement himself as the number-one contender. Burns’ time as a top contender is running out, and my bet is he gets one more title shot before it is all said and done.

Petela: I’m taking another Brazilian to get a post-fight bonus. Marina Rodriguez had her four-fight winning streak snapped in her last outing, when she got stopped via strikes in the third round of her fight against Amanda Lemos. She will come into this fight against Virna Jandiroba with a real fire in her belly and come out hard-charging. Expect the long range striking of Rodriguez to keep Jandiroba confused throughout the bout, until a third-round right cross lands flush and closes the show.

Pair this card with…

Petela: Pizza. Contrary to popular belief, the best pizza in the world comes from New Jersey, not New York. With this card taking place across the Hudson River from the Big Apple, celebrate with the Garden State staple and watch tri-state product Aljamain Sterling retain his belt in from of a supportive home crowd.

Sumian: I love my colleagues’ assessment and agree that this is a pizza and beer type of card. As for me, I will be spending my Saturday getting married and sneaking in a look or two on my buddies phone when I can. Cheers everyone!

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
BW Championship: Aljamain Sterling vs. Henry Cejudo Sterling Sterling
WW: Belal Muhammad vs. Gilbert Burns Burns Burns
Women’s StrawW: Jessica Andrade vs. Xiaonan Yan Andrade Andrade
FW: Movsar Evloev vs. Bryce Mitchell Evloev Mitchell
FW: Kron Gracie vs. Charles Jourdain Jourdain Gracie
Preliminary Card (ESPN/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Drew Dober vs. Matt Frevola Dober Frevola
LHW: Kennedy Nzechukwu vs. Devin Clark Clark Nzechukwu
WW: Khaos Williams vs. Rolando Bedoya Williams Williams
Women’s StrawW: Marina Rodriguez vs. Virna Jandiroba Rodriguez Rodriguez
Early Prelims (UFC Fight Pass/ESPN+/ESPN, 6 p.m. ET)
HW: Braxton Smith vs. Parker Porter Porter Smith
MW: Phil Hawes vs. Ikram Aliskerov Hawes Hawes
FlyW: Rafael Estevam vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov Estevam Zhumagulov
MW: Joseph Holmes vs. Claudio Ribeiro Ribeiro Ribeiro
BW: Daniel Santos vs. Johnny Munoz Munoz Santos