Heading into UFC 288, there was a ton of excitement regarding the return of Henry Cejudo. The former Olympic gold medalist, UFC flyweight champ, and UFC bantamweight champ was returning after an almost three-year layoff to face Aljamain Sterling, the reigning UFC bantamweight champ. For Cejudo, it was a chance to regain the title he relinquished when he decided to retire in 2020. For Sterling, it was a chance to become the first bantamweight champ to successfully defend the belt three times in a single reign.

With UFC 288 now in the books, we have a bantamweight champ who has the longest winning streak in the division’s history, a welterweight fighter on the verge of his first title opportunity, and more. Here are my five takeaways from UFC 288.


Put Some Respect on Aljamain Sterling’s Name

Even though Aljamain Sterling had beaten two former champions in his two previous title defenses, there were many that didn’t believe that he would be able to defeat a returning Henry Cejudo, even with Cejudo not having a fight in over 1,000 days. No bantamweight champ had successfully defended the belt three consecutive times (Renan Barao defended his belt four times, but the first two defenses were as interim champ). For Sterling, it was a chance to get some respect from the masses and make himself one of the most accomplished bantamweights in UFC history. The fight was an extremely competitive one, and by the end of the fight it was so competitive that a lot of fans and media had separate opinions on who won. By the time a hand was raised, it was a split decision win for Aljamain Sterling, with a scorecard of 48-47, 47-48, 48-47. 

This may have been Cejudo’s last fight. His plan appeared to include winning the bantamweight belt, defending it against Sean O’Malley, and then moving up a weight class to challenge for the featherweight title, currently held by Alexander Volkanovski. Now that Sterling has defeated Cejudo, that plan looks dead in the water.

Cejudo won’t fight his training partner and number one bantamweight contender Merab Dvalishvili. That means Sterling’s highest ranked challenger is the number two-ranked Sean O’Malley, who faced off in the octagon with Sterling after his win. Sterling could then decide to move up to featherweight and challenge for that title. Sterling’s retirement, or at the very least his move up to featherweight, feels inevitable due to his wish to vacate the bantamweight championship and give Dvalishvili a chance to win the belt. Regardless, all paths to bantamweight go through Sterling.


Belal Muhammad Steps Up to the Plate

As recently as a month before UFC 288, Belal Muhammad didn’t have a scheduled fight and was left scouring welterweight contenders with no dance partner. That was until the UFC gave him an opportunity to fight Gilbert Burns in a title eliminator five-round co-main event. The result of the fight was Muhammad maintaining control for the majority of the fight and easily winning by decision. Burns did appear to hurt his left shoulder/arm early in the fight, and he couldn’t throw punches with his left hand. That alone, however, doesn’t mean Muhammad had an easy win.

Burns is one of the fiercest welterweight competitors today, and beating him has cemented Muhammad as a top contender in the division. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not Colby Covington will be the second challenger for Leon Edwards’ title, but if not Covington, Muhammad would be the favorite to fight Edwards. That fight between Leon Edwards and Belal Muhammad would be a rematch from 2021, a fight that ended in a no-contest due to an accidental eye poke from Edwards that left Muhammad unable to continue. The welterweight division is about to be real interesting. With Colby Covingron and Leon Edwards seemingly unable to put pen to paper on a fight between the two, Belal Muhammad has the chance to jump the line and get his first UFC title shot.


Women’s Strawweight is Heating Up

UFC 288 featured two top 10 strawweight contender fights, one in the prelims and one on the main card. The first fight was between number five contender, Marina Rodriguez, and number nine contender, Virna Jandiroba. The second fight was between number four contender and former strawweight champ, Jessica Andrade, and number six contender, Yan Xiaonan. With Jandiroba and Xiaonan winning their fights, it just adds to the number of fighters that are vying for a top five spot in the division. In my opinion, Strawweight is the deepest of the women’s divisions, and it is jam packed at the top of the rankings.

With Zhang Weili the champ, it makes for an interesting dynamic. She beat the number one contender, Carla Esparza, to win the belt and become a two-time strawweight champ. However, Zhang has also lost twice to number two contender and former two-time champ, Rose Namajunas. Beyond that, the most likely candidate for a title fight seems to be Yan Xiaonan. That fight would be very interesting, and with Zhang being the only Chinese champion in UFC history, it would be the first ever UFC championship fight between two Chinese fighters. The only other woman Zhang has beaten inside the top eight at strawweight is Jessica Andrade, who she beat to win the strawweight title for the first time. So regardless of what is next in the division, there are a ton of interesting matchups for the Zhang, as well as throughout the rest of the top ten.


UFC 289 Look Ahead

With UFC 288 now the rearview mirror, it is now time to look ahead to the next UFC PPV event, UFC 289, which happens on June 10. The original headliner was supposed to be the women’s bantamweight and featherweight champ Amanda Nunes defending her bantamweight title against Julianna Pena in a trilogy fight. However, Pena had to pull out of the fight due to injury. Now the main event will feature the number five female bantamweight contender, Irene Aldana, stepping up to face Nunes, the greatest women’s MMA fighter of all time.

Also on the UFC 289 card is a co-main event between number one contender and former UFC lightweight champ, Charles Oliveira, and number four contender, Beneil Dariush. There are also other ranked fights happening, such as a top ten matchup between Matt Schnell and David Dvorak at flyweight, and top fifteen matchups between Khalil Rountree Jr. and Chris Daukaus at light heavyweight, and Nassourdine Imavov and Chris Curtis at middleweight.


Other Important Upcoming Fights

One headliner of a non-PPV event to look forward to between now and UFC 289 is a heavyweight matchup between the ninth ranked contender, Jairzinho Rozenstruik, and the twelfth ranked Jailton Almeida. The co-main event to that card is the number five light heavyweight, Anthony Smith, taking on the number seven contender at light heavyweight, Johnny Walker. Those fights will take place on May 13.

Another headliner to watch is a flyweight main event between number three ranked Kai Kara-France and number seven ranked Amir Albazi. The co-main to that is a women’s bantamweight matchup between number ten contender, Mayra Bueno Silva, and the number eleven ranked contender and former women’s bantamweight champ, Miesha Tate. Those fights are set to take place on June 3.


That just about wraps up my UFC 288 recap. Aljamain Sterling solidified his status as UFC bantamweight champ, and getting a win against Henry Cejudo is super impressive. Belal Muhammad has given himself a chance at a title shot very soon should Colby Covington not take on Leon Edwards for whatever reason. The women’s strawweight division also had two good top-ten matchups, and there should be a bunch of interesting fights to make at that weight class.

If there’s anything that you saw during UFC 288 that you would like to share, make sure to tweet it out and tag me @derrik_maguire and to also tag @BleacherBrawl.

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