Newark, New Jersey played host to UFC 288 on Saturday with Aljamian Sterling defending his bantamweight title against Henry Cejudo- who returned from retirement after three years away from the Octagon.
In the co-main event, Belal Muhammad faced off against Gilbert Burns- with the winner hopeful of propelling their credibility for a title shot in the welterweight division.
We also saw the Russian prodigy Movsar Evloev take on Diego Lopes as he looked to make it seven in a row in the UFC. Also, the women’s strawweight clash between Jessica Andrade and Yan Xiaonan offered an insight into which fighter can apprehend the dominance of Zhang Weili.
We discuss four of the marquee fights on the main card and all the major talking points here on Around the Octagon.
Aljamain Sterling def. Henry Cejudo via split decision
The major tactical talking point coming into this bout was whether Aljamain Sterling could utilise his backpack grappling on Henry Cejudo- an Olympic Gold medallist in wrestling.
Sterling, understandably, did not have any joy with his grappling as he was successful in just four of his 15 takedown attempts on Cejudo. However, the Jamaican quickly adjusted like a champion and opted to win the fight in the stand-up- arranging his volume of punches to land 135 significant strikes compared to Cejudo’s 99.
It’s time to put some respect on his name.
Sterling’s credibility has been tarnished ever since his controversial title win over Petr Yan at UFC 259 in 2021. In a fight that Yan was beautifully controlling, Sterling was accused of faking his theatrics following a brutal illegal knee from Yan which forced the referee and judges’ arm to give Sterling the title- despite the dishonour of it.
Since then, Sterling has shown that his title reign is not fictitious- defending his bantamweight title against Petr Yan in their rematch at UFC 273, TJ Dillashaw and now Henry Cejudo. Is that enough to silence the doubters?
Despite Cejudo’s three-year lay-off, he looked like the usual Henry we’ve labelled as one of the all-time greats in the sport. The former double champion’s takedown defence was on point, his striking was calculated, and his perpetual cardio was still on display.
In the end, he did not do enough to warrant the judges giving him the split decision. Even his late ‘Mexican style’ flurry of punches could not falter the endeavours of Sterling.
After the bout, Cejudo told Joe Rogan it may be his last time inside the Octagon and that he will speak with Dana White about his future. We’ve heard it all before Henry.
Belal Muhammad def. Gilbert Burns via unanimous decision
Another man who deserves a serious credibility check is Belal Muhammad, who cantered to a comfortable unanimous victory over Gilbert Burns in the co-main event.
There was no animosity between both fighters heading into the bout as Gilbert Burns is just a nice guy who wants to kick your head in. However, Belal’s anger and frustration was sourced from UFC fans’ doubt over his quality.
Belal has been trying to staple his contender status for some time now- with victories over Stephen Thompson, Vicente Luque and Sean Brady proving ineffective to Dana White’s watchful eye.
Surely now Dana must take notice, as the manner in which Belal dispatched Burns was quite remarkable. I mean, look at Khamzat Chimaev’s face in comparison to Belal’s after fighting Gilbert Burns.
Belal’s constant switching of his stance and vicious kicks that landed on all levels of Burns was too much for the Brazilian to comprehend. He knew that if he opted for a stand-and-bang with Burns there was a strong chance that Burns would dominate proceedings.Embed from Getty Images
The technical approach from Belal was executed to perfection as he landed 132 significant strikes compared to Burns’ 81. He also defended all four of Burns’ takedown attempts.
Maybe now he will finally get his upper-echelon clash against someone like Kamaru Usman or Colby Covington and give fans a reason to remember the name.
Yan Xiaonan def. Jessica Andrade via TKO
Yan Xiaonan’s vicious stoppage over Jessica Andrade was the only one on the main card and what huge ramifications it has for the women’s strawweight division.
A Xiaonan victory- and the manner of it- has identified a fresh contender to the women’s strawweight division as Andrade has already had her moment.
Following Andrade’s victory over Rose Namajunas at UFC 273 in 2019, she got her title shot against Zhang Weili three months later and was KO’d on the canvas in the first round.
Her credibility as a champion was further flattened when she lost to Namajunas in 2020 and then to Valentina Shevchenko in 2021.
But with Xiaonan’s win, a new contender is on the scene to try and breach the two-way dominance of the division. Weili and Namajunas may make the most sense for the next title fight, but Xiaonan will certainly be waiting in reserve.
Movsar Evloev def. Diego Lopes via unanimous decision
It is now 17 straight wins for the hype train that is Movsar Evloev, seven of which have come in the UFC. With four wins coming through knockout and three via submission, the only criticism you could put towards Evloev is that he is not finishing enough fights.
Against Diego Lopes, he faced his toughest opposition to date. Lopes roughed up Evloev in the opening round- threatening to submit the Russian on two occasions as Evloev was forced into a state of retreat in the opening round.
However, with Lopes taking the fight on five days’ notice after Bryce Mitchell pulled out through injury, the Brazilian began to tire.Embed from Getty Images
He did try another submission attempt late in the final round in a last-ditch attempt to pry victory from the jaws of defeat, but Evloev held on. The Russian’s striking influenced the judges’ scorecards in the end- as he landed 88 significant strikes compared to Lopes’ 37.
Despite his record now stretching to 17 on the trot, this fight did not serve to increase Evloev’s stock and a rescheduled fight with Bryce Mitchell or a date with the much more dangerous Ilia Topuria would offer a better insight into Evloev’s hype.