Aljamain Sterling

The UFC bantamweight title will be on the line this weekend as reigning champion Aljamain Sterling and returning former two-division world champion Henry Cejudo clash in the main event of UFC 288: Sterling vs. Cejudo.

Taking place at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, and broadcast exclusively on ESPN+ PPV, this fight promises to be an unforgettable showdown between two of the best in the division. With Sterling seeking his third title defense and Cejudo attempting to reclaim his bantamweight crown after a three-year hiatus, the stage is set for a classic battle of wills and skills.

Our staff, Braeden Arbour, Michael Pounders, and Joe Pounders, have carefully analyzed the fighters and now offer their predictions to help inform your betting decisions. It’s destined to be a close fight but our experts each mention different betting strategies for this one.

As the anticipation builds for this epic contest, fans can look forward to an action-packed night with a co-main event featuring Belal Muhammad and Gilbert Burns in a crucial welterweight bout.

Don’t miss out on the excitement of UFC 288, make sure to order your PPV now on ESPN+.

UFC 288 Predictions

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Sterling vs. Cejudo Odds

Most bookmakers can’t separate the two fighters before UFC 288 with close to even odds available on both the current champ and the returning “Triple C.”

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Sterling vs. Cejudo Predictions

Braeden Arbour

Aljamain Sterling will enjoy a three-inch reach and six-inch height advantage over Henry Cejudo. We have seen Sterling utilize his size against short opponents by using unorthodox long kicking and punching combinations to pepper his opponents where they cannot hit him. When this results in his opponents committing trying to enter, he uses that opportunity to level change on them.

Henry Cejudo throws a wrench in this approach as he tends to fight sideways in a sort of karate-esque technique. His ability to burst in and out of range is good, and from a technical perspective, he is probably the better striker of the two. He is crisp, fast, and powerful in everything he throws. The danger in Sterling is in his unpredictable nature. He will land kicks, and then throw at unexpected angles as his opponents try to chase him down for the counter. One of his preferred techniques is his dipping head kick.

The area I believe a lot of fight fans are watching closely for is the wrestling stage. Cejudo is an Olympic gold medalist and Sterling has largely proven himself one of the best to do it in the current era. One of the main differences is the pure wrestling approach of Cejudo with the blended Jiu-Jitsu style of Sterling. Where Cejudo is so good at attacking double legs, single legs, or trips and then clamping on immediately upon ground impact to settle, Sterling is quick to transition to a strong Jiu-Jitsu position relying on hooks to then attach himself.

The one major area where Sterling could be very dangerous would be taking the back of Cejudo. Direct wrestling exchanges favor the former two-division champion, but the back is Sterling’s world, where he can attack rear naked chokes, Suloev stretches or even slide off to a triangle attempt, especially because Cejudo as a wrestler may opt to tripod out rather than try to isolate an arm and peel his way, risking ending up mounted. If Cejudo wins the takedown exchange, it’s much more likely we see him maintain control in the crook of the fence, side control, or half guard, maintaining control and peppering with shots rather than chasing a submission.

Where I believe Cejudo can win this fight is in the low kick game. He had great success in his last two title fights by chopping at the legs of his opponents, especially Dominick Cruz who like Sterling depends so heavily on unpredictable angles and work rate. Sterling has been known to over-commit to punches in his immense pressure, allowing his weight to fall forward over his feet as he drives forward. If Cejudo can stand his ground and land to the calves of Sterling it could be very detrimental over the 25-minute period. In order to deal with Sterling’s range, Cejudo also has to be sharp and precise, and being able to snipe with his punches and mix in the low kicks will be a big weapon in keeping Sterling at bay.

At the end of the day, I think that Sterling’s best chance is being able to initiate his chain of submission attack before he even takes the fight to the mat. Engaging in a strong clinch war and getting to the back or in a position to throw up a submission lock and drag the fight down, would make the most of the Jiu-Jitsu prowess that Sterling holds over Cejudo. However, I also think Cejudo’s ability in the striking dimension and wrestling won’t allow Sterling to easily do this. I see Cejudo working low kicks at range, with sharper, heavier punches, and being the one able to penetrate that range to the hips more often than Sterling when he does want to grapple. Both men are extremely dangerous challenges for one another, but the ability to control the fight and where it goes gives an edge to Cejudo.

Pick: Henry Cejudo to win (+100)

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Henry Cejudo wears two titles after winning at UFC 238
Henry Cejudo wears two titles after winning at UFC 238 (UFC/Getty Images)

Michael Pounders

Aljamain “Funk Master” Sterling, 33, has defended his bantamweight strap in back-to-back fights and has grown his win streak to 8 in a row. Sterling, the Longo-Weidman MMA product and Long Island native, headlines UFC 288 in Newark, New Jersey. Sterling is a well-rounded fighter who combines athleticism, strong fundamentals, and excellent game plans into an exceptionally successful fighter. Sterling’s background is in freestyle wrestling and his skills translate smoothly into the cage. He regularly shoots takedowns, often timing them as counter shots to opponents who overextend with their strikes, and drives his hips until he finds the canvas, just like he would if he were wearing a singlet.

Once on the mat, Sterling has evolved from a wrestler who can hold top control to a truly lethal grappler and jiu-jitsu player. He has a black belt with a variety of submissions and one of the best body locks in the UFC. Sterling is fluid on the mat when he transitions and strong when holding position.

On the feet, “Aljo’s” striking, unsurprisingly given his head coach is Ray Longo, has grown exponentially as well. He began his career as an off-beat striker, representing the funk in his nickname well, who relied on natural athleticism to find success on the feet. As he’s progressed, Aljo has kept the funk and off-beat style of his striking but has added excellent timing and technique. Sterling lands his own strikes consistently and with a high degree of accuracy while his athletic and funky footwork makes it challenging for opponents to clip him cleanly. The only issue in Sterling’s game, difficult to identify given he’s the champion in one of the best divisions in the UFC and on a 3-fight win streak, is his takedown defense. He currently sits at 41% take-down defense and can be controlled on the mat while he looks for defensive submissions.

Cejudo’s old nickname used to be “The Messenger” but last time he was announced by the great Bruce Buffer, Cejudo went by the more well-known “Triple C;” so, we’ll go with that. After nearly three full years outside the cage, Henry “Triple C” Cejudo, 36, re-enters to try and win yet another belt. Cejudo is one of the, if not the, most accredited and accomplished wrestlers to grace the UFC canvas. He won Olympic Gold in 2008 when he was only 21 years old. “Triple C,” just like Sterling, entered the UFC by flawlessly transitioning his freestyle wrestling style into the octagon. As he climbed the rankings, eventually holding belts in two different divisions, Cejudo continued his wrestling dominance; but, also added high level striking as well.

Sometimes, wrestlers and submission artists who improve their striking are given compliments for their growth but their striking is still a notch below the top strikers in their division. That does not apply to Cejudo, his striking is truly top notch. He pushes a consistent pace on the feet, using his speed advantage to land jabs and almost jumping kicks to make up for his height and reach disadvantage.

Triple C is also skilled at striking in the clinch, where his height and reach change from a disadvantage to an advantage. In the clinch, Cejudo uses his wrestling background to help him hold strong head position, keep a solid base with his hips, and the cardio to keep pressing forward while he lands short jabbing punches that deal surprising damage.

Possibly the most impressive aspect of Cejudo’s game is his ability to make in-fight adjustments to find paths to victory. Cejudo has been a coach and cornerman for the last 3 years during his layoff where his fight IQ and ability to make reads during a fight have been on full display. He uses that same coach’s eye as a fighter and makes adjustment mid-fight and even mid-round. The only real issue that Cejudo has faced, again splitting hairs as Cejudo is one of the greatest fighters of all time, is his size. Standing at 5’4, Cejudo is often undersized for the 135 division; but, given his record, it’s hard to argue that his height has any negative impact on his results.

I expect this fight to be razor-thin and for both guys to feel each other out early. Therefore, I like over 3.5 rounds, over 4.5 rounds, and for the fight to go the distance as prop plays. But, as far as a straight pick goes, I think the key to this matchup is in the wrestling. Sterling is the larger and stronger fighter but has suspect takedown defense.

Meanwhile, Cejudo is one of the most credentialed wrestlers in the UFC’s history but he’s never grappled someone of Sterling’s size and strength. Because I expect this fight to go the distance, Cejudo should have plenty of opportunities to find Sterling’s hips; and, once he does, I expect him to finish the takedown and hold position on the mat. Sterling’s excellent jiu-jitsu might be his undoing here if he happily attempts submissions from bottom position while Cejudo racks up valuable control time.

I, again, expect this fight to be close and go the distance; and, in a fight like that, give me the guy with more pressure, volume, and who will likely be on top when the fight hits the mat: Cejudo.

Best Bet: Henry Cejudo to win (+100)

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Henry Cejudo finishes TJ Dillashaw at UFC Fight Night 143
Henry Cejudo stops TJ Dillashaw at UFC Fight Night 143 (Zuffa LLC)

Joe Pounders

Aljamain Sterling is a well-rounded bantamweight with notes of elite attributes and impressive size, yet, one of the most underappreciated champions of recent memory. The root cause originated in his first bout against Petr Yan, where many believed Yan was winning until throwing a deliberate, illegal knee against Sterling. While Sterling went on to defeat Yan in a rematch and had a dominating performance against the injured TJ Dillashaw, many still disrespect his elite fighting ability and reign over arguably the best division in the UFC.

The benefit of being disrespected is training and fighting with a chip on one’s shoulder, and Sterling has allowed this disrespect to fuel him as evidenced by him looking better each fight. This improvement is a scary proposition because he is already one of the best grapplers in the division, seamlessly blending his collegiate wrestling background with an elite submission game.

The wrestling of Sterling will be a pivotal point of analysis in this fight given his background is at the DIII level where he was a two-time All-American, meanwhile, his opponent is an Olympic champion. While the differential is stark on paper, the level of Sterling’s wrestling is far greater than this differential would initially indicate, as he could have been a DI talent, and most recently, has found success against the renowned talent, Bravo-Young, in a grappling bout where he lost in freestyle but submitted the two-time DI National Champion.

As with most data points in sports, nothing is everything, everything is something. That philosophy is applicable to the non-MMA record of Sterling, as it will be tested in this bout. The conclusion from his grappling analysis is that Sterling is certainly considered to be at the grappling level of Cejudo from an MMA, totality standpoint. Because of this, his striking will be a pivotal point of differential, and an area that has not been needed of recent note given his elite grappling.

From a positive lens, Sterling strikes with a funk and athleticism that is tricky early, and at this point, he can land sharp strikes with elbows and knees accompanied by lengthy punches. But, as the fight ensues, the longer Cejudo will have to track the funky movements of Sterling, and once the data is calibrated, the more technical Cejudo will likely find movements of success against Sterling given Sterling strikes with freedom which inherently means he has holes in his defense.

Predominate analysis was devoted to Sterling given the recent data is on him, not Cejudo. This is because Henry Cejudo “retired” in 2020 after defeating Dominick Cruz. While the case, most people in MMA fully anticipated Henry coming back because of his reluctance to leave the USADA testing pool and because he kept inserting himself into fight conversation. This point of never really being retired is important given he never left the mental side of the fight world which is pivotal for him given he relies on his mental acumen during fights, as he is touted by many as having one of the best combat minds in the sport.

So, while the layoff of Cejudo makes his recent data non-existent, his mentality throughout the layoff warrants the belief he will compete like he always has, which is a scary proposition for Sterling given Cejudo, being a former Olympic Gold Medalist for wrestling, understands how to employ his wrestling with technical, fast striking. This striking is significantly underrated given he understands timing, distance, and can land powerful blows — his last three wins all were TKO/KO finishes. So, Cejudo, somewhat similar to Sterling, is a well-rounded fighter, but the difference is he lacks the defensive holes Sterling has in moments of the fight.

As indicated by the odds, this fight is razor-thin given both men possess well-rounded skills and are elite fighters. Choosing a winner is extremely challenging given Cejudo is arguably the most decorated combat athlete of all time and Sterling, in his prime, is the inarguable champion over the arguably best division in the UFC.

When forecasting the bout, I expect both men to feel one another out early, and because Sterling has learned the value of winning early rounds coupled with the layoff of Cejudo, I expect Sterling to look better early with Cejudo coming on as the fight ensues. The success of Sterling will likely be through long-ranging attacks with clinching against the cage, but the submission attack against the elite wrestler of Cejudo will be minimal. The success of Cejudo will likely be cutting angles, getting inside, and land crisp boxing against the strong, durable Sterling. Because both men are as durable and talented as they are, the best bet is the fight to go to decision compared to flipping a coin and choosing a winner although I do believe the coin favors Cejudo more than Sterling.

Pick: Fight Goes to Decision (-135)

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