Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi react to the biggest moments at Saturday’s UFC 288 in Newark, New Jersey, and offer thoughts on what might be ahead for the standouts.
Okamoto: Keep dismissing Aljamain Sterling at your own peril
It really is just time to appreciate Aljamain Sterling.
It seems like such a cliché after watching him defend his title against a challenger in Henry Cejudo who was favored to beat Sterling at UFC 288, but it needs to be said. This guy just defeated a former Olympic gold medalist wrestler and double champion — and was still booed at home when the scorecards were read. Enough is enough, already.
If we’re just being honest, Sterling has been public enemy No. 1 since he became the first fighter in UFC history to win a championship via disqualification. He was losing to Petr Yan in 2020 when Yan threw one of the most ill-advised illegal knees in the sport’s history, resulting in a disqualification loss.
The thing is, Sterling acknowledged that he was losing. He gave a valid excuse for why he didn’t look good that night (mistakes in his post-weigh-in nutrition), and he looked much better in the rematch. But that notorious start to his title campaign continues to follow him. The New Jersey crowd appeared to be pro-Cejudo on Saturday, despite Sterling growing up and attending college nearby. In his opening comments after the fight, Sterling said, “I wish I could have done a little better.”
Nah, Aljo. You did just fine. You clearly won (in this writer’s opinion) three of five rounds against a hungry challenger in Cejudo, who walked away from the sport three years ago as a top pound-for-pound talent. And even though he has been gone for three years, Cejudo looked in shape, hungry and as motivated as ever.
We talk about this occasionally with seemingly “unpopular” champions, and Sterling is a terrific example: Do not sleep on what this man is doing. Although you can discuss circumstances around all of them, his past three opponents have all been in pound-for-pound conversations: Yan, TJ Dillashaw and Cejudo. That’s a hell of a run.
And even though Sterling apologized for his performance in the moment on Saturday, he was looking more and more comfortable in his role. He carried himself as a champ all week in New Jersey, even if some in the sport still view him as a placeholder. Cejudo said as much, stating, “He’s tougher than I thought.”
If there’s one thing that Yan, Dillashaw and Cejudo all have in common — other than losing to Sterling — it’s that they all spoke somewhat dismissively of him in the buildup to their fight. And it has yet to work out for them. We’ll see if the next title challenger, Sean O’Malley, does the same.
Raimondi: Overlooked no more, Belal Muhammad is ready for his moment
Belal Muhammad showed up to International Fight Week last summer wearing a T-shirt with fan art of himself and Khamzat Chimaev facing off on it. Muhammad was campaigning for a fight with a guy who no one really wanted to fight, a wrestler with knockout power who had been physically dominant over almost every opponent he has faced. Muhammad didn’t get his wish, but he put his money where his mouth is.
“Remember the Name” has taken on all comers in the welterweight division. Muhammad has beaten great strikers like Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson and Vicente Luque, dangerous Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialists like Demian Maia and tough up-and-coming prospects like Sean Brady. He even fought Leon Edwards, before Edwards became welterweight champion, in a bout that ended in a no contest.
Despite all those things and not having lost since 2019, Muhammad continued to get overlooked by the UFC. When Edwards defended his title against Kamaru Usman in a trilogy bout in March, Colby Covington got the call to be the backup fighter rather than Muhammad. Edwards won, and Covington was tabbed inexplicably as the next title contender.
Muhammad cannot be overlooked anymore. He made sure of that Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 288 when he beat Gilbert Burns via unanimous decision in a comprehensive victory. UFC president Dana White said going in that the winner would get the next shot after Covington. Muhammad might have to wait a bit, but he’ll finally get his due.
It surely wasn’t for a lack of work. Few fighters have improved more than Muhammad has since his debut in 2016, a loss to Alan Jouban. Muhammad was a brawler at that point. But he has added more wrestling and grappling to his game over the years. He trained under Khabib Nurmagomedov. On Saturday, Muhammad used hard kicks for the most part to beat Burns. Muhammad is always incredibly well-rounded and well-prepared.
“If you give me eight weeks, I can beat Jon Jones,” Muhammad said. “You give me three weeks, I can beat any welterweight in the world.” That might be hyperbolic, but how can part of you not believe a man who is now unbeaten in 10 straight going back four years?
It took a bit too long for his liking, but Muhammad is here. And he should be challenging for the UFC welterweight title either later this year or in early 2024.
Okamoto: Yan Xiaonan just gave 115 some life
There are two sides to this.
Had Jessica Andrade gone out there and torched Yan inside one round, we’d be saying how much intrigue Andrade just injected into the 115-pound weight class. But at the same time, that scenario would have led to a replay of the past. We’ve seen Andrade fight for a UFC championship before. We’ve seen her win a UFC championship before. Heck, we’ve seen her fight Zhang Weili before. It’s all a replay, however you look at it.
And that’s fine. Replays are fine in combat sports, as long as they are appropriately set up. But in a somewhat thin strawweight division, new blood is welcome. And Yan is new blood. Additionally, she is well-tested new blood, with finishing ability. Had she simply snuck by Andrade in a three-round decision on Saturday, this postfight reaction would have looked different. But the fact that she finished a finisher in Andrade builds plenty of intrigue around a potential upset against Zhang.
Andrade has a track record at 115 and 125, but if the UFC can build a strawweight title fight around two Chinese fighters with finishing ability, that’s a new story we have yet to see. My guess is that if Rose Namajunas is ready to go against Zhang, that’s the next title fight we’ll see in the strawweight division; and I would keep Yan on the sidelines, have her weigh in as a backup and make it known she is next in line.