After nearly three years on the sidelines, former two-division champion, Henry Cejudo, attempts to re-establish himself atop the Bantamweight division this Saturday (May 6, 2023) when he battles reigning titlist, Aljamain Sterling, inside Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. UFC 288’s pay-per-view (PPV) main card will also feature a pivotal Welterweight battle between top contenders Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad, as well as Jessica Andrade’s return to Strawweight against fellow slugger, Yan Xiaonan.
UFC 288 features a hefty nine “Prelims” undercard bouts to get through before all that, though. Here’s the first batch, which airs live on ESPN+/Fight Pass ...
265 lbs.: Braxton Smith vs. Parker Porter
Braxton Smith (5-1) made his MMA debut in 2014, falling to fellow debutant and future UFC competitor Chase Sherman by first-round stoppage. “The Beautiful Monster” would not return to action for another eight years, though he’s made up for lost time with five consecutive first-round knockouts.
None of those victories have lasted longer than 2:03.
Parker Parker’s (13-8) ignominious UFC debut saw him stopped in one by Chris Daukaus, snapping a two-fight winning streak. Though he went on to win his next three, first-round stoppage losses to Jailton Almeida and Justin Tafa dropped his UFC record to 3-3.
His eight pro finishes are split evenly between knockouts and submissions.
Either Smith blasts Porter into oblivion in the first three minutes or Porter turns this into an appallingly ugly slog, and the latter looks far more likely from where I’m sitting. There’s very, very little to Smith’s game outside of a heavy right hand he telegraphs months in advance; limited though Porter may be, he’s at least good enough to not get caught by it before getting a proper grind going.
Porter’s grit and willingness to wrestle look like too much for a man raised on a diet of tomato cans. He avoids the big right hands, mugs Smith against the fence, and ultimately drags him to the mat before locking up some sort of dumb submission you only see from low-level Heavyweights. Haven’t seen an americana in a while, so let’s go with that.
Prediction: Porter via second round submission
185 lbs.: Phil Hawes vs. Ikram Aliskerov
After a triumphant return to Contender Series saw him stop Khadzhimurat Bestaev in 78 seconds, Phil Hawes (12-4) punched his way into Middleweight contention with three straight wins. He now finds himself in the midst of a 1-2 skid, a mauling of Deron Winn sandwiched between knockout losses to Chris Curtis and Roman Dolidze.
He has knocked out eight professional foes and submitted another two.
Ikram Aliskerov (13-1) lost his unbeaten record in his ninth pro fight, which pitted him against Khamzat Chimaev and resulted in a vicious uppercut knockout. He got back on track with three straight finishes in Brave CF, took a pit stop in Eagle FC, then finished Mario Sousa on Contender Series to earn a UFC contract.
He gives up 1.5 inches of reach to Hawes.
What’s so frustrating about Hawes is that he clearly has the skills and talent to be a threat, but he just keeps finding ways to lose. The Curtis fight was perhaps the most prominent example, as he was taking “The Action Man” behind the woodshed before getting clipped by a stray shot and falling to pieces. The power, striking technique, and wrestling pedigree can’t seem to congeal into a consistently successful approach.
All of that’s to say that he’s good enough to beat Aliskerov. He’s unquestionably the more dangerous striker and his wrestling, though surprisingly ineffective at the highest level, is presumably sufficient to keep it standing. Aliskerov just seems like a far more reliable operator, especially since Hawes has faded late in the past. After a relatively even start, Aliskerov’s dogged chain wrestling lets him pull away down the stretch to edge out a competitive decision.
Prediction: Aliskerov via split decision
125 lbs.: Rafael Estevam vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov
A torrid run in Shooto Brasil sent Rafael Estevam (11-0) to Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA), where he upset Filipe Esteves in his promotional debut. He was similarly successful on Contender Series, pounding out Joao Elias to earn himself a contract.
He steps in for Nate Maness on little less than one month’s notice, having lost original debut foe Carlos Candelario to injury.
Zhalgas Zhumagulov (14-8) capped off his run in Fight Nights Global by beating Tagir Ulanbekov for the Flyweight title and defending it against Ali Bagautinov. He’s currently 1-5 in the world’s largest mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion, though his last two defeats came via hugely controversial split decision.
He stands four inches shorter than “Macapa” and faces a 2.5-inch reach disadvantage.
I really, really want Zhumagulov to win this. The man deserves a break — of his four UFC decision losses, three of them should have gone his way, meaning he’s sitting on an Octagon record that should be 4-2. He’s got the means to do it, too; Estevam doesn’t have much to offer on the feet against Zhumagulov’s swarming offense.
What Estevam does have is strong chain wrestling and a terrific gas tank. Zhumagulov struggles down the stretch fairly consistently, and Amir Albazi showed that some of the wrestling issues that dogged Zhumagulov in FNG have yet to be fully addressed. Expect Zhumagulov to sprawl-and-brawl his way to an excellent start, only to slowly succumb to Estevam’s grappling assault and lose another heartbreaking decision.
Prediction: Estevam via unanimous decision
185 lbs.: Joseph Holmes vs. Claudio Ribeiro
Though his submission finish of Shonte Barnes on Contender Series failed to earn Joseph Holmes (8-3) a UFC contract, his Lookin’ for a Fight knockout of Jhonoven Pati did the trick one month later. “Ugly Man Joe” is 1-2 since, choking out Alen Amedovski while falling to Jamie Pickett and Jun Yong Park.
He’ll enjoy three inches of height and reach on Claudio Ribeiro (10-3).
Ribeiro capped off a six-fight win streak and claimed a UFC contract by knocking out Ivan Valenzuela just 25 seconds into their Contender Series bout. This set up a UFC debut against fellow slugger Abdul Razak Alhassan, who bombed Ribeiro out less than 30 seconds into the second round.
All of his professional wins have come via knockout, eight of them in the first round.
Holmes really should win this fight. Ribeiro hits hard, but he’s so limited in every other aspect of MMA that even a slow, awkward technician like Holmes ought to beat him. All Ribeiro has to offer are wild haymakers and hard low kicks, while Holmes at least boasts some decent boxing and grappling.
As hard as it is to overlook the fact that Holmes lost to Jamie Pickett of all people, Ribeiro dropped several rounds to a 40-year-old journeyman three fights back and struggled to get off the fence against Alhassan. I’ll bite the bullet and say “Ugly Man Joe” leans on his jab and clinch work to set up a fight-ending submission sometime in the second.
Prediction: Holmes via second round submission
135 lbs.: Daniel Santos vs. Johnny Munoz
After nearly 2.5 years on the sideline, Daniel Santos (9-2) finally made his UFC debut in April 2022, ultimately losing a decision to Julio Arce. His sophomore effort six months later pitted him against John Castaneda, whom Santos survived a disastrous first round to brutalize late in the second and claim “Fight of the Night.”
He faces a two-inch height disadvantage and a four-inch reach disadvantage.
Johnny Munoz’s (12-2) perfect professional start (10-0), which took place entirely in King of the Cage, saw him claim the promotion’s Bantamweight title before ultimately joining UFC in 2020. His 2-2 UFC run has seen him beat Jamey Simmons and Liudvik Sholinian amidst losses to Nate Maness and Tony Gravely.
Seven of his professional wins, including the one over Simmons, came via submission.
I would like to thank the UFC brass for giving Santos a winning matchup and ensuring a longer stay in the organization. “Willycat” is the kind of kill-or-be-killed lunatic who reminds us that, for all we crow about technical wizardry and strategic planning, there’s nothing quite like watching a dude beat the piss out of another dude with no regard for his personal well-being.
Not saying Munoz is doomed, of course. Besides his top-notch ground game, he’s got a great jab that could bedevil the ever-hittable Santos. What he doesn’t have is a great gas tank, which is the last thing you want against a relentless pressure fighter. Between Santos’ output and excellent scrambling ability, Munoz will be hard-pressed to slow things to his preferred pace, and that jab will stop working in a hurry once “Kid Kvenbo” starts losing steam. Munoz clowns on Santos for about a round and a half before Santos’ pressure finally breaks through and buries Munoz in power shots.
Prediction: Santos via third round technical knockout
Four more UFC 288 “Prelims” undercard bouts remain to preview and predict, including what looks to be absolute mayhem between Drew Dober and Matt Frevola. Same time tomorrow, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 288 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard on ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC 288: “Sterling vs. Cejudo” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.