UFC 288 Cejudo vs. Sterling Breakdown

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Henry Cejudo vs. Aljamain Sterling

For Aljamain Sterling, business is booming. Only two years ago, an asterisk referencing a footnote was denoted at the bottom of his Wikipedia, Tapology, and Sherdog pages. The footnote labeled Sterling’s 2021 so-called "Bantamweight Championship" as dubious in nature as all the bubble chips of the previous year, held in the same regard as the perfunctory 2017 Houston Astros World Series "title," and as rooted in reality as any of Gryffindor’s Quidditch championships.

Fast forward; A Petr Yan rematch and subsequent title defense later, and there is a line around the block, on average a two-hour wait, that ends at the greasy window of the trendiest food truck in town. Owned and operated by the now reigning and undisputed champ and established in the spring of 2022, the culinary focus of the Aljo food truck is serving patrons their own words, made from scratch with internationally sourced ingredients, straight from the mouths and fingertips of haters worldwide. Words expressing hate, jealousy, and envy come smothered in a savory Pacific geoduck sauce, white truffle gravy, or seasonal fruit compote in heaping portions. Side dishes are crafted using mean tweets and tough guy remarks found in the comments sections of every social media platform and rotate week to week, ensuring the menu stays fresh and avant-garde. In two short years, Aljo went from an asterisk to boasting a two-star Michelin rating and a five-star Yelp score.

A win over the Olympic gold medalist and UFC two-division World Champion who never lost his belts, Henry Cejudo, will earn Aljo the coveted third star and place his name among the finest dining establishments in the world.

Since that infamous first "win" over Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling has cemented his position atop one of the deepest divisions in the world. Maybe only second, in my stoned opinion, to the lightweight division. He rode a 10-8 second round in a rematch with Petr Yan to an indisputable undisputed title and defended it for all the old school "you aren't the champ until you defend the title" heads against T.J. Dillashaw. T.J. blew his shoulder out in the first round defending a takedown, and Aljo subsequently delivered an HBO-when-your-parents-go-to-bed beating.

If medieval torturers could have had a glimpse into the future, they would have replaced the intestinal crank, drawn and quarter, and the Supplice of the Rat with Aljo’s back mount. It’s his specialty, and Aljo is a specialist; he’s a grappling savant with an uncanny knack for taking the opponent’s back and not relinquishing it. Try taking a dump with Aljo strapped to your back. In the second round of the Yan rematch, Aljo controlled Yan’s back for nearly four minutes. Aljo is a rare single-leg expert in MMA; he uses it to work his way to the back, usually against the cage, while looking to sink in a hook. Yan gave up his back in the second fight almost every time he defended the single-leg. When grappling with Aljo, whether defending takedowns or scrambling from your back, you have to work back to your feet in steps. Instead of exposing your back by going to your knees and trying to stand straight up, you have to turn into Aljo, regain guard, then put your feet on his hips, stuff his head, and kick him off you.

With two excellent wrestlers/grapplers, the fight is usually determined on the feet. Aljo’s stand-up ain’t wack, but it’s not world-class either. He is a one-punch striker with sneaky long-range kicks and generic hands. Aljo uses his range effectively, but he doesn’t put combinations together smoothly or very often. It’s his constant lateral movement that lends his striking effectiveness. He takes laps around the Octagon, making opponents constantly shuffle their feet. Then he stops suddenly and leaps into the pocket with darting punches. Against Aljo, you have to cut the cage and be careful not to chase him. The key for Aljo will be dawning the tinfoil hat and going straight Professor Chaos on Cejudo’s ass. He has to come out aggressive and test Cejudo’s cardio after a three-year layoff and draw Cejudo into wild exchanges that Aljo can use to get to Cejudo’s back or the top position.

He’s back. The cringiest of the cringe. Cringy Cejudo, aka the Triple Champ, is back to lay claim to the belts that were never wrested from his rigor mortis clenched fists. Henry Cejudo is everything Kurt Angle claimed he would have been if MMA was popular during his athletic prime. When Cejudo walked away from the game in 2020, he held both the flyweight and bantamweight belts and was just hitting his stride. Cejudo isn’t coming back for Championship bouts, he’s coming back for legacy bouts. If he can regain even one of his titles, it will catapult him up the list of all-time greats.

When Cejudo dines out, they seat him in a child’s seat, and the maître d hooks him up with a PJ Mask menu with three crayons and a choice between mac n’ cheese and chicken nuggets. But don’t let his small stature fool you; he’s one of the best well-rounded fighters in the game. He’s a chameleon striker who changes his style from one fight to the next. After two straight losses (his only two UFC L’s), Henry debuted a bladed Karate style against Wilson Reis and smoked Reis on the feet and became an elite striker overnight. In his last bout against Dominick Cruz, Henry used a more traditional Muay Thai style and focused on attacking Dom’s legs. Cruz is still protesting the stoppage of that fight, claiming Keith Peterson smelled like Bud Lights and Swisher Sweets. But no matter his stance/style, one thing remains the same; Cejudo is a wrestler striker at heart. He has big power and blinding speed in his right hand but only uses day-one combinations, mostly 1s, and 1-2s, with an occasional lead hook. Cejudo needs to open up more with his kicks and try to feint Aljo into head kicks. Aljo tends to duck low when evading strikes, almost like Pernell Whitaker or Guillermo Rigondeaux, making him vulnerable to high kicks.

Cejudo’s best offensive striking weapon is his right hand. He relies on it to cover distance and as a fight-ender. In the second round of the Marlon Moraes fight, I counted twenty-three straight right hands at one point. Somewhere, there’s a mad scientist cloning Henry Cejudo right hands in a lab and mass-producing them on an assembly line. But even though you know it is coming, you can’t stop it. The major malfunction in Cejudo’s striking isn’t his heavy reliance on his right hand; it is his inability to defend leg kicks. In the first round of that same Moraes fight, Moraes destroyed Henry’s leg in under two minutes. Cejudo has the bad habit of attempting to catch leg kicks as a defense. The key to attacking Cejudo’s legs is using low calf kicks and not traditional mid-thigh kicks, or he’ll catch them and take you down. And when he ducks down to catch one, kick him in the head.

Grappling-wise, this will be the battle of the single legs. Cejudo is also surgical with the single leg; he will hike your leg high and throw you. And he will also work it into his striking and initiate it just to close the distance and strike off the break. It has been a while since we saw Cejudo implement a wrestling-heavy game plan, choosing to stand and bang with strikers, but this would be the perfect time to dust off the MatFlex Asics. Aljo is an excellent offensive grappler but has shown suspect takedown defense. He sports a forty-one percent career takedown defense and was taken down seven times in the first Yan fight. In the very least, Cejudo needs to plant that thought in Aljo’s mind.

This one is pretty much a Vegas pick ‘em, with Cejudo returning (-115) and Aljo returning (-105). The fight is favored (-135) to go the distance, and I would be surprised if it ended before the final bell. The long shot path to a finish for Cejudo will be a TKO/KO (+350), and the long shot path for Aljo will be a submission (+350). This one is another complete and utter toss-up. At the end of the day, when it is all said and done, when all the chips are in the center of the table, Cejudo’s striking is more traditional and will look better in the eyes of the judges. It just looks more effective, even if it isn’t. That’s the deciding factor. That’s the minuscule difference that I’m basing this pick. But the biggest factor will be what Cejudo looks like after a three-year lay-off. Henry Cejudo via decision. On wax.

Belal Muhammad vs. Gilbert Burns

Thank whichever higher power you pray to for the addition of this fight to the card. This card was looking like a no-remorse stream. I wouldn’t even bother mentioning this one during confession. "Forgive me, Father, for I have streamed." The last time we saw Belal Muhammad, he morphed into the demon tatted on Sean Brady’s back and had fire shooting out his ass. Belal Muhammad turned into Baal Muhammad right in front of our eyes. He fought possessed with relentless pressure, until he eventually broke the highly touted young prospect, reinforcing the fact that there are indeed levels to this shit. "Giggity" Gil Burns is back, and he keeps that thang on him at all times, that Quagmire right hand. This is one of the rare occasions when a fight is truly a number one contender fight. After Colby vs. Leon, nobody should fight for the title besides the winner of this fight.

Belal Muhammad is the welterweight Merab Dvalishvili; he can push a heavy wrestling pace and has sneaky effective striking that is often overlooked. Belal has awkward unorthodox boxing and attacks from unconventional angles. The last few cards have displayed some unconventional strikers like Segei Pavlovich, who attack with differing arm angles. The technical dogma is to always keep your hands high and punch from your face, but that can become predictable; the punches are easy to track and subsequently defend. Strikers like Belal aim punches around the guard and change shoulder angles to bring them over the top or up from below. Belal also changes levels mid-combination, going from the body to the head and vice versa. The key to Belal’s striking is extending combinations to third and fourth level. When he ends attacks after one or two strikes, he’s not nearly as effective as when he can get to punch three and four, and so on.

The definition of insanity is trying to take down Belal Muhammad. One of the best displays of takedown defense you will see was when Belal fought Demian Maia. Belal successfully defended twenty-one takedowns in that fight and boasts a noinety-two percent career takedown defense. That’s better than my neighbor’s Christmas lights that have been up since the winter of ‘16. I say this because Gil Burns has had a lot of success implementing wrestling-heavy game plans, but that won’t be a luxury this time. In contrast, Gil Burns’ takedown defense is only forty-seven percent. Gil is used to being the one to initiate the wrestling, but when he isn’t, he has sus takedown defense. The Merab game plan should be in full effect for Belal; he needs to threaten with takedowns whether they are successful or not.

What can I say about Gil Burns that I didn’t say just three weeks ago? Dude has a Mega Man cannon for a right hand, and on his right foot, he rocks the boot the Australian Prime Minister wore when he tried to kick Bart in the ass. His rear-hand strikes are deadly; he had Kamaru Usman, Khamzat Chimaev, and Jorge Masvidal all on Heelys skating the mall at some point during each fight. Keep an eye on his right high kick. Belal tends to crouch to his power side almost exclusively to avoid strikes. The Leon kick will be available all night. Put the jab or hook out in front to draw the reaction out of Belal and unload the high kick. That’s the finishing move. The key in the stand-up will be increasing his output to match Belal’s. Belal is nonstop everything; if Gil doesn’t keep up, he runs the risk of falling behind on the scorecards. Especially since his wrestling will likely take the back seat in this matchup. Gil is mostly a one-punch striker, while Belal is a combination striker; Gil will have to make up the gap either with knockdowns (can’t always count on) or increased output.

Gil Burns will be the (-130) favorite, likely because of his superior finishing rate, having finished fifteen of his twenty-two career dubs. Belal will be the slight (+110) dog, and the only real knock against him is his lack of finishes. He also has twenty-two career wins but only six finishes. But he’s coming off a rare TKO/KO victory and will be on some Keak Da Sneak "Feelin’ Myself" type-ish. Belal at plus money is always a steal, especially if he summons Baal Muhammad again. I think this will be a stand-up affair with high outputs from both fighters and the one who leads the dance the most often will win it. This is also a five-round co-main event, which I think might be slightly in Belal’s favor. Fook it! Give me the dawg, mane. Belal Muhammad via decision. Wax on, wax off.

Xiaonan Yan vs. Jessica Andrade

It seems like just yesterday when Jessica Andrade tripped over the final hurdle of the steeple run that was supposed to end with a title shot. She landed face-first in that little pool on the other side and nearly drowned. That’s a nice way of saying she shit the race car bed and rolled around in it. She fought exactly how Amanda Nunes did in the second round of the first Peña fight, with her ego. Andrade tried to get back every strike the future Champ, Erin Blanchfield, landed with one big haymaker. As a result, she got beat to the punch over and over and was dominated on the feet by an inferior striker (or so I thought). If Andrade can get back to her mini-Tyson style, bobbing back and forth and unloading well-timed hooks and overhands, she should dominate this fight. By no means is Xiaonan Yan a Buster, a Buster Douglas, Buster Olney, Dave & Buster, Buster Posey, Dust Buster, Door Buster, or otherwise. But her zero-point-zero finishes in noine UFC bouts would suggest she’s not a killer; she just likes to crush a lot.

The key for Jessica Andrade in this matchup will be calming the fook down. Loading up on every strike will only get you so far. It’s good to have a deep threat, but throwing underneath the safety will keep drives alive. Andrade has always been a Johnny Storm "Flame On!" firefighter providing herself with job security by unloading nothing but bombs all over the arena, but I didn’t even recognize her against Erin Blanchfield. All the technique went out the window, and Andrade just started chasing Blanchfield around the cage like a 90s slasher flick. She looked like she was using an I Love Kickboxing Groupon for a free beginner's class. Her striking advantage over Yan will not be in speed or technical ability, it will be in power. But she needs to focus on touching Yan consistently to set up her power shots. And Andrade always has the power wrestling in her back pocket if she starts getting touched up.

Xiaonan Yan is a death-by-one-thousand papercuts type of fighter. Her focus is on volume over power, quantity over quality. The biggest knock against her is that she has the finishing rate of swimming without waiting a half hour after you eat. The finishing rate of a eunuch. For her career, Yan has seven TKO/KOs in seventeen career dubs, but none of those finishes came inside the Octagon. Although she has quick, tight, straight punches, they make dog chew toy squeaky sounds when they land. Yan wins fights with pure activity; she never stops moving and throwing hands. Her default factory setting is to throw repetitive two to three-punch combinations. She also likes to use short side kicks to keep the opponent hesitant to enter the pocket.

Where Yan can usually distinguish herself against equal strikers is in the clinch. She has a good instinct for violence and looks to land strikes in all positions. It’s almost diabolical how she looks to create damage and pain. She wins close fights by striking on the breaks, in the clinch, and in all the gray areas. If you watch her fight, she looks the part of a top striker in the division but at the same time doesn’t pose a real title threat. I don’t know what it is, but Yan is missing something that I can’t quite put my finger on... Ah, I know what it is. She could really use a little more cowbell. The key for Yan will be varying her attacks and beating Andrade down the middle, between Andrade's wide strikes.

Andrade will be the (-185) favorite, and Yan will be the (+155) dog. Fantasy-wise, both fighters will put up solid striking stats, but the finishing threat will be Andrade. Yan has only been stopped on her feet once in her career, and if she can make it to the final bell, she will put up good numbers even in a loss. If this fight happened before the Blanchfield bout, Andrade would probably be a (-500) favorite. But it didn’t, and Andrade showed some major flaws in her striking. Ultimately those flaws will keep her from winning the belt again, but I don’t think they will stop her from winning this fight. Jessica Andrade via decision.

Movsar Evloev vs. Bryce Mitchell Diego Lopes

Bryce Mitchell is out here dodging L’s like Neo. Just five days out from his scheduled banger with Movsar Evloev, Mitchell pulled out of the fight. In steps Diego Lopes, making his debut against a top ten fighter on the main card of a Pay Per View. Last week, late replacements went 2-0 and stole the show. Can Diego Lopes keep the streak going? No. But he’ll be on some Ocean’s 11 type-ish, playing with house money with nothing to lose. And any man with nothing to lose and everything to gain is always dangerous.

Movsar Evloev is the Guerilla Black of the UFC. Guerilla Black was a rapper who sounded and looked exactly like Biggie; he bit Biggie’s whole entire style. Evloev bit Frankie Edgar’s style. Copyright infringement. No bibliography, no sources cited. Evloev is me in tenth grade when I copied and pasted an entire essay but forgot to edit the hyperlinks. Automatic fail. Frankie was the best ever at using his striking to set up takedowns. He used short, tight strikes in two to three-punch bursts, focusing on speed, to get the opponent’s hands high so he could change levels. Evloev has a very similar cadence and setup for his takedowns. The only difference is that Frankie always looked to wrestle first, but Evloev likes to test the stand-up waters a little more before using his wrestling. But the style and short boxing combos are nearly identical.

Evloev would have been the more traditional technical striker against Mitchell, and the same will be true against Lopes. The question was, who is the better wrestler/grappler? Evloev is like Chris Benoit when he gets his clasped; he won't let go and will keep dragging you to the mat and suplexing you until the round ends. The knock against his wrestling is that Movsar struggles to maintain the top position. He chain wrestles his ass off to get the fight to the mat but sometimes struggles to keep it there. When he does secure the position, he will sit in the guard and Tito you with ground and pound. The game plan for Movsar against Lopes should be to work his hands early, create damage, and wrestle late. Lopes is a submission specialist, and most submission artists are most dangerous early in the fight before blood and sweat make it more difficult to lock up a limb or neck. The only place Lopes can win this bout is on the mat throwing up Hail Mary subs. Evloev loves to strike, so this will be his opportunity to put his striking on display, especially early, and make Lopes fight to his weakness.

Diego Lopes’ grandpappy is a Jiu-Jitsu coral belt. I didn’t even know that existed. You receive a coral belt after you’ve been active with a black belt for thirty years. Diego has probably been gator-rolling D’arce chokes since he was in preschool. In a lot of ways, short notice is the ideal way to make a debut. There’s absolutely no pressure on Lopes, and I’m sure not even his mammy and pappy think he can win this fight. Plus, the game plan will be simple, throw shit against the wall and see if it sticks. Lopes is 20-5 for his career with seven TKO/KOs and eleven subs, and reminds me of a better Charles Rosa. Lopes is a guard technician who won’t mind being on his back if Evloev chooses to use his wrestling. The game plan should be to sell out on guillotines to counter takedowns and to go full Yair Rodriguez when Lopes ends up on his back. Yair is a master at using the extended full guard to gain leverage for elbows and create damage from the bottom position. Lopes has to short-play this fight and risk ending up in vulnerable positions to chase subs and create early damage.

On the feet, Lopes is a swinger, and I’m not talking about Holiday Inn Express conference rooms. Dude just wings lefts and rights and is more of a puncher and kicker than he is a kickboxer. He has seven career TKO/KO finishes, but I can’t testify to the level of competition he has faced. Lopes fought on the Contender Series and lost to the little heathen Joanderson Brito, and in that fight, Brito got the better of the striking, and Lopes had his best moments throwing up sub attempts from his back. If Evloev chooses to keep this fight standing, Lopes will struggle. And Lopes doesn’t have the takedown efficiency to relocate the fight consistently on his own. All of Lopes’ paths to victory are treacherous pitfalls, and Lopes’ only options will be to take batting practice home run hacks on the feet and throw up submissions Willy Nilly from his back.

In six UFC bouts, Evloev has yet to finish a fight and has a less than fifty percent finishing rate for his career. This will be his best chance to finish his first fight, but I think Lopes has enough experience to survive to the final bell. Movsar Evloev via decision.

Kron Gracie vs. Charles Jourdain

Holy UFC 1,2 & 3, Batman! It has been four years since we have seen a member of MMA’s royal family inside the Octagon. The Gracies are the Corleones of the UFC and the catalyst that put MMA on the map in the early 90s. The day Royce Gracie lost to Matt Hughes, my whole world changed. There was a paradigm shift, up was down, right was left; everything I thought I knew about life was smashed, and I was left to make sense of the pieces. When Royce dominated the world while wearing a bathrobe, Jiu-Jitsu was in its infancy. By the time he faced Matt Hughes, it was fundamental; everybody knew it. Kron Gracie represents a return to Jiu-Jitsu in its earliest form, a return to the days when the Ol’ D!*k Twist was legal, dudes wore one boxing glove, and Jim Brown told the PPV audience you can’t choke someone out with your legs.

By now, you should know I’m petty; I like pointing out the flaws of others. Let’s get Kron’s major malfunctions out of the way first, his striking. You can put his striking on the curb on Tuesday mornings, and they’ll come and haul it away. Kron has Salvation Army striking, second-hand striking; shit looks borrowed, and he doesn’t know how to use it. He uses the same stomp teep kick that Royce used thirty years ago to close the distance and initiate a tie-up, but other than that, Kron has hands like a porpoise and flails more than he strikes. The last time we saw Kron was in 2019; Cub Swanson gave Kron a geometry lesson, striking parallelograms and rhombuses around him. Name any Gracie, and their path to victory will always be getting the fight to the mat.

Kron doesn’t use many traditional wrestling doubles or singles; he uses the clinch and any general tie-up to pull guard or land sneaky trips. He’ll tie you in Boy Scout knots before your ass even hits the mat. Once on the mat, Kron methodically advances position to the back or mount and looks for a choke. For his career, Kron is 5-1, including 1-1 in the UFC. He debuted against Bruce Leeroy Alex Caceres, and tapped Caceres in two minutes. Bruce Leeroy has never been a TLC scrub on the mat, but Kron locked him up and took his back as he was dragging Bruce Leeroy to the mat. The good news for Kron is that Charles Jourdain’s takedown defense is #4 in a police six-pack, suspect. An Alex Jones tweet has better takedown defense than Charles Jourdain. In ten UFC bouts, Jourdain’s takedown defense is forty-eight percent, but he has only been submitted (by Julian Erosa) once in his career. But if Kron gets Jourdain down, you can make that twice in Jourdain’s career.

This is an all-or-nothing scrap for Charles "In Charge" Jourdain; if he ends up on his back, the fight will likely be over quickly, but if he keeps it standing, Jourdain will dominate the stand-up and get his hand raised. Grappling with Kron is like playing Michael Jordan in a game of 21. You’re going to get dunked on twenty-one times. But on the feet, Jourdain is wild; he howls at the moon. Spinning shit, flying shit, it’s all in play for Jourdain. The keys for Jourdain will be lateral movement and up-the-middle attacks, knees, uppercuts, and long-range snap kicks. And by any means necessary, Jourdain needs to stay away from the cage and engage in the center of the Octagon. He has to make Kron work to take him down in the open mat without the cage to aid in corralling Jourdain. If/when he does end up on the mat, he has to risk ending up in a bad position and scramble back to his feet. Once Jourdain's back is flat on the mat, it's a wrap. Wrap it up, B.

The odds favor Charles Jourdain staying upright and controlling the striking; he will be the (-180) favorite, and Gracie will be the (+150) dog. Bust out the Piso Mojado signs. Kron will be dripping with value. Kron’s Fantasy value will be in a submission finish. All five of his career dubs came via submission, so his upside as a low-tier roster option will be high. Jourdain’s Fantasy value will be in significant strikes landed and a strong shot at a late finish. If Kron can’t get Jourdain to the mat, it will be like hitting pads during warmups for Jourdain. But who knows what Kron’s striking will look like after a four-year lay-off? Maybe he’ll come out looking like a Golden Gloves champ. A Kron submission will return (+250), and a Jourdain TKO/KO will return (+130), but I would probably take the over for two and a half rounds at (+150). Kron made it to the final bell against Cub Swanson because the takedown threat always makes it hard to really open up with striking. This one is a complete toss-up, fook the odds. But when in doubt, take the dog. Kron Gracie via rear-naked choke, round one.

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