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UFC 288 preview: Aljamain Sterling and Henry Cejudo dreaming of 145 makes it hard to care about bantamweight title fight

UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling will defend his 135-pound strap against former division titleholder Henry Cejudo in the UFC 288 pay-per-view (PPV) main event on Sat. night (May 6, 2023) from inside Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. During the buildup to their five-round affair, both fighters have openly shared their desire to ditch the 135-pound weight class for a run at the featherweight strap, currently held by Australian assassin Alexander Volkanovski.

So then why should we care about the bantamweight division?

LIVE! Watch UFC 289 PPV On ESPN+ Here!

OCTAGON RETURNS TO THE GREAT WHITE NORTH! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to Canada for the first time in almost four years when it hosts UFC 289 inside Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Sat., June 10, 2023. In UFC 289’s pay-per-view (PPV) main event, women’s Bantamweight champion, Amanda Nunes, will lock horns with No. 5-ranked 135-pound contender, Irene Aldana, while former Lightweight kingpin and current No. 1-seeded contender, Charles Oliveira, battles No. 4-ranked Beneil Dariush in the co-feature with 155-pound title implications on the line.

Don’t miss a single second of EPIC face-punching action!

Sterling (22-3) captured the crown with a disqualification against Petr Yan at UFC 259, then retained the title with a razor-thin split decision victory in his “No Mercy” rematch. What followed was a technical knockout win over former champion TJ Dillashaw, who blew out his shoulder and basically self destructed, doing much of the heavy lifting for their UFC 280 co-main event. “Funk Master” won fair and square but unlike Volkanovski, Sterling hasn’t been tearing through the division or cleaning out the top half of the bantamweight Top 10.

In fact, Sterling previously said he was “probably going to go up to 145” long before his Cejudo fight was even booked.

“Very likely that’s the path, but I’m just going to see how this fight goes, how the weight cut goes,” Sterling told The Fighter vs. The Writer. “At the end of the day, depending on how this goes and the difficulty, I think I’ve done a better job so far of managing my weight. This could maybe even be the last one. I think it just depends on how everything runs. Making 135 is not easy. I do it. It pays the bills. It’s my job. We’ll see what happens. It’s not easy. I’m getting older, 33 years old, cut down from about 168 [pounds], sometimes I’m ‘65 to ‘68, sometimes ‘70 cutting down. When I’m not training, that’s what I walk around at, that’s my natural state and I’m not fat or out-of-shape looking for a fighter profile. But to cut down, I lose a lot to get down to this weight, and I feel like my body, it’s become more difficult to make the weight class. So we’ll see. I’m just taking it day by day, fight by fight, and then we can make a decision — and I would love to see my guy Merab (Dvalishvili) get a crack at the title.”

Dvalishvili is currently ranked No. 1 in the bantamweight division but has vowed to never fight Sterling because they are friends and teammates. Behind “The Machine” is fan favorite Sean O’Malley, followed by the resurgent Cory Sandhagen, the struggling Yan, and longtime veteran Marlon Vera. A victory for Sterling would likely set up an O’Malley title defense at some point later this year whereas a win for Cejudo might send him into battle against Dvalishvili.

“Triple C” prefers to have a “tune-up” fight against O’Malley before challenging Volkanovski.

“I’m taking [Sterling] out first and then I’m going after Ronald McDonald,” Cejudo told Megan Anderson. “That’s right, Sean O’Malley. Once I get done with [those] two tune-ups, I’m going after Alexander ‘The Average.’ I am the ‘Triple C,’ I’m looking to become ‘C4.’ I know you respect me Alexander Volkanovski but when that time comes you will see a different version of myself. Continue to keep babysitting that belt because that belt will be mine.”

Like Sterling, Cejudo (16-2) has not established himself as a dominant champion. After winning the vacant title against the fading Marlon Moraes at UFC 238, the Olympian defended his 135-pound strap by stopping Dominick Cruz at UFC 249 — with a little help from the beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking Keith Peterson. After that came a three-year hiatus and an immediate title fight against Sterling. A victory over “Funk Master” would no doubt be impressive ... but would it be enough to warrant a crack at the top pound-for-pound fighter in UFC?

“Listen, he retired,” UFC President Dana White said after Cejudo first started chirping back in 2021. “You’ve been off all this time and you want to come back and fight Volkanovski and jump the line and jump over Max and all these other guys that have been there? It’s a tough conversation.”

And it doesn’t sound like Volkanovski is looking over his shoulder.

“Stay in your lane, Henry, come on mate,” Volkanovski previously told Submission Radio. “Him coming to 145, you know, again, you gotta be quick in this division, but we’re still quick and we’re just a whole another powerful type of beast. And we’re a stacked division, a lot of very tough guys in our division that I don’t think he’ll want any of that. But maybe he’ll give it a crack, maybe UFC will let him do it. But yeah, that will change quick.”

UFC has been willing to grant “champ champ” fights in certain cases but they don’t always work out as expected. Volkanovski failed to overthrow lightweight champion Islam Makhachev at UFC 284 in Perth. Similarly, middleweight kingpin Israel Adesanya couldn’t overcome Jan Blachowicz in their light heavyweight title fight at UFC 259.

It would also be nice to maintain division integrity at 135 pounds and a little stability with the bantamweight championship. It’s hard to get either if the top names in the promotion are more concerned with dominating a different division. If they don’t care about the future of the bantamweight title, which begins at UFC 288 in “The Garden State,” then why should the fans?

Remember that 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. For the updated and finalized UFC 288 fight card and ESPN+ lineup click here.

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