Like it or not, Aljamain Sterling is the reigning, defending bantamweight champion.
Whether or not he stays that way after this weekend all depends on how well “Funk Master” performs against former 135-pound titleholder Henry Cejudo, who ends his brief retirement to lay claim to the strap he surrendered roughly three years back. Before that five-round headliner gets underway this Sat. night (May 6, 2023) at Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, the promotion will give welterweight contenders Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad 25 minutes to settle their 170-pound score, with the winner almost certainly moving on to compete for the division title. Elsewhere in the UFC 288 lineup, strawweight sluggers Jessica Andrade and Xiaonan Yan look to separate contender from pretender at 115 pounds.
Before we break down the five-fight PPV main card, be sure to take a closer look at our comprehensive preview and predictions for all the UFC 288 preliminary undercard action on ESPN and ESPN+ by clicking here and here. The latest UFC 288 odds and a complete betting guide for the entire “Sterling vs. Cejudo” PPV event can be located here. Remember, you’ll need a subscription to ESPN+ to order this weekend’s fight card (get one here), but it comes with complete access to all the subsequent UFC “Fight Night” events in 2023 and beyond (or until you cancel your subscription).
Let’s get down to business.
135 lbs.: UFC Bantamweight Champion Aljamain “Funk Master” Sterling (22-3) vs. Henry “Triple C” Cejudo (16-2)
Aljamain Sterling deserves to be taken seriously and that’s been hard for some MMA fans, for various reasons, but “Funk Master” has now won eight straight fights, defeated two former champions, and captured victory over three fighters currently ranked in the Division Top 10 (two in the Top 5). There’s not a whole lot of data that exists to challenge his place atop the bantamweight throne. Haters may not like his respective victories over former titleholder Petr Yan, but I think at this point the blame lies with “No Mercy,” who had two opportunities to keep his crown and came up short both times. Sterling is not a dangerous striker and never has been, registering a mere three knockout finishes in 25 professional fights. One of those stoppages came against TJ Dillashaw at UFC 280 back in October, which probably had more to do with Dillashaw’s shoulder injury than the champion’s ruthless ground and pound. That’s not an automatic condemnation of his striking because Sterling has better defense — statistically speaking — than Yan and No. 3-ranked contender Cory Sandhagen and just one knockout loss to his name. Sterling was also an imposing Division III collegiate wrestler and has been able to transition well to cage fighting, weaving in a formidable submission game that garnered four taps under the UFC banner. That may not sound like a big deal on paper, but no two submission finishes were the same, the mark of a well-rounded grappler.
The big question for the UFC 288 main event is how Sterling will be able to impose his biggest weapon — the aforementioned wrestling — on a wrestler with higher credentials. I don’t want to get into the folkstyle vs. freestyle debate but I will say that Olympic medals are far from a guarantee. Yoel Romero took silver at the 2000 Summer Games but got outwrestled by NCAA Division II All-American Derek Brunson at UFC Fight Night 35, getting taken down three times but whiffing on four takedowns of his own. We also have to consider that Cejudo — who was taken down by Demetrious Johnson at UFC 227 — is a natural flyweight who will be giving up three inches in height and seven inches in reach. I’m not overwhelmed with his resume at 135 pounds, which includes Marlon Moraes and Dominick Cruz. “Magic” hasn’t won a fight in over three years and Cruz is being held together with masking tape and Popsicle sticks. We also have to consider that Cejudo has not seen action in roughly three years and will now be tasked with going 25 minutes at the highest level of competition. Anyone with any fighting experience will tell you that gym cardio and competition cardio are in the same family — but are not identical twins. If you’re picking Cejudo to reclaim the crown, there’s not a large wagon on which to hook your horse. “He won a gold medal 15 years ago and Sterling doesn’t have knockout power” are both accurate, I’m just not sure they’re enough to lead to another world title. That said, expect a very close fight that starts slow and somehow gets even slower in the championship rounds.
Prediction: Sterling def. Cejudo by unanimous decision
170 lbs.: Gilbert “Durinho” Burns (22-5) vs. Belal “Remember the Name” Muhammad (22-3, 1 NC)
Now that Leon Edwards is champion, UFC matchmakers had to find a new wrestle-heavy welterweight to keep down and it appears Belal Muhammad will fit the bill, to the point where Colby Covington scored yet another welterweight title shot despite coming up short in two previous attempts. I’ve heard people argue, “Yeah but he also beat Tyron Woodley and Jorge Masvidal;” well, so did Gilbert Burns and he’s still trailing “Chaos” in title shots by a score of 1-3. Fortunately for both “Durinho” and “Remember the Name,” a victory at UFC 288 will result in the next crack at the 170-pound crown. I can’t help but wonder where the division would be had an errant eye poke not ended Muhammad’s fight against Leon Edwards at UFC Vegas 21 but alas, here we are. Much like Sterling in the UFC 288 main event, the time has come to take Muhammad seriously. The Chicagoan has gone nine straight fights without a loss and smoked rising star Sean Brady at UFC 280 last October. That fight was yet another example of how Muhammad was picked to lose and still came out with a win. First we heard how Demian Maia would submit him, then came the talk of Stephen Thompson outstriking him, followed by the chatter about Vicente Luque breaking him. None of those scenarios came to pass and Muhammad just kept on winning. He also boasts the second-best takedown defense in the history of the division behind former champion Kamaru Usman. Not bad for a guy with no collegiate wrestling accolades.
Gilbert Burns turns 37 in July and like every other contender, is once again “in the mix” now that Kamaru Usman has been unseated from the 170-pound throne. The Brazilian has won eight of his last 10 and rebounded from his Usman loss to compile a 3-1 record which includes consecutive victories over Neil Magny and Jorge Masvidal. He’s a well-rounded fighter but known more for his wrestling and submissions, having outwrestled seven of his last 10 opponents. As far as his striking, his only knockout win since jumping up to lightweight was his first-round finish over 40-something Demian Maia at UFC Fight Night 170. As we saw in his “Fight of the Night” against Khamzat Chimaev, “Durinho” is prepared to go to hell and back in any and all fights and I expect nothing less against Muhammad. Much has been made about the decision to extend this co-main event to five rounds on short notice with both fighters facing challenging weight cuts, but I don’t expect it to be much of a factor for either of these seasoned veterans. Burns and Mohammad do much of the same thing, stylistically speaking, the just do it a little bit different. If you’re a Burns fan then you have to be concerned about Muhammad’s takedown defense because that's the Brazilian’s bread-and-butter, so unless he can land the one-hitter quitter, or at least uncork enough power shots to make “Remember the Name” remember the distance, I think Burns spends most of this fight playing cat-and-mouse, winging wild right hands while getting taken down at the most inopportune times.
Prediction: Muhammad def. Burns by unanimous decision
115 lbs.: Jessica “Bate Estaca” Andrade (24-10) vs. Xiaonan “Fury” Yan (16-3, 1 NC)
Former UFC strawweight champion Jessica Andrade will make her return to the 115-pound weight class, yet again, after getting handled by Erin Blanchfield in their UFC Vegas 69 flyweight headliner earlier this year. It’s hard to say she’s a natural strawweight or doesn’t belong at 125 pounds when prior to her “Cold Blooded” submission loss, “Bate Estaca” was putting the hurt on ranked contenders like Lauren Murphy. The scouting report hasn’t changed much on the Brazilian and I don’t think it’s outrageous to suggest she hasn’t evolved to much degree over the years. After all if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Andrade holds multiple strawweight records including Total Fight Night Bonuses (8), Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute (6.7) and Bottom Position Percentage (0.78%). She’s also tied for first in both Finishes (5) and Knockouts (3). Remember, those numbers don’t include her bantamweight or flyweight stats, where in the latter she holds records for Strikes Landed Per Minute (9.31) and Striking Differential (3.55). Even if you’re not a fan of women’s MMA, it’s hard to not have fun during a Jessica Andrade fight because she just slams her foot on the gas and doesn’t let up until the fight’s over. Not necessarily the best gameplan, as we’ve seen in some of her losses, but it’s helped her bank nearly a half-million in bonus payouts. On top of that, Andrade is just 31 years old, so she’s still operating in her athletic prime and should be considered as deadly as she’s ever been.
Xiaonan Yan made her Octagon debut back in late 2017 and quickly jumped out to a 6-0 start, turning away established veterans like Angela Hill and Claudia Gadelha along the way. That streak was good enough to land “Fury” at No. 3 in the official strawweight rankings, right behind former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, but she lost her chance to fight for the title when Carla Esparza put her away at UFC Vegas 23. A follow-up loss to Marina Rodriguez, which may or may not have been scored in the wrong direction, sent Yan to the back of the line. She didn’t stay there very long, bouncing back with a majority decision victory over submission wunderkind Mackenzie Dern at UFC Vegas 61. Despite her success, not a lot of fans are clamoring for a Yan title shot. Partly because her English stinks and she can’t really sell herself but mostly because all seven of her wins have come by way of decision, a huge disappointment considering “Fury” scored seven knockouts on the international circuit before crossing over to UFC. Whether or not she can defeat Andrade all depends on how well she can play matador. Perhaps if this was a five-round fight, allowing Yan to take over after “Bate Estaca” slows down in the later rounds, I would be more optimistic about her chances. Yan has pretty good offensive wrestling but she’s also been taken down 10 times in her UFC career. Unless Andrade makes an egregious error or gets a little too sloppy in the standup, I think Yan is going to spend most of the fight in panic mode as the Brazilian overwhelms her with punches. A late finish would not surprise me.
Prediction: Andrade def. Yan by technical knockout
145 lbs.: Movsar Evloev (16-0) vs. Diego Lopes (20-5)
For those of you just tuning it, or perhaps missed our “omg purple boi not fighting” post from earlier in the week, Movsar Evloev is no longer facing Bryce Mitchell this weekend in “Dirty Jersey” because “Thug Nasty” had some kind of ailment that sent him to the sidelines. That’s unfortunate because I think he presented an interesting challenge to the undefeated Russian, who crossed over from the M-1 Challenge ranks back in early 2019. Since then, the Ingushetia import has been nothing short of outstanding, racking up six straight wins over increasingly difficult competition. That includes his UFC Vegas 56 victory over No. 13-ranked Dan Ige, which helped propel Evloev to the No. 10 spot at 145 pounds. In news that is almost certain to blow your mind, the Russian bruiser relies primarily on his wrestling to neutralize his opponents, to the tune of nearly 30 takedowns in just six UFC fights. The only exception came at UFC Fight Island 3, when Evloev was paired off against freestyle phenom and Commonwealth Games bronze medalist Mike Grundy. The Brit scored six takedowns in their fight against zero for Evloev but still managed to lose the bout on points. That brings us to one of the few critiques against Evloev. He’s been able to keep himself in the win column, but unlike the regional scene, he’s failed to secure a single finish in his UFC career.
Diego Lopes steps into this PPV main card affair with the odds stacked against him — literally. The Brazilian is +600 underdog against -900 for Evloev. Casual fans may be unfamiliar with the 28 year-old featherweight, who makes his Octagon debut this weekend after failing to make the grade on Dana White’s “Contender Series” back in Aug. 2021 (Lopes dropped a technical decision to Joanderson Brito). Lopes is coming off back-to-back wins on the regional circuit but has not seen action since last fall, which is concerning when you think about the kind of pace he will need to keep against a punishing wrestler like Evloev. Even more troubling are his stats from his one-off on “Contender Series” — Lopes was taken down three times by Brito and yes, that was also a short-notice fight. It would be irresponsible to completely write him off; after all, he’s a dangerous grappler (and jiu-jitsu coach for UFC flyweight champion Alexa Grasso) with 18 finishes in 20 wins. I just have a hard time picking against the fresher fighter with superior wrestling and a full camp.
Prediction: Evloev def. Lopes by unanimous decision
145 lbs.: Kron Gracie (5-1) vs. Charles “Air” Jourdain 13-6-1
Kron Gracie is the son of Rickson Gracie and grandson of Helio Gracie, so when people say that jiu jitsu is in his blood, they’re not kidding. But Kron was not content to skate by on his name, he continued the Gracie legacy with a storied grappling career that included multiple IBJJF world championships, a nearly unheard of 51-match submission streak, and a gold medal at Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC). There are very few fighters in UFC who can survive 15 minutes locked inside the cage with the 34 year-old Brazilian because sooner or later, he's going to get close enough to grapple. Keeping his submissions at bay requires a level of defense that is just not attainable for most cage fighters, who must focus on all aspects of MMA. That said, well-traveled veteran Cub Swanson, despite having seven of his 13 losses come by way of submission, proved that a finish is not a foregone conclusion. Speaking of Swanson, that was the last time anyone saw Gracie inside the Octagon. He moved to the mountains in Montana and had to get his personal life back on track before he could continue his combat sports career, which is a shame, because he missed nearly four years of his competitive prime and the division has only gotten stronger.
Charles Jourdain is seven years younger than Gracie at age 27 and has competed nine times since Gracie went missing from UFC. Unfortunately those nine fights returned a record of 4-4 with one draw, making me wonder if the Canadian featherweight is being used as a soft landing for the returning Gracie, who will no doubt have his fair share of cage rust. Jourdain is a well-rounded fighter and a surprisingly effective finisher, having racked up eight knockouts and four submissions in 13 wins. He’s also got a pretty durable chin. That said, he’s coming off back-to-back losses to Shane Burgos and Nathaniel Wood, which may have shown us his ceiling. I would certainly give the advantage in both striking and power to Jourdain, though his jab is not the kind of distance-maker that would keep Gracie honest. It’s also important to note that Jourdain has been taken down 21 times in 10 fights with UFC, leaving him with a takedown defense percentage of less than 50 percent. Folks, that stat is just bowling shoe ugly and the biggest reason why I can’t pick Jourdain to win. Gracie may have his own hurdles to clear in this comeback contest, but everything about “Air” and the way he fights is tailor-made for a grappler of his merit.
Prediction: Gracie def. Jourdain by submission
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.
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