Predicting how fighters will respond to long layoffs is one of the toughest parts of handicapping combat sports.
The validity of “ring rust” has been an ongoing debate with some all-time greats such as Georges St. Pierre acknowledging its impact, while other former title-holders like Dominick Cruz dismissing it. Jon “Bones” Jones recently dismantled Cyril Gane early in the first round after a three-year absence, but admitted to feeling “a little goofy” during the early striking exchanges. It’s quite possible it's a real thing, and fighters just can’t mentally allow it to exist in their world, along with anything else that could be twisted into an excuse.
The main event of UFC 288 features another all-time great in Henry Cejudo reversing course on his retirement to hop back into the Octagon after three years. Just like Jones, Cejudo has the cachet to walk right back into a title fight. The former two-division champion relinquished the bantamweight strap shortly after finishing Cruz at UFC 249.
However, the game has changed since 2020. Cruz has been pushed out of the top five of the promotion's most stacked division, which houses fighters like Merab Dvalishvili, Sean O’Malley and Cory Sandhagen. Waiting for Cejudo this Saturday night is the man that sits above them all, current bantamweight king Aljamain Sterling.
Sterling (22-3) has won eight straight fights and most recently successfully defended his title against T.J. Dillashaw at UFC 280 in October. He holds the dubious distinction of being awarded the belt via disqualification after Petr Yan landed a vicious and illegal knee in a fight that was going Yan’s way. Sterling was his best version in the rematch, erasing any doubt of his credibility as champion. He showed massive improvement while defeating Yan convincingly, lifting the dark cloud of doubt that hovered over him from being awarded the title in such an unconventional manner.
It’s been an odd path for Sterling, always having to prove himself despite his status as champion. His previous win against Dillashaw was supposed to his signature title defense, but the fight lost its luster when it was revealed Dillashaw entered the fight with a bum shoulder, severely limiting his ability to fend off Sterling’s grappling. Coming from a Dillashaw bettor, I don’t think it would have made an ounce of difference, but Sterling gets another opportunity to prove his doubters wrong this Saturday night.
Will Sterling build on his legacy by bullying the former two division champ? Or should we bet on Cejudo recapturing gold after sitting on the sidelines for the last three years?
Watching Sterling forced back into the underdog role by the betting market illustrates the respect that Cejudo’s career accomplishments carry. “Prime” Cejudo would surely enter the fight as a clear favorite, but even if ring rust isn’t a factor, the current champion poses challenges that will be difficult for Cejudo to overcome. Let’s throw layoffs, bum shoulders and previous disqualifications out of the window for now and focus on the fighters actually fighting.
Cejudo is a decorated wrestler and Olympic gold medalist. He averages 2.12 takedowns per 15 minutes, and holds a distinct advantage in that discipline over Sterling. He has decent hands, but relies on more of a karate stance to aid his ability to slip in and out of the pocket. Cejudo is a cerebral fighter who has mastered molding his strengths together to keep his opponents off balance during the course of the fight. Whether it’s the threat of the takedown opening up the striking, or vice versa, the sequencing is his secret sauce. But Sterling is a disruptor in every sense of the word.
Sterling’s size and reach will be the difference in this fight
His unique striking, led by his leg kicks, come at a fast pace and from odd angles. His massive seven-inch reach advantage (71 inches vs. 64 inches) will have Cejudo struggling to find consistent success inside the pocket. Sterling does an excellent job of using his standup to frustrate his opponents. He should be able to keep the smaller Cejudo at bay while winning rounds on the scorecards with volume. If Cejudo isn’t able to solve Sterling’s frenetic standup, then it becomes wrestler versus grappler, where Sterling’s size becomes even more of a factor. Takedowns are more of a means to an end for the “Funkmaster,” who uses his shots to force his opponent out of the position. Once he is able to initiate his grappling, he is hunting for back control.
If Sterling can leverage his size in dominant control positions, his opponents are typically left hoping they can survive long enough for the bell to save them. Cejudo’s elite wrestling and grappling defense will provide a massive test for the current champion. Cejudo has only relinquished control time in 1.51% of his fights, and it shouldn’t be assumed he will suffer the same fate as Sterling’s previous opponents. Leverage is just as important as size, but size does indeed matter, and Sterling looks massive compared to his opponent.
Best bet: Aljamain Sterling (-105)
This will only be Cejudo’s third fight at this weight class, and he is facing a yoked-up Sterling, who is one of the division’s biggest fighters. More importantly, Sterling is still developing under Ray Longo, ascending towards his prime as a fighter. I am not convinced we have seen the best version of Sterling while Cejudo is on the wrong side of his 30s. You will hear coaches talk about how the belt brings newly crowned champions a freeing confidence, and I think you definitely see that with Sterling. Cejudo will be the champ’s greatest test, but I think Sterling will be more than prepared to use his superior size, reach and athleticism to neutralize a lot of the Triple C’s offense. The layoff wasn’t a major factor in my handicap, but I think the quality of competition in the division has increased dramatically since Cejudo last fought. Bet on Aljo retaining his title in front of his hometown crowd, and proving his detractors wrong once again.
Stats provided by ufcstats, Richard Mann