UFC 288: Fights to make next as Aljamain Sterling ruins Henry Cejudo’s return

In the main event of UFC 288 on Saturday, Aljamain Sterling made Henry Cejudo’s return to the ring an unhappy one, retaining the bantamweight title against the former champion.

Sterling won a split decision against Cejudo, who was competing for the first time in three years, before facing off with rising star Sean O’Malley in the Octagon.

In a welterweight co-main event, Belal Muhammad outpointed an injured Gilbert Burns, who was battling a shoulder issue, and earlier in the night, Yan Xiaonan scored a TKO win over ex-strawweight champion Jessica Andrade.

Below, The Independent plays matchmaker for the protagonists of UFC 288.

Aljamain Sterling vs Sean O’Malley

This one takes care of itself, after Sterling and O’Malley faced off in the ring at the conclusion of UFC 288. O’Malley, who snatched a controversial decision win over former champion Petr Yan last time out, was expected to be next for Sterling anyway, and Saturday’s face-off only confirmed the UFC’s plan.

The only other viable contender right now is Merab Dvalishvili (more on him shortly), but he is a teammate and good friend of Sterling, and the pair have vowed never to fight one another.

Sterling’s profile does not yet match his impressive, grappling-centric skill set, but it would be boosted significantly if he were to clash with O’Malley – a slick striker and one of the fastest-rising stars in the UFC.

Sean O’Malley (centre) seems to be next for bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling (Getty Images)
Sean O’Malley (centre) seems to be next for bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling (Getty Images)

Henry Cejudo vs Merab Dvalishvili

Cejudo admitted after losing to Sterling that he did not know what would be next for him. His defeat put to bed machinations of reclaiming the bantamweight belt, which he vacated in 2020 after relinquishing the flyweight title, and moving up to featherweight to challenge for gold there.

However, the Olympic gold-medalist wrestler quickly decided that he will not make a rapid return to retirement; the American took to Twitter to call out Dvalishvili, who keenly accepted the challenge.

Cejudo expressed a desire to face the Georgian, who has won nine straight fights dating back to late 2018, in August, which would mark a quick turnaround. That might be just what Cejudo needs, however, to shed the little ring rust that he exhibited at UFC 288.

Belal Muhammad vs Leon Edwards / Colby Covington

Saturday’s bout between Muhammad and Gilbert Burns was billed as a No 1 contender’s fight at 170lbs, and the UFC should follow through with that. While champion Edwards is expected to face pantomime villain Colby Covington later this year, Muhammad should fight the winner of that contest – or even challenge Edwards in the near future, if the Covington fight is stalling.

Muhammad has history with Edwards, having fought the Briton to a No Contest in 2021, when Edwards accidentally poked the Amerian in the eye. With the exception of that strange bout, Muhammad has won nine fights in a row since late 2019 and is fully deserving of a shot at gold.

Most fans have not yet taken to the 34-year-old, but he has an unappreciated charisma, and he is improving quickly enough to suggest that he could find a way past Covington or put on a better showing against Edwards than he did in their first meeting.

Belal Muhammad (left) fought Leon Edwards to a No Contest in 2021 (Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Belal Muhammad (left) fought Leon Edwards to a No Contest in 2021 (Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Yan Xianoan vs Zhang Weili

Yan looked a step ahead of a reckless Jessica Andrade in every phase of their fight on Saturday, leading to a TKO win inside two-and-a-half minutes.

It was just a second straight win for the Chinese fighter, who suffered back-to-back losses prior to her current streak, but Yan had won 13 fights in a row before that. Furthermore, her victory over former champion Andrade saw her shoot up from sixth to third in the strawweight rankings, and the fighters ahead of her are not due a title shot right now.

A clash between Yan and compatriot Zhang, who holds the belt, would be huge for the UFC’s Chinese audience. Such a bout should take place next, and it should take place in China.

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