This weekend marks the return of Henry Cejudo to the UFC after a three-year retirement. He will challenge the reigning bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling in the main event of UFC 288. While Cejudo is a former two-division champ, Sterling has brought stability to the 135-pound division since Cejudo’s sudden retirement. In this battle of the elite fighters, who will come out on top?
To become a UFC champion, a fighter has to have expertise in various areas, and Sterling is a specialist in initiating grappling sequences from tie-ups and clinches. Sterling will not be able to out-wrestle Cejudo, but he can create opportunities to find a fight-winning position through tie-ups and clinches. Sterling is also three inches taller and has a seven-inch reach advantage over Cejudo, but he is not a great striker and feels uncomfortable throwing strikes.
Sterling’s best path to victory would be to act as an out-fighter by sticking a jab in Cejudo’s chest and landing chop kicks to make him explode in to cover distance. Whenever Cejudo does this, Sterling can either circle away or grab those tie-ups. Never get stuck in the intermediate range with Cejudo, but make him work around Sterling’s physical attributes.
Cejudo’s Olympic gold medalist wrestling is at the core of his MMA game, but this time it may not work as Sterling is an elite MMA grappler who excels in scrambling and finding his way to dominant positions. Therefore, Cejudo should keep the fight upright, and focus on his surprisingly sophisticated striking game.
Cejudo should try attacking at those interim moments while Sterling is standing square, thereby using his faster footwork and powerful punches to knock Sterling out. Cejudo does have the option of scoring takedowns, as he is a good top position grappler himself.
There are concerns over Cejudo’s three-year layoff and his age, as statistics show that no fighter 35+ in title bouts below 170 pounds has ever won. Cejudo is 36 while Sterling is 33. While ring rust may not be an issue for Cejudo, his age and the fact that he is not competing at his ideal weight-class may be factors that work against him.
In conclusion, Cejudo is an excellent athlete, but his prime is past him. Sterling, on the other hand, has been consistently defeating the best opponents in the 135-pound division.