Aljamain Sterling vs. Henry Cejudo on the UFC 288 fight card: Here are the five biggest New Jersey storylines to follow

For a bantamweight title fight, the promotion makes a trip back to the Northeast.

The sport’s deepest tier is highlighted by a title match. The Octagon will be back to the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, on Saturday for the first time since 2019.

Aljamain Sterling will face former champion Henry Cejudo, who has made a comeback after nearly three years of retirement, in an attempt to make the third defense of his 135-pound title. Belal Muhammad and Gilbert Burns, two all-action welterweights, will also face off in the co-feature, possibly with a title chance on the line.

Let’s examine the major plotlines in more detail as this weekend approaches.

1. How good can we expect Henry Cejudo to be?

Cejudo, who abruptly left the sport three years ago, is now 36. He has hinted at a comeback seemingly since he initially took a break, and during that time he has continued to be involved in MMA as a podcaster, coach-for-hire, and consultant to notable fighters like Jon Jones and Weili Zhang. When Cejudo challenges Sterling for the title he never lost, he will need to overturn a troubling statistic: UFC fighters over 35 who weigh between 125 and 170 pounds have a record of 2-28 overall in title fights. Cejudo’s overall mileage from damage sustained is still modest.

The 2008 Olympic gold winner has a brilliant fighting IQ and is one of the most intelligent and adaptable competitors in UFC history. Jones, Dominick Cruz, and other legendary fighters have recently been able to make comebacks after lengthy absences without being hindered by cage rust. If Sterling, a champion who ranks first in pound-for-pound rankings, can be defeated by Cejudo, a former two-division UFC champion, it will be more and more difficult to exclude “The Messenger” from talks of the greatest champions in the promotion’s illustrious past.

2. This is the defining test of Sterling’s title reign

Sterling’s reign as the top fighter in the 135-pound division has been heavily criticized ever since he initially won the bantamweight belt through disqualification in 2021 after Petr Yan hit an unsportsmanlike knee strike. Yes, after being sidelined for 13 months due to injuries, Sterling returned to win the rematch against Yan by a split decision. This was in a talented but congested division. But even though it was not his fault, Sterling’s second title defense last October at UFC 280 against former champion TJ Dillashaw was a complete farce because Dillashaw already had a shoulder injury, which he aggravated in the first round, leading to an easy stoppage loss. There is no denying the 33-year-old champion’s talent; he is currently on an eight-fight winning streak. Nevertheless, a convincing victory over a fighter of Cejudo’s caliber and reputation would do wonders for Sterling’s legacy and reputation, especially given the abundance of talented challengers eagerly awaiting their chance to challenge for the title.

 

3. Muhammad-Burns feels unnecessarily rushed

The promoter required a co-feature to help sell the PPV, which is the simple explanation if anyone wonders why this likely No. 1 contender’s bout two promising welterweight contenders was crammed onto Saturday’s card with only three weeks’ notice. However, the more one looks into the specifics of the risk that both fighters are taking at such a crucial time in their quest for a coveted and career-defining opportunity to compete for the 170-pound title, the more questions arise. Burns, 36, recently defeated Jorge Masvidal by decision over three rounds, and just three weeks earlier, “Durinho” defied convention by requesting a title chance from UFC management. Instead, he opted to take advantage of yet another play-in opportunity in order to earn a second chance to win UFC gold. However, this one will be a non-title fight with a five-round duration, something UFC president Dana White stated both competitors wanted. Muhammad, 34, hasn’t fought since stopping the unbeaten Sean Brady in October of last year, but even so, he wasn’t prepared for the fight when UFC contacted at the last minute. Muhammad, a practicing Muslim who observes Ramadan for a month, still had one week of fasting to complete. Despite this, he accepted the fight during a time when the UFC was frequently criticized for giving Colby Covington the opportunity to challenge Leon Edwards for the title. Because the opportunity was too good to pass up, Burns and Muhammad both said yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the best choice for the promotion or the fighters.

4. It’s out of the fryer and into the pan for Bryce Mitchell

Mitchell was a featherweight prospect with a 15-0 record who was hoping to secure a future title chance in December. However, the proud native of Arkansas came up against Ilia Topuria, who is still unbeaten, who battered Mitchell so viciously in a second-round submission loss that “Thug Nasty” was openly considering retiring at the time (at the age of 28). Five months later, Mitchell is back in the saddle taking on 16-0 Movsar Evloev, another top-10 candidate. Russian-born Evloev, 29, has won each of his six UFC fights since making his debut in 2019 and is coming off a convincing win over seasoned veteran Dan Ige. Consider this a challenging test to determine Mitchell’s current condition, both mentally and physically, in the wake of such a catastrophic defeat.

5. Bah gawd, that’s Kron Gracie’s music!

Keep that name in mind? The 34-year-old Gracie was last seen in the Octagon in 2019 after losing an all-action decision to Cub Swanson. In addition to his loyalty to his training partners, the Diaz brothers, and his ancestry as the son of Rickson Gracie and the grandson of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu co-founder Helio Gracie, 5-1 overall in MMA Gracie has long been a fascinating possibility. The most intriguing aspect of Gracie’s return, a celebrated submission grappler on a global scale, will be how he matches up with Charles Jourdain’s striking prowess. Gracie’s obstinate determination on avoiding grappling in that battle and concentrating on his raw striking earned him harsh criticism from members of his own family in the years that followed his defeat to Swanson. It’s difficult to know what kind of hunger Gracie still possesses, but he’s still young enough to possibly have an impact if he spent the layoff improving all aspects of his game.