Sterling vs Cejudo: The greatest fighter you’ve never heard of is back at UFC 288

·4-min read

When Henry Cejudo steps into the Octagon on Saturday, it will be almost three years to the day since he last did so. On 9 May 2020, Cejudo was the reigning UFC bantamweight champion, defending his title against Dominick Cruz – one of the best of all time, but running the risk of ring rust after three years away. This weekend, Cejudo will play Cruz’s role: that of an all-time great returning from an extended absence, bidding to reclaim the gold he once held. In the UFC 288 main event, it will be Aljamain Sterling playing Cejudo’s role: the in-form champion, looking to turn a great into a ghost for good.

Cejudo crept slowly into the conversation around the UFC’s most-accomplished athletes, edging past flyweight ‘GOAT’ Demetrious Johnson on points before retaining the title against then-bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw with a quickfire TKO, and going on to claim the belt that Dillashaw vacated with an impressive, comeback stoppage of Marlon Moraes. Almost suddenly, the American had become one of just four dual-weight champions in UFC history, adding those gold belts to the Olympic gold medal that the wrestler won in 2008.

Cejudo soon relinquished the flyweight title, then in his first defence of the bantamweight strap, he was a step ahead of Cruz in most exchanges before stopping his fellow American late in Round 2. Moments later, Cejudo vacated that title, too, and announced his retirement from MMA.

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Cejudo (16-2) has never claimed to be the greatest flyweight of all time, nor the greatest bantamweight ever, but by beating Johnson and Cruz, he earned wins over the fighters to whom most fans assign those tags. He had also forged his own: the greatest ‘combat athlete’ of all time.

Cejudo (right) retained the bantamweight belt against Dominick Cruz in his last fight before retiring (Getty Images)
Cejudo (right) retained the bantamweight belt against Dominick Cruz in his last fight before retiring (Getty Images)

That status looks set to remain intact for the foreseeable future, and with it secured, Cejudo turned his focus to building a family. In his absence, the flyweight title picture has been dominated by an enthralling rivalry between Brandon Moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo, who have passed the title back and forth numerous times, but Sterling has ushered in greater stability atop the bantamweight ladder.

That process took time, however. It was Petr Yan who won the vacant belt after Cejudo’s retirement, beating featherweight legend Jose Aldo, before losing the title to Sterling via an illegal knee. While Yan was at fault for the deflating finish to a fight that he was winning, fans directed their scorn at Sterling, rather than the Russian. Many expected and wished for a Yan victory in his rematch with the Jamaican-American 13 months later, but Sterling – fresh off major neck surgery – implemented his grappling prowess to outpoint the striking specialist.

Aljamain Sterling (left) won his rematch with Petr Yan on points (Getty Images)
Aljamain Sterling (left) won his rematch with Petr Yan on points (Getty Images)

Again, inexplicably, fans sided against Sterling when Dillashaw looked to regain the gold from Sterling in October, despite the American’s recent two-year ban for using EPO – an injectable, performance-enhancing drug, for which he tested positive after losing to Cejudo. After being dominated by Sterling for the best part of two rounds, Dillashaw suffered a TKO loss and revealed that he had suffered a dislocated shoulder in the fight – and that he had battled that injury repeatedly throughout camp. One last time before retiring, Dillashaw had duped fans, but once again he had come up short regardless.

Sterling (22-3), meanwhile, extended his already lengthy winning run. The 33-year-old is now unbeaten since December 2017 and has won eight straight fights. While “Funk Master” is most respected for his grappling and submissions, he also benefits from a creative striking approach, which he chains to his wrestling via suffocating forward pressure. His wrestling, one would suspect, will be neutralised by that of Cejudo, however, especially with the Olympian having only been taken down once in 12 UFC fights.

And Cejudo, now 36, prefers a slower approach. “Triple C” – as he calls himself, due to his two UFC championships and one Olympic title – operates out of a Karate stance, switching between orthodox and southpaw at will, biding his time to perceive and pry into openings. The width of a Karate stance has its disadvantages, mainly the heavy front-foot weighting that Moraes exploited early on against Cejudo, but the American’s height – or lack thereof, at 5ft3in – compensates to a degree. So do his ring IQ (perhaps unrivalled) and resilience, both of which he demonstrated to turn the tide against Moraes.

Those kinds of assets do not wane with time or absence from the ring; Cejudo will count on that in New Jersey on Saturday, for there will be questions around the more susceptible elements of a fighter’s skill set, such as speed, strength, and punch resistance. Cruz, game as he was, exhibited in his defeat by Cejudo how those assets can deplete.

Cejudo is now in a similar situation to that of Cruz three years ago, but if anyone can counteract the effects of age and absence, “Triple C” can. Against a prime Sterling, he will have to.

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