Ranking the fights at UFC 288: Why Henry Cejudo’s return tops the list
A UFC 288 pay-per-view event is set to go down this weekend in Newark — and if we’re being honest, this one is vulnerable to being overlooked.
The UFC promoted two PPV events in March, and both felt like signature events. UFC 285 featured the long-anticipated heavyweight debut of Jon Jones, while UFC 286 saw the third chapter of a rivalry between Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman (in the perfect setting of London, no less).
Last month, the UFC returned to Miami for the first time in 20 years and brought along the King of Miami, Jorge Masvidal, and one of the biggest stars of the sport in Israel Adesanya, for UFC 287.
There’s no question at all that UFC 288 (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV) brings a solid main card lineup — but it might lack the obvious storylines of its three predecessors. At least on the surface. This card is immensely important to multiple divisions. A few months or a few years from now, we might look back and say this card played a critical role in several narratives.
So, let’s have a bit of fun and rank the five main card bouts in terms of anticipation going into UFC 288.
I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating: Henry Cejudo could end up being fighter of the year in 2023. His accomplishments get overlooked — because of the “King of Cringe” gimmick he likes to portray — but this man was at the very top of the sport when he retired in 2020. If he is still at that level, anything is possible.
What if Cejudo beats Sterling, which he is currently a betting favorite to do, despite three years off? What if he then goes and beats Sean O’Malley, who has told me he will be in attendance Saturday? What if the UFC then allows him to move up to 145 pounds, which I believe they would, to challenge featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski?
Considering all of the elements at play, if Cejudo is able to pull off that run, it could go down as the greatest year in UFC history. That’s the level of accomplishment we’re talking about here.
Sterling, meanwhile, seems to finally be at peace with his status in the sport. He felt the need to explain himself after he won the championship by disqualification against Petr Yan in March 2021, but since then he’s gone on to beat Yan in a rematch and completely dismantle TJ Dillashaw. He still has critics but he seems to genuinely not care, which is a healthy place to be.
If Sterling beats Cejudo, I believe his year is set up similarly to Cejudo’s. Beat O’Malley. Featherweight title shot. And the only reason his year would be slightly less historically impressive than Cejudo’s is that Cejudo would be vying to become an unprecedented three-division UFC champ. Still, regardless of who it is, the winner is on path for potential fighter of the year.
Gilbert Burns dominates fight with Jorge Masvidal in co-main event
Gilbert Burns sends Jorge Masvidal into retirement with a dominant performance from start to finish at UFC 287.
I won’t rehash the details behind this two-week-notice co-main event, as I did so late last week, but to put it briefly, it’s amazing this fight has come together at all, given the circumstances. And the fact these two are willing to risk their places in line in order to cement a title fight in their next appearance is admirable.
Beyond the story of how this fight came together, what are we going to see once it starts? It’s fascinating. Muhammad went from not having a fight booked at all to preparing for a five-rounder in essentially two weeks. He is cutting more than half of the weight he normally would for a regular fight. And his style weaponizes pace. Will that weapon be there?
The winner is going to fight for the welterweight title the next time we see him — depending on circumstances, either late 2023 or early 2024. Possibly in March 2024, if the UFC keeps to its recent schedule of visiting London during that month. Whenever it happens, we’ll be talking about the winner of this fight as a title contender for the rest of the year.
There’s a storyline here that some might not be aware of. These two were booked to fight in December, but Evloev was forced to withdraw with an injury.
That led to Mitchell taking to social media to post a video in which he said he had “never been so harassed” in his life, as Evloev had repeatedly called him out to accept a fight and even, according to Mitchell, sent him smiling selfies behind the scenes, daring him to take the matchup.
Mitchell was supposed to face Jonathan Pearce on this card, but Pearce withdrew due to injury. Evloev had been healthy for a while and was looking for a fight date, but the UFC was struggling to book him. After what happened in December, some in Evloev’s camp didn’t expect Mitchell to accept him as an opponent. Instead, Mitchell took it immediately and told ESPN he was happy with the way it all played out.
Evloev is a sleeper to win the featherweight championship at some point. He flies relatively under the radar thanks to his grinding, steadfast style — all six of his wins in the UFC have come via decision — but there’s no question about his talent. If he wins here, this could be the fight to propel him to a position where higher-ranked fighters have to face him.
A little bit of heat and stakes in this 145-pound fight, between two guys who are still seeking their first UFC title shot.
Gracie, an ADCC grappling champion and son of Rickson Gracie, hasn’t been in MMA news much over the last four years. He won his UFC debut in 2019 by submitting Alex Caceres (who, by the way, has since risen to a No. 15 ranking in the featherweight division), but then suffered a massive setback in a loss to Cub Swanson. When the UFC announced this matchup, it was met with genuine surprise.
And honestly, that accounts for much of the appeal going into this one. Mystery. Gracie’s level of submission grappling represents an ace card in any division, but his loss to Swanson four years ago showed a lack of overall skill and connectivity to the rest of his game. Has that been shored up? Or is this the exact Gracie we saw four years ago?
The opponent selection is super interesting, in that Jourdain is known for entertaining fights. He’s only won Fight of the Night once in the UFC, but he’s been on a short list of candidates for the bonus multiple times. How will that translate to Gracie’s style — as it feels very safe to say, Gracie will look to take him down or at least latch onto him in some way on the feet?
Watch the reaction to Jessica Andrade’s stunning win
Jessica Andrade gets Amanda Lemos to tap out in Round 1 and everyone is shocked.
The intrigue here really is on Andrade, because it’s fair to question what version of her we’ll see. Andrade, at her best, is championship caliber. She held the belt, briefly, in 2019 and has fought for it in multiple weight classes. This is already her third appearance in 2023. She looked amazing in January, defeating Lauren Murphy — and very average in February, in a loss to Erin Blanchfield.
Andrade is on a new contract (thanks to her willingness to take the fight against Blanchfield on short notice), and sometimes, that can result in a little bit of complacency. This isn’t negative talk, it’s just reality. When a fighter has held the belt, fought for the belt numerous times and then gets rewarded with a lucrative contract, questions around hunger and improvement can swirl. Based on her last performance, there is some question as to how hungry Andrade still is for the belt itself.
She’s a rarity in that she legitimately is viewed as a title challenger in multiple weight classes at the same time, but that will fade if she doesn’t look good here. And keep in mind, “look good” is the right way to phrase that. Even if she wins but looks unimpressive against Yan, there won’t be much hype around Andrade. She’ll be in a strong position, but hype can matter in this sport.
The full UFC 287 fight card
ESPN+ PPV, 10 p.m. ET
Men’s bantamweight championship: Aljamain Sterling (c) vs. Henry Cejudo
Welterweight: Belal Muhammad vs. Gilbert Burns
Women’s strawweight: Jessica Andrade vs. Yan Xiaonan
Men’s featherweight: Movsar Evloev vs. Bryce Mitchell
Men’s featherweight: Kron Gracie vs. Charles Jourdain
ESPN, ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Lightweight: Drew Dober vs. Matt Frevola
Light heavyweight: Kennedy Nzechukwu vs. Devin Clark
Welterweight: Khaos Williams vs. Rolando Bedoya
Women’s strawweight: Marina Rodriguez vs. Virna Jandiroba
ESPN, ESPN+, 6 p.m.
Heavyweight: Braxton Smith vs. Parker Porter
Middleweight: Phil Hawes vs. Ikram Aliskerov
Men’s flyweight: Rafael Estevam vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov
Middleweight: Joseph Holmes vs. Claudio Ribeiro
Men’s bantamweight: Daniel Santos vs. Johnny Munoz
(c) = defending champion