Aljamain Sterling has defeated Henry Cejudo by split decision in the main event of UFC 288 in Newark, New Jersey, to retain his bantamweight title and potentially send the former Ultimate Fighting Championship two-division champion back into retirement.
Sterling took the cards 48-47, 47-48, 48-47 in the closely contested bout on Saturday evening.
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Cejudo, returning to the octagon after a three-year absence, had been the betting favourite coming into the fight.
“I wasn’t sure which way the decision was gonna go,” Sterling said. “I wish I could have done a little bit better but Henry’s a [expletive] dog, he’s a legend and it’s no easy task to run through him like I did everybody else.”
He improved to 23-3 and Cejudo fell to 16-2.
Sterling, 33, landed more total strikes, 174-110 over Cejudo, including a 110-63 advantage in signature strikes.
Sterling won the 135-pound title via disqualification due to an illegal strike in a bout he was handily losing to Petr Yan in 2021. He solidified his claim to the crown by winning a rematch via split decision a year later.
Bantamweight challenger Sean O’Malley stepped inside the cage after Sterling’s victory on Saturday, stripped off his jacket and stood nose-to-nose with him as the two fighters launched into profanity-laced tirades against each other and eventually needed to be separated.
They might get their championship match later this summer. UFC President Dana White wanted Sterling-O’Malley to fight in August in Boston – and not late night in New Jersey.
Cejudo, 36, is the only person to win an Olympic gold medal and a UFC title. He once held the bantamweight and flyweight titles – becoming one of just four UFC fighters to simultaneously hold belts in two divisions. But he abruptly retired at his peak in 2020, vacating both crowns.
Cejudo said he was a “little confused” about his future plans and would return home to his family – his wife is expecting the couple’s second child – and think hard about his fight future. He was wildly cheered through all five rounds by 17,559 fans that paid to watch Cejudo try to turn back the clock.
“Who knows, this may be the last time in the octagon,” he said.
Sterling, a Long Island, New York native, successfully defended the bantamweight championship for a record third time.
Earlier in the evening, Belal Muhammad (23-3, 1 NC) landed enough stiff kicks to Gilbert Burns’s upper body to earn a unanimous decision victory in the 170-pound five-round fight.
Muhammad and Burns exchanged a few kicks in the third and the crowd let the fighters have it at the end of another round on the card that suffered from a deficiency of sustained action. Burns appeared to hurt his left shoulder on a failed takedown attempt and could not muster much offence, one reason for a methodical pace.
Muhammad was booed when he was announced as the 50-45, 49-46, 49-46 winner and then told the crowd, “New Jersey, you suck.”
The win stamped Muhammad – who took the fight on just over two weeks’ notice and extended his winning streak to five and his unbeaten streak to 10 straight fights – as a top contender for a title shot against Leon Edwards.
Movsar Evloev defeated Diego Lopes by unanimous decision in a fight Lopes accepted on five-day notice after an injury forced Bryce Mitchell to drop out. Yan Xiaonan clobbered former UFC strawweight champion Jéssica Andrade with a big right and pounded away at her fallen foe for a TKO victory at 2:20 of the first round.
Yan’s victory could set her up for a 115-pound championship match against fellow Chinese fighter Zhang Weili.