Aljamain Sterling and Henry Cejudo went in opposite directions after a close title fight
Henry Cejudo said he tried to climb Mount Everest and found little consolation that he almost reached the summit. The 2008 Olympic champion ended a three-year retirement from the UFC with a near miss. He made a split decision against bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling on Saturday of the main event of UFC 288 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
It was a fight that could have gone to the end, with all three judges scoring it 3-2 in rounds. Mike Bell had it 48-47 for Cejudo and gave the one-time flyweight and bantamweight champion rounds 2, 3 and 5. But he was overruled by judges Derek Cleary and Eric Colon, who each scored it 48-47 for Sterling. Cleary handed Sterling rounds 1, 4 and 5 and Colon handed him rounds 1, 2 and 4. Yahoo Sports had it 48-47 for Sterling.
It was a brilliant performance from an exceptional champion, but it was also an incredible performance from a man who is now 36 and hadn’t fought since the early days of the pandemic.
“The guy is crazy clever‘ Sterling said of his defeated opponent. “I don’t think many people could even understand what was going on in the middle of that octagon. We both [were] make adjustments to each other’s adjustments. It was a high-level physical chess match.”
Cejudo praised Sterling and spoke of how awkward he was to fight. Cejudo has repeatedly called himself the greatest martial artist of all time, but when asked if he thought Sterling deserved to be considered the greatest bantamweight man of all time, he gave him plenty of praise.
Cejudo expects a lot from himself and is therefore often hard on others. But as he pondered the question, he gave a surprising answer.
“I think so,” Cejudo said.
That’s open to debate, but Sterling’s record, especially of late, isn’t. In his last five bouts he has beaten three former champions, defeating Petr Yan twice, TJ Dillashaw and Cejudo. He also submitted Cory Sandhagen in the first round and Sandhagen is the No. 3 bantamweight at this point.
Sterling has been unfairly taunted and taunted for being the victim of an illegal and very ill-advised knee kick by Yan. He came back to beat Yan, ran through Dillashaw and then defeated one of the best in UFC history.
He may not be the best bantamweight in UFC history, but he’s not far off.
Its size and reach were issues Cejudo never fully resolved, and Cejudo lamented missed opportunities. All three judges gave Sterling the first, a round cejudo he had in hand.
“I missed that first round,” said Cejudo. “He kind of stole it after I took him down. I was leaning against the cage too much. I probably should have respected his cage a bit more. I tried to take a breather there.”
It was the kind of fight where the smallest mistakes were magnified. Cejudo is unsure of what the future holds for him. UFC President Dana White praised him for his efforts after the long layoff, but said he believes in ring rust and that it’s hard to get over such long layoffs.
“Even Muhammad Ali,” White said. “He was gone for three years and when he came back he was never the same. I’m not saying he wasn’t good. He’s won a lot of fights and done some great things, but he’s never been the same. He was those three years ago.”
Cejudo’s wife Karolina is pregnant with the couple’s second child. Cejudo said he never wanted to fight as a father because a fighter’s life requires selfishness from one. He did it on Saturday but he’s not sure if he still has one in him.
However, he appeared inclined as reporters hounded him about various possible fights and he spoke of the UFC showing him the money.
“Even in the last two to three months, I haven’t been able to give my child this attention. … I’m a good father and I enjoy spending time with my child,” Cejudo said. “I love playing with her. But it’s just like dropping weight, not maintaining it, kind of neglecting it, letting a lot of my training partners play with it. It’s the stuff that I know a lot of y’all don’t fuck it, but to me, time with my kid means the world to me.”
As Cejudo faces an uncertain future, Sterling knows exactly what to expect. White confirmed that he would face Sean O’Malley for number two on August 17 in Boston. O’Malley came into the cage on Saturday to confront Sterling. Things heated up between them and got almost physical as Sterling vowed to destroy him. Sterling hopes defeating Cejudo will finally earn him the respect of the keyboard warriors, who take to social media to taunt him with words they would never say to his face.
Sterling is clearly fed up with all of this.
“Respect my name,” he said after going out and earning that respect. Asked about O’Malley, he began spitting fire.
“My thoughts on Sean O’Malley are that mother is frail,” Sterling said. “Frail. If I can beat a short, burly guy like Henry, who’s actually a gold medalist and has good takedown defense, what do I do with Sean O’Malley? Let’s face it folks. Yes, he was promised a title shot. He chose not to make the title shot, giving Henry a chance to come back and chase history. I beat Henry and now there’s no more racing.
“Either you want to swim with the big boys or you don’t. If not, get that shit out of the pool.”