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Henry Cejudo trains at Fight Ready MMA in Scottsdale, Arizona, on April 17, 2023. (Photo by Zac Pacleb/Zuffa LLC)
Fight Coverage

Coach Conversation | Aljamain Sterling vs Henry Cejudo

Elite MMA Coaches Break Down Newark's Bantamweight Main Event At UFC 288 This Saturday

Ahead of every championship fight, UFC staff writer E. Spencer Kyte will sit down with some of the sharpest coaching minds in the sport to break down the action and provide UFC fans with insights into each championship pairing from the men that spend their days getting these elite athletes prepared to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.

For UFC 288, Kyte called upon Tyson Chartier, head coach of the New England Cartel, and Eliot Marshall, co-owner and head instructor at Easton Training Center in Denver, Colorado to provide their thoughts on four points heading into the bantamweight championship main event between defending champ Aljamain Sterling and returning former two-division titleholder Henry Cejudo.

Order UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo

Best Trait of Each Fighter

Kyte: At a time in the sport where everyone is pretty solid everywhere, generally speaking, what is the one thing that each of these competitors do better than anyone else?

Marshall: So the best trait of Aljamain Sterling — what he does best is grappling, and we know this, but what I think is his best trait, is his ability to get the fight into the grappling.

When you look at his striking, it doesn’t look good; it looks as though he should get pieced up, but he doesn’t get pieced up and he’s able to always get it into his realm, especially as of late. I thought Petr Yan was going to piece him up in that second fight, and it didn’t happen. So yeah, that’s his best trait.

Chartier: It’s funny because I kind of think it’s the same thing — wrestling — but then I also think they’re both extremely smart fighters and very cerebral.

If you look at Aljo, he has an idea of how to stick to what he’s good at while avoiding what the other person is good at. He’s not a one-trick pony, but he’s so good at being long, closing that distance, and getting your back. If you look at Cejudo, he’s probably a little more dangerous on the feet, but he’s also got that wrestling background, which is what made him dangerous.

How To Watch UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo

And they’re both really smart — Aljo understands fighting, he understands matchup styles, breaking down fights, strategies, that kind of stuff, and Cejudo is obviously a very good coach that has been helping a lot of other people prepare for their fights.

Marshall: Henry’s best trait — obviously he can grapple and box; he can wrestle and box, but I think his best trait is his intelligence. His IQ for MMA is so ridiculous; it’s on the Jon Jones level.

Path to Victory for Each Fighter

Kyte: Everyone would love a 10-second knockout or a quick submission, but that’s not often how these things go, especially not at the championship level. Instead, it’s usually the competitor that has crafted the better game plan and did the better job of executing things inside the Octagon that comes away with their hand raised and the gold around their waist.

So, how does either man get it done on Saturday night?

Chartier: I think Aljo has to make it a little bit ugly and just hang on him, like he always does. Close the distance, touch, touch, get in there and make him wrestle on his terms; try to get to that back and just win from positions.

Cejudo has to not use his wrestling; it’s got to be more of that Petr Yan style — pick your shots, not over-commit, and stay out of the clinch because I think Sterling’s wrestling style isn’t one that even someone with a high level of wrestling is going to be able to defend and dictate. It’s more of a chunky, very slick, get to your back, use length until he’s on your back (approach).

Cejudo has got to come forward, be cautious with his weapons, but manage the distance enough to not get stuck in the clinch.

READ: Henry Cejudo Found The Fire To Fuel His Return

Marshall: The path to victory for Aljamain is to get Henry down and secure the back. If he’s able to get Henry down, Henry is going to scramble, and Aljamain is going to have to out-scrabble him and get his back, because we all know Aljamain is a killer there.

Aljamain is not winning this fight any other way. I’m not saying it has to be a finish — he could very easily do that three times and I don’t know that Henry will escape (Sterling being on his back) because it really seems if Aljamain gets your back, that’s the round. If he’s able to do that three times (or more), that’s the win.

But I’ll be honest with you: Henry Cejudo can win it any other way than that. That’s the only way Aljo can win, in my opinion, while Henry can win it on the feet, he can win it taking Aljo down. Henry will win it in every other way.

X Factor

Kyte: If there were one thing that was going to significantly impact how this fight plays out — that swings it in one direction or the other — what would it be?

Aljamain Sterling Sits Down With Megan Olivi | UFC 288
Aljamain Sterling Sits Down With Megan Olivi | UFC 288

Marshall: The No. 1 X factor is Henry Cejudo.

Henry Cejudo made a bad play (in walking away) and when you make bad plays in an athletic career, that could have been your athletic prime. He was good before he was hitting it, but he wasn’t that good. Benavidez beat him in a close fight, DJ smashed him, and then he had some other closer fights before he hit his stride. Once he hit his stride, he looked very, very unbeatable.

You can’t keep that stride not doing it. The (most important) factors for the lighter weights are speed, athleticism, and agility, and those are the things that go away with age. You get a step slower, a step less athletic, and you don’t notice it until it’s fight time; you don’t notice it.

Order UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo

Chartier: I think the big question is how does Cejudo look after this long of a layoff?

We don’t know if he’s going to come in looking really good with all that time off, all that time spent behind the whistle coaching to where now he’s taken a step back, can look at the sport differently and comes in that much sharper? Or is he gonna come in and look a little slower, a little tired?

He’s been coaching, but I can tell you that it is a distraction (when you’re trying to fight, too). How much has he been putting in himself these last three years? I just don’t know what to expect from Cejudo.

Henry Cejudo Sits Down With Daniel Cormier | UFC 288
Henry Cejudo Sits Down With Daniel Cormier | UFC 288

Marshall: Here’s another one I just thought of: in the Makhachev fight with Volkanovski, Volkanovski was so much shorter than Islam that it made the wrestling very hard for Islam — it made it very difficult because of the level-changing and all of that.

Man, Cejudo is short and Aljo is long for the weight class, so will we see the same difficulty for Aljo in terms of getting in and close the distance because of the movement and footwork of Henry Cejudo?

Coaching Curiosity

Kyte: Coaches see the sport differently and look at the sport differently than anyone else, picking up on different things and paying attention to movements, habits, or intangible pieces that others might not notice, but that could have a significant impact on the action inside the Octagon.

Every matchup offers its own unique collection of elements that might pique a coach’s interest and get them paying a little closer attention to once the fight gets underway.

So what is that one thing in this matchup?

Chartier: Is Aljo able to win the clinch scrambles? Is he able to get his hands on him — whether it be a single, a double, a body lock; whatever — and find his way to his back? If he’s able to do that — damn — and is Henry going to be able to get away?

It’s not often where you see wrestlers that are as good as Aljo is at wrestling that are also very good grapplers. Usually you get a good wrestler, a good grappler, but it’s not often you get someone that is world-class at both — a world-class wrestling that is really, really good at dictating the range, the positions, the tempo, and has world-class back attacks.

So is Sterling’s grappling mixed with wrestling better than Cejudo’s wrestling?

Marshall: I really want to see if Aljo can do the Aljo thing — I’m really interested! Is Aljo gonna somehow — and I don’t know how — get Henry down, get his back, and win the fight, while not getting knocked out with that weird, herky-jerky style on the feet that he has… but you can’t fault it; he’s the champ!

It’s not pretty — not at all — but it works; it gets the job done. Cory (Sandhagen) is pretty — you watch Cory fight and you’re like, ‘Damn! That was beautiful what you just did!’ Aljo is not that, not even close to that, but it works.

UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo took place live from the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on May 6, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass