The UFC returns to “The Rock” in Newark, New Jersey this weekend for the first time since the summer of 2019 with a pay-per-view event headlined by a colossal clash between reigning bantamweight champ Aljamain Sterling and returning former two-division titleholder Henry Cejudo.
While the championship main event and welterweight bout between Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad that now occupies the penultimate slot on Saturday’s fight card at the Prudential Center are rightfully garnering the lion’s share of attention as we kick off UFC 288 fight week, this event also features several additional key matchups across a number of divisions, as well as the chance to get a closer look at a trio of emerging talents.
Order UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo
One is returning for the first time in nearly a year, aiming to build off a career-best showing last time out, while the other two are Dana White’s Contender Series grads that turned in dominant efforts last fall at the UFC APEX and want to keep things rolling as they step into the Octagon for the first time this weekend.
This is the UFC 288 edition of Fighters on the Rise.
Don’t be surprised if one of the main talking points coming out of UFC 288 this weekend is how good Evloev is and that he’s going to be a real problem in the featherweight division going forward.
The undefeated Russian returns to action for the first time in 11 months, stepping in against newcomer Diego Lopes, who steps in on short notice to replace Bryce Mitchell.
Because he’s not a big talker or social media guy, Evloev can recede into the background in the talent-rich 145-pound weight class from time-to-time, especially when injuries force him to the sidelines for extended stretches. But when he’s in the Octagon, there is no denying his talent and upside.
How To Watch UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo
Last time out, the 29-year-old Russian dominated Dan Ige in a fight that was meant to be a stern test for the promising up-and-comer. Ige is a rock-solid veteran and fixture in the Top 15, and Evloev was a step ahead of him at every turn, getting the better of the Hawaiian in every facet, at every range, en route to collecting his sixth straight UFC win and 16th consecutive victory overall.
Evloev was previously booked to face Mitchell at the start of November last year, but was forced to withdraw due to a knee injury, opening the door for fellow rising star Ilia Topuria to land opposite “Thug Nasty” and hand him a second-round stoppage loss. The 29-year-old Russian had tagged in to face Mitchell here after Jonathan Pearce was forced to withdraw, but now the featherweight game of musical chairs continues with Lopes filling the fight week void created by the Arkansas native’s removal.
UFC 288 Countdown | Aljamain Sterling vs Henry Cejudo
Whether striking or grappling, Evloev is crisp, technical, and fundamentally sound, and he seems to be getting increasingly confident with each successful trip into the Octagon. Currently stationed at No. 10 in the featherweight rankings, a victory won’t necessarily change the number next to his name, but it should earn the unbeaten standout a step up in competition and the chance to test himself against a fellow Top 10 fighter next time out.
The middleweight division is always in need of fresh names that bring new energy to its ranks, and this week, Aliskerov is the debutant carrying a good deal of buzz and intrigue into his promotional debut.
A combat sambo world champion in 2016, the 30-year-old Russian carries a 13-1 record into his clash with Phil Hawes on Saturday, looking to build on his current five-fight winning streak. Included in that run of success are a win over current UFC competitor Denis Tiuliulin, Strikeforce and UFC veteran Nah-shon Burrell, and an impressive first-round submission finish of Mario Souza last fall on Dana White’s Contender Series that punched his ticket to the Octagon.
Aljamain Sterling vs Henry Cejudo Main Event Preview
That victory over Souza is a great example of who Aliskerov is and what he brings to the table, as he happily waded forward through long-range attacks in order to finally get in on a takedown. It was 18 seconds from the time Aliskerov put the Brazilian on the canvas to the time to the fight was stopped, with Souza tapping out to a gnarly kimura that the surging newcomer locked up in a hurry.
Oh yeah — that one loss on Aliskerov’s record came in a 180-pound catchweight bout against Khamzat Chimaev, which not only tells you the level of competition he’s faced, but also thus far how good you need to be in order to beat him.
Preview Every Fight On UFC 288
This weekend’s pairing with Hawes serves as a perfect litmus test for the new arrival — a date with a fellow DWCS grad who has enjoyed some success inside the Octagon, carries power in his hands and a wrestling background that should, in theory, help him when Aliskerov looks to work inside and take things to the canvas. This is also a homecoming for Hawes, who was born, raised, and still resides in New Jersey, which, coupled with coming off a knockout loss last time out, should have him amped up and ready to go on Saturday night.
Aliskerov is a compelling new addition to the 185-pound ranks, and how things shake out this weekend will serve as a great way to establish a baseline for where he fits within the division. A strong showing against Hawes could put the sambo specialist in the fast lane to contention in the always wide-open middleweight division.
Estevam had to work hard to secure his contract last season on Dana White’s Contender Series, successfully navigating the non-stop attacks and constant scrambles that came with facing Joao Elias. Each time Elias attacked or rolled or threatened, Estevam remained calm, worked free, and made Elias pay for his choices, piling up damage from top position before ultimately securing a second-round stoppage win.
The victory elevated the 26-year-old flyweight’s record to 11-0 and added him to the UFC roster, setting up this weekend’s debut against Zhalgas Zhumagulov.
Training out of the famed Nova Uniao in Rio de Janeiro, Estevam has thus far looked the part of a promising flyweight prospect, having beaten everyone that has been put in front of him to date, earning seven of those 11 victories inside the distance, including his last two opponents. Now he steps up to make the walk to the Octagon for the first time against a seasoned veteran in Zhumagulov in what should be a good measuring stick opportunity for both Estevam and curious onlookers.
Don’t be fooled by Zhumagulov’s 1-5 record since signing with the UFC — he went the distance in competitive battles with Raulian Paiva and Amir Albazi, and his last two setbacks against Jeff Molina and Charles Johnson were split decision verdicts that very easily could have been scored in his favor. If one or both of those results went the other way, perceptions regarding the 34-year-old veteran from Kazakhstan would certainly be different.
It’s always tricky to forecast how a fighter will fare when making the transition from the regional ranks and the Contender Series to the biggest stage in the sport, but if Estevam looks anywhere near as good as he did last September in Las Vegas, he should push his winning streak to an even dozen and establish himself as a genuine person of interest in the 125-pound weight class heading into the second half of the year.
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