Imagine you’re UFC 288 headliner Aljamain Sterling and you have dedicated nearly your entire life to achieve an incredible feat and then upon reaching that goal you find yourself scrutinized in an attempt to completely invalidate that accomplishment. That’s the current predicament that the UFC bantamweight champion is in.
When the New York native was finally able to call himself UFC champ, the blatantly illegal knee he absorbed that led to his win by disqualification began an avalanche of criticism that has cast a dark shadow over his reign.
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Instead of reversing that unflattering course of public opinion, getting his hand raised in a close rematch with Petr Yan and finishing two-time belt holder TJ Dillashaw seemed to only add fuel to the fire.
Aljamain Sterling’s lose-lose situation at UFC 288
Unfortunately for Aljamain Sterling, Saturday night is likely to be a similar chapter in his story. When he defends his bantamweight crown against returning former champion Henry Cejudo at UFC 288, once again the floodgates of disapproval could open.
While Cejudo presents perhaps the toughest stylistic challenge the champion has faced and is certainly his most decorated opponent on paper, there is one obvious factor that will inevitably be brought up: The three years since “Triple C” last competed. And much like the cries against his previous title wins, any finger-pointing at Sterling can be rebutted with a simple look beyond the surface.
Of course in a sport as dynamic and youthful as mixed martial arts, three years of inactivity can be akin to starting from scratch. It’s rare that a once-great fighter finds a second life at the same level. For every Georges St-Pierre, there are at least five Nick Diaz’s.
However, it’s very important to note that Cejudo’s short-lived retirement hasn’t exactly been the typical off-season. When others have distanced themselves from the mental and physical rigors of professional combat, that hasn’t been the case with the 2008 Olympic gold medalist.
Instead of testing the waters in Hollywood or carb-binging on the couch, Cejudo spent his time diving deeper into MMA as a coach at Arizona’s Fight Ready gym where his efforts assisted Jon Jones and Deividson Figuerido in their own title-winning performances.
The catch-22 that the defending champion finds himself in is not lost on his team. In a recent interview with MMA Junkie, Aljamain Sterling’s longtime coach Ray Longo acknowledged the unforgiving spot that they’re in.
“If Aljo wins this fight, Henry had a three-year layoff. ‘He didn’t fight for three years. What do you think? He was rusty.’ It doesn’t matter, you know what I mean?”– Ray Longo
Conversely, a loss to Henry Cejudo would provide naysayers with all of the evidence necessary to back their claims of a fraudulent title run. Expect the Twitter timeline to be flooded with rants about a former flyweight coming off of an extended layoff dethroning The “Funkmaster” proving his championship status was built on a false foundation.
Either of these scenarios ignores the quality of Aljamain Sterling’s challenger. Cejudo, who never lost either of his belts in the Octagon, left the sport at his highest moment and was widely regarded as one of the best fighters in the promotion’s history.
The champion has a simple job to do this weekend: Win. Whether or not his opponent has a proper understanding of the unified rules, decides to compete with one arm, or elected to take a years-long vacation should be of little concern to him. The objective doesn’t change and neither do the stakes.
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