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UFC 288 Awards: Aljamain Sterling and Kron Gracie stand out for very different reasons

ufc 288
Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

With a wild and action-packed night at UFC 288 in the books let’s hand out some awards to a pair of performances yesterday in New Jersey that left a lasting impression on fight fans.

Related: UFC 288 results and highlights: Henry Cejudo falls in UFC 288 main event

Returning the Love to the Crowd Award- Aljamain Sterling

ufc 288
Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Last night should have been a crowning achievement for Aljamain Sterling. In his first-ever main event, the 135-pound champion successfully defended his belt against Henry Cejudo. With his workmanlike attitude, it’s likely that “The Funkmaster” views it just as that. 

As he should when considering the statistical significance of his victory. That third consecutive title defense, 14 wins, and nine straight wins represent new UFC bantamweight records. This alone forces Sterling’s name into the discussion of the all-time greats of the division.

Unfortunately, those impressive figures at UFC 288 do very little to sway his growing chorus of detractors who cite bad judgment, close decisions, and debilitating injury as reasons to discredit his accomplishments.  His split decision W over the unretired “King of Cringe” continues Sterling’s misfortune of fighting for the title against opponents with built-in excuses. 

Perhaps the worst part about it is that this was the perfect type of fight to silence critics who point to Cejudo’s three-year layoff. If Sterling were to replicate the quick finish of Cory Sandhagen, then his opponent’s inactivity would’ve been the main culprit. But the former two-division champ shook off the early cobwebs and displayed a good deal of the sound strategy and versatility that was the calling card of his career. 

The prolonged affair allowed “Funkmaster” to rise to the occasion against a proven vet with his own stellar resume. He was able to outstrike Cejudo and score multiple takedowns against the freestyle wrestling gold medalist. 

That appeared lost on the crowd at the Prudential Center. Despite growing up an hour away from the venue and proudly representing the region as the champion, he was met with boos while the challenger who hails from the West Coast was met with welcoming chants. The New Jersey fans didn’t even allow him to enjoy the victory leading to an angry response from Aljo that rivaled that of his teammate Al Iaquinta in Fairfax, VA. 

However, what matters most is that Sterling walked away with the belt which means he’ll have the chance to defend it yet again. 

If all things go as planned, that next defense will put him in the path of promotional darling “Suga” Sean O’Malley. At the very least the marketing behind that event, which UFC President Dana White is targeting for August in Boston, will likely help the champ finally get the “money fight” that will do wonders for his bank account. As evidenced by the post-fight confrontation in the Octagon, it will also likely force the champion to break his casual demeanor in the build-up. 

The Delorean Time Travel Attempt Award- Kron Gracie

ufc 288
Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Mixed martial arts in Denver? A man named Gracie? Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? Does guard pull? No this isn’t 1993. 

Yes, this weekend ONE Championship made its debut in the United States in the same city that housed the original UFC event. Yes, a man with the name Gracie guard pulling his way into a display of the martial art his family pioneered. But unlike 30 years ago, Kron’s performance at UFC 288 was far from the awe-inspiring exhibition that his Uncle Royce gave.

Instead of opening the eyes of a martial arts world far removed from the realities of actual combat, Kron’s unanimous decision loss to Charles Jordain was a harsh reminder of how much the sport of fighting has evolved.

In the three and a half years since Kron last competed in the UFC, it appears that none of that time was spent closing the gaping holes in his game. Much like at UFC Fight Night 161, when Cub Swanson spent fifteen minutes doing almost whatever he wanted, Jordain had nearly no trouble handling the ADCC champion. 

While Royce twisted unsuspecting specialists into pretzels with relative ease, Gracie struggled to employ a similar strategy. Perhaps, as was the case with Swanson, that had something to do with Jourdain’s black belt in BJJ. Maybe it was because the Canadian brought more than his grappling chops to the cage. 

In the current landscape of MMA, BJJ black belts are everywhere. Those black belts also bring a wide array of other skills with them. The only way to succeed in the sport is to add tools to your arsenal. As his uncle learned the hard way against Matt Hughes twelve years after his heyday, it takes more than jiu-jitsu. 

If Gracie is sincerely interested in becoming a full-fledged mixed martial artist, it’s vital that he actually works to mix those martial arts. Without the wrestling ability to force things to the floor, those world-class submission skills are useless. Without passable footwork or striking, the only option is to rely on durability while hoping for an opportunity. 

The UFC has a decision to make. If the objective is to add a dangerous name to an absurdly talented featherweight division, it’s time to cut ties and save a roster spot for someone more dedicated to the sport. But if the promotion is simply hell-bent on having a Gracie on the marquee, it’s time to match-make appropriately. Maybe that means finding strikers with obvious deficiencies on the mat or relatively inexperienced MMA part-timers. Either way, something has to change. 

Ant Walker is a native of the Washington DC area that now lives in Los Angeles. He has been... More about Anthony Walker

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