With UFC 288 in the books, let’s plot a course ahead for the key winners from the May 6 card at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
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Aljamain Sterling vs. Sean O’Malley
In case you weren’t paying attention to the immediate aftermath of Aljamain Sterling’s split decision win over Henry Cejudo at UFC 288, the next title challenger is cemented and at least part of the commercial has already been filmed.
Despite being one of the more talent-rich divisions in the promotion, there isn’t a plethora of viable options for Sterling. Marlon Vera’s recent loss to Cory Sandhagen has temporarily booted him out of title contention. And while his Thriller jacket-stealing performance may have been the highlight of the evening, Merab Dvalishvili’s close friendship with the champion is preventing the number one contender from capitalizing on his status. When combined with the UFC’s obvious efforts to make Sean O’Malley a star, it’s no shock that the Contender Series vet is next in line.
After picking up a decision win over the former champion and two-time Sterling foe Petr Yan at UFC 280, the writing was on the wall. According to UFC President Dana White, O’Malley is likely to get his chance to end Sterling’s reign this summer in Boston.
Belal Muhammed – Leon Edwards/Colby Covington
Well, that was underwhelming. Although many looked forward to Saturday’s co-main event expecting a crowd-pleasing firefight, Belal Muhammad’s unanimous decision win over Gilbert Burns at UFC 288 did little to excite the masses.
In hindsight, we should’ve known better. This five-rounder was a late addition to the card and featured two men who are undoubtedly among the best at welterweight but weren’t exactly at their best when signing on the dotted line.
Muhammed, just several weeks removed from Ramadan, was likely depleted during his abbreviated camp. Burns, who defeated Jorge Masvidal less than a month ago, barely had time to shower in the locker room before preparing for his next opponent.
When the Brazilian injured his shoulder, presumably in the first round, and a hesitant Muhammad failed to take full advantage, the air was sucked out of the building.
The Chicago native did improve his unbeaten streak to ten but did little to convince the promotion that he should be facing Leon Edwards next with Colby Covington already being paraded as Edwards’ next challenger. Although the idea that the former interim champion deserves a third shot at undisputed status after alternating wins and losses since 2019 is still hard to defend, the sports entertainment part of MMA is in the driver’s seat here.
Muhammed has undoubtedly earned a title shot and should make good on his recent success after the funny business has concluded.
Xiaonan Yan – Weili Zhang
This one writes itself. Xiaonan Yan killed two birds with one perfectly timed counter right hand. She not only added the much-needed scalp of a former champion to her trophy case, but she also separated herself from the muddled pack of awaiting strawweight contenders with her knockout win over Jessica Andrade.
Of course, that narrative can also apply to Erin Blanchfield, as she too finished Andrade a few months ago. However, the UFC’s quest to make China a major market for the company gets a tremendous boost from Yan’s presence. As a partial product of the Performance Institute in Shanghai, pairing her against Weili Zhang for the strawweight title just makes way too much sense to pass up.
Movsar Evloev – Bryce Mitchell
Just five days before the opening bell at UFC 288, Movsar Evloev lost the opportunity to face popular featherweight contender Bryce Mitchell. Instead, a debuting Diego Lopes filled the vacancy leading to an extension of the Russian’s undefeated record.
As one would expect from the biggest betting favorite on the card, Evloev got the job done. While Lopes made a good showing, the hill was too steep to climb.
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The former M-1 Global bantamweight champion is hoping to be rebooked against his original opponent Mitchell. This would be the preferred fight to make as the ground battles are certain to please and both men could use one another as a springboard to future success.
But let’s not get our hopes up. The back injury that forced Mitchell’s withdrawal is a recurring one that has plagued many matchups in the past. However, according to Mitchell his recovery “shouldn’t take too long.” If we’re to take his word for it, let’s just spin the block on this pairing and hope it comes to fruition.
Charles Jourdain – Damon Jackson
Charles Jourdain entered the Prudential Center and UFC 288 at a career crossroads. With two straight defeats, he needed a win badly to course correct. Fortunately, standing opposite of Kron Gracie allowed the well-rounded fighter to have his way as the stubborn jiu-jitsu die-hard could do little to stop the onslaught. Completely unfazed by the spamming of guard pulls and awkward tie-ups, Jourdain was able to pick up a clear-cut decision win and avoid the dreaded 3peat of defeat.
The downside to fighting such an obviously unprepared opponent is that we didn’t learn much about the Canadian. So while this is undoubtedly his highest-profile win, Jourdain is still at a bit of a crossroads and should be paired up appropriately. For that reason, the UFC should look toward the perpetually game Damon Jackson for his next challenge.
With several of other reasonable opponents, like Hakeem Dawodu and Daniel Pinada, already booked, Jackson offers a chance to provide a clear litmus test. Jackson was most recently seen in a losing effort against Dan Ige this past January.
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