This past Saturday night in the main event of UFC 288, the bantamweight title was on the line. Champion Aljamain Sterling (23-3) was looking for his third successful title defense against former two-division champion and Olympic Gold Medalist Henry Cejudo (16-3).
Despite being the champion and having two successful title defenses, Sterling arguably has garnered the least amount of respect out of any champion from the public. It starts with the way he won the title. In a fight he was clearly losing, he was hit with an illegal knee by Petr Yan and he won the title by DQ.
Following that, he had to have surgery which delayed his comeback. Many fans had the impression that he was ducking a Yan rematch to hold onto the title. Yan won the interim title and the two finally had their rematch. Sterling had a strong performance and won a close split decision. However, UFC President Dana White said he thought Yan won and many fans thought the same.
Following that, Sterling defended against TJ Dillashaw. Dillashaw had a badly injured shoulder going into the fight so despite getting the TKO win, nobody gave Sterling credit for that as well. He was hoping to put all the doubts away on Saturday against Cejudo.
The fight was fantastic. Both the champion and the former champion had their moments. It was incredibly close. I personally scored it 48-47 for Cejudo, but could easily see Sterling winning the fight. At the end of the day, another split decision went in the way of the current UFC champion.
Respect after UFC 288?
Aljamain Sterling deserves his flowers after Saturday night. No, I didn’t score the fight for him personally. However, I can easily see the argument for him winning. Dana White said after the fight that he scored the fight for the champion. He defeated Cejudo and that should give him his respect.
However, there’s one thing that really could hurt him. The only clear round Sterling lost in the fight on Saturday was the fifth round. Judge Derek Cleary had the fight 38-38 going into the final round. Despite clearly losing the round, Cleary gave the round to Sterling which ultimately decided the fight.
Because of that, there’s been an uproar from UFC fans regarding Sterling’s latest win. On his biggest night, there are now just as many doubters as there was before because of the way he won. In my opinion, the disrespect for Sterling should end with Saturday regardless of the terribly judged fifth round.
His resume includes a dominant win over Cory Sandhagen and decision wins over Petr Yan, Henry Cejudo, Jimmie Rivera, and Pedro Munhoz. He’s defeated all the top guys the UFC has to offer whether you agree with those split decisions or not.
Now, Sterling will take on fan-favorite “Sugar” Sean O’Malley (16-1, 1 NC) likely in August. If Sterling doesn’t dominate O’Malley to victory, he’s going to hear the haters still because people will likely point to O’Malley’s resume to get to the title.
There’s a realistic path to Sterling having four title defenses at 135 and still not earning the respect of the MMA public. However, that shouldn’t be the case. The reality is, he should be looked at as a legitimate champion. He’s done enough to prove himself whether you agree with his decisions or not.