UFC 288 – and Henry Cejudo’s chance to regain the bantamweight throne in his return from retirement – is upon us.

In Saturday’s main event, bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling will defend his title for the third time against Cejudo, who walked away from mixed martial arts as the reigning champ in May 2020. Also on the card is a pivotal welterweight bout between Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad.

Here are three key storylines heading into the pay-per-view event, the UFC’s first in New Jersey since 2014.

Sterling facing final boss

Without giving it much thought, Cejudo seems like the biggest challenge for Sterling in the bantamweight division. He’s an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling, so surely he can defend Sterling’s takedown attempts and keep the champ from locking in a submission. He also has crisp boxing, so perhaps he can overcome Sterling’s kicking game and reach advantage to outpoint him on the feet.

Cejudo is probably one of the 20 best MMA fighters ever if you consider his achievements at 125 and 135 pounds. When you take all of his accolades into account, it becomes even more clear that a win over Cejudo is what Sterling needs to fully legitimize himself as the champ and that a win would do wonders for his legacy.

Sure, Sterling should be considered the real champ at this point. With a win over Cejudo, he’d set the record for most consecutive title defenses in UFC bantamweight history (three). And it’s not like anyone is clearly better than him. But it’s been hard to shake the perception that his reign is fraudulent ever since his title win over Petr Yan in 2021, a controversial disqualification in a fight that Yan appeared to be controlling. Sterling beat Yan by split decision in a rematch the following year. Some thought Yan won. He then finished TJ Dillashaw, but Dillashaw entered the fight with a pre-existing shoulder injury that greatly impacted his performance.

If Sterling wins Saturday, some may point to Cejudo’s three-year layoff and age (36) as reasons that Sterling had the upper hand. But enough is enough. We must not forget Cejudo left as the champion. This is the guy who ran the division before Sterling and Yan. He’s one of the four simultaneous two-division champions in UFC history. There will be no more questioning Sterling’s position as the best at 135 pounds if he gets past “Triple C.”

Expectations for Cejudo’s performance

Jeff Bottari / UFC / Getty

Here’s a fascinating statistic that could be pertinent to predicting the UFC 288 main event, and particularly how Cejudo will perform, courtesy of MMA journalist Luke Thomas: Fighters aged 35 or older who compete between flyweight and welterweight are just 2-28 in UFC title bouts. (Tyron Woodley owns both wins.)

Cejudo is 36 years old, while Sterling is 33, which, based on that stat, indicates Sterling should have the edge. Of course, Cejudo is a different breed than most: He’s an all-timer. And all-timers tend to be better for longer than everyone else.

While it’s never easy to know how a fighter will look after years away, it’s especially difficult in Cejudo’s case. He entered retirement mode after his last fight, a TKO win over Dominick Cruz in his first 135-pound title defense. He wasn’t injured or suspended or in a dispute with the UFC; he decided to walk away from the sport on his own terms. Did Cejudo train hard all those years like heavyweight champion Jon Jones said he did in the lead-up to his return and two-minute demolishing of Ciryl Gane in March? Or was Cejudo on a beach in the Caribbean for some of that time, sipping pina coladas and basking in the glory that came with his wins over Cruz and Dillashaw?

Think about this: Cejudo hasn’t competed since the first UFC event of the COVID-19 era. In that time, Sterling beat Cory Sandhagen to become the No. 1 contender and picked up three victories in UFC title fights. There’s been a lot of movement in the bantamweight division since Cejudo’s sudden departure, and we’re going to find out this weekend if it has passed him by – or if he’s still the guy to beat.

Welterweight title shot really on the line?

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty

Burns revealed earlier this week that he and Muhammad have been promised a welterweight title shot with a win in the UFC 288 co-main event.

In a just world, the Burns-Muhammad winner wouldn’t only receive a title shot; they’d be the next one in line – ahead of Colby Covington, whom Dana White has said will be Leon Edwards’ next challenger. Burns has won back-to-back fights against Jorge Masvidal and Neil Magny, and Muhammad is riding a nine-fight unbeaten streak. Covington, who has already fought for 170-pound gold twice, has alternated wins and losses in his last four appearances.

But the MMA world is usually anything but fair, and it remains to be seen whether that’ll be the case. The UFC brass seems keen on making sure Covington is next for Edwards, to the point that White shut down Burns’ recent fight with Masvidal as a potential No. 1 contender bout. Covington, known for his trash talk and brash personality, is a bigger name than Burns and Muhammad and would probably sell better on pay-per-view.

If Edwards was ready to face Covington this summer, it would be more likely that either Burns or Muhammad could wait their turn and still get a shot at the title by the end of the year. But now Edwards is saying October is the target month. Assuming Covington is indeed his opponent, it’s not out of the question that the Burns-Muhammad winner would take one more fight to stay active.

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