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Sterling conquers Cejudo, exchanges postfight words with O’Malley

Aljamain Sterling won his title fight, and then another almost broke out in the Octagon.

Sterling defeated Henry Cejudo via split decision (47-48, 48-47, 48-47) in the main event of UFC 288 on Saturday night at the Prudential Center. With the close victory, Sterling retained his UFC bantamweight title.

After the fight, UFC brought Sterling’s next challenger, the popular Sean O’Malley, into the Octagon. Sterling and O’Malley started jawing at each other on the microphone, which was being held by interviewer Joe Rogan.

O’Malley told Sterling that he fought like “s—” and “better look better than that” if he is going to beat him.

“I’ll drag your ass up and down the Octagon,” Sterling told O’Malley in response. “Get the f— out of my cage.”

O’Malley and Sterling’s team started to get into it verbally and had to be separated.

UFC president Dana White was among the people holding them back. Sterling’s teammate Merab Dvalishvili, another top UFC bantamweight, put on O’Malley’s jacket after he took it off to stare down with Sterling, and O’Malley took umbrage.

Sterling then got involved, but the scuffle was quickly quelled. Sterling stated he wanted to fight O’Malley in September.

Cejudo, who was fighting for the first time in three years after retiring previously, said in his postfight interview that this could be his final bout.

“I’m a little confused right now,” Cejudo said. “If I’m not first, I’m last.”

The fight itself was razor close, so much so that the crowd booed the decision. Sterling was able to nullify the wrestling of Cejudo, a former Olympic gold medalist in the sport, for the majority of the fight. The grappling was largely a stalemate, and both men had moments on the feet, though not a ton of them. Cejudo was sporting a cut under his right eye midway through the fight. Sterling outlanded Cejudo 135-99 in significant strikes.

“Persistence is going to keep on shining, and that’s what we did,” Sterling said. “Look at my face and look at his, and you can see who landed the harder strikes.”

Judge Derek Cleary had Sterling winning the first, fourth and fifth rounds. Judge Eric Colon had Sterling winning the first, second and fourth rounds. Judge Mike Bell, the lone dissenter, had Cejudo winning the second, third and fifth.

“The guy is freakin’ smart,” Sterling said of Cejudo. “I don’t think a lot of people can even appreciate what was going on in that Octagon. … It was a high-level, physical chess match.”

Cejudo said he now realizes why Sterling’s nickname is “Funkmaster,” because of how unique his style is in the cage.

“Aljo was awkward as hell,” Cejudo said. “Now I understand the funk. I thought it was his breath or maybe he smelled a little bit.”

ESPN had Sterling ranked No. 9 in its pound-for-pound MMA rankings coming in. Cejudo was high on that list before stepping away from the Octagon in 2020.

Sterling (23-3) has won nine consecutive fights. The Long Island native now has three successful title defenses at bantamweight — the most consecutive defenses in division history — after winning the title via disqualification from Petr Yan at UFC 259 in March 2021. Sterling, 33, has the most wins in UFC bantamweight history (14) and the longest winning streak ever in the division (9).

“Get used to this face, because it’s not going anywhere, guys,” Sterling said. “It’s not. … I think it’s about time people put respect on my mind.”

Cejudo (16-3) was on a six-fight winning streak before retiring. The California-born fighter, who lives and trains in Arizona, ended Demetrious Johnson’s record-setting reign atop the UFC flyweight division in 2018, and 10 months later, Cejudo beat Marlon Moraes to win the vacant bantamweight belt. Cejudo, 36, is one of only four fighters to hold two divisional titles at the same time in UFC.

“I’m out here to make history,” Cejudo said in the postfight news conference. “And if I’m not making history, I ain’t doing this s—.”

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