UFC 288 goes down tomorrow, and while the fight cancellations marring the card have overtaken the headlines, it’s still a loaded card with plenty of underrated matchups. In this article, we will discuss all the fights within the card and review some of the main factors of each fight. Let’s get started!
The first fight of the card features a classic striker vs. grappler matchup. Holmes finds most of his success on the ground, while Ribeiro makes his money on the feet. Both fighters have seen the scorecards a combined three times in their careers, showing fans that they will likely see a finish in the first fight. Holmes possesses a lengthy 6’4” frame, but Ribeiro commands a slight edge in experience. However, Holmes has spent more time in the octagon, accumulating a 1-2 record with the UFC. With a loss to the 2-5 (in the UFC) Jamie Pickett and his only win coming against Alen Amedovski (who has yet to find a win in the octagon), Holmes needs to show better quality wins if he hopes to stay with the top promotion. Ribeiro is undoubtedly expected to win, but grapplers tend to achieve better results than strikers.
Phil Hawes has been fed to the dogs since entering the UFC, and it isn’t stopping now. Hawes is a bulky middleweight with KO power but loves smashing his opponents on the ground. Hawes will likely try to keep this fight standing as he faces Russian mauler Ikram Aliskerov. Coming into the UFC, Ikram’s claim to fame is his regional fight with Khamzat Chimaev, where he found relative success before being finished by a fatal uppercut. Besides this loss, Ikram has stayed perfect throughout the rest of his career, including a first-round submission win on Dana White’s Contender series. While he hasn’t been tested as often as Hawes has, Aliskerov hails from BRAVE CF, which has recently produced several elite UFC fighters. Hawes will look to rebound from a first-round loss to Roman Dolidze, who has become a staple in the UFC rankings. If Hawes can stuff Ikram’s takedown attempts and get some of the elbows off that he has been falling in love with recently, he could be a live underdog in this matchup, but it’s more likely Ikram smashes him.
This one shouldn’t take too long. The UFC desperately needs heavyweight talent, and in comes new signing Braxton Smith, ready to make an impact in his debut. Smith is an ex-football player whose mother got him into mixed martial arts and is riding a five-fight first-round finish streak on his way to his UFC debut. On the other hand, Porter is a grizzled UFC veteran with a 3-3 record inside the octagon. Porter is still looking for his first UFC finish but has been stopped inside the first round in his last two fights. It’s sink or swim in this fight for Parker Porter, and with three submissions on his record, he should be looking to take Smith into uncharted waters. This fight shouldn’t eclipse the first round, but if it does, it will likely spell good news for Parker Porter, who has much more experience if the fight gets that far.
Marina Rodriguez has quietly built a stellar UFC resume for herself in her five years with the promotion, accumulating a 6-2-2 record while fighting high-level talent the entire time. She was surprisingly finished in the third round of her last fight with Amanda Lemos, so she looks to get back in the win column against grappling talent Virna Jandiroba. It’s no secret that Jandiroba does her best work on the ground, but she’s been stifled by some of the other grapplers in her division, going 4-3 in the UFC so far. Jandiroba is looking to build on a win against Angela Hill in her last fight and continues a UFC run in which she has never been finished. While both fighters are criminally underrated within the UFC Strawweight division, they’re both approaching the twilights of their career at 36 and 34, respectively. This fight will be a significant turning point in the division, solidifying which fighter will continue their championship climb and which will become a divisional gatekeeper.
We don’t see nearly enough of Khaos Williams, who has been must-see television since he entered the UFC in 2020. Williams has been a dream-killer just outside of welterweight’s top 15, accumulating impressive wins against Alex Morono, Abdul Razak Alhassan, Matthew Semelsberger, and Miguel Baeza. However, he has dropped fights against equally strong talent, losing to Michel Pereira and Randy Brown. He looks to return to his winning ways against UFC newcomer Rolando Bedoya, hailing out of Peru. Both fighters have a relatively equal level of experience, but at 36 years old, Bedoya only has one shot at making a run in the UFC. Neither of these fighters has ever been finished in their professional careers. Still, Bedoya will face the stiffest competition of his entire career when he faces a seasoned veteran like Williams. With an excellent all-around game, Bedoya should have a speed advantage and immediately slow Williams down with his kicks and cage work. It’ll be an uphill climb for the debutant, but this fight should be closer than it appears on paper.
The winner of this fight may get awarded a spot in the rankings. Kennedy Nzechukwu has all of the physical tools to make a run in this division. With a 6’5” frame and an 83-inch reach, Nzechukwu will tower over his opponent, much like he does with most of his opponents. While this frame will be an advantage in distance management, it plays well into Devin Clark’s skillset as a former two-time NJCAA All-American. Longer legs will make for better takedown opportunities, and Clark will undoubtedly have an advantage on the ground.
Nzechukwu tends to shell up with his striking defense, opening him up to takedown opportunities due to a lack of offensive volume. While these are all concerns, Nzechukwu has plenty of films to study with coach Sayif Saud due to Clark’s 8-7 UFC career. Clark has been finished in all but one of his losses, and while he can look like a world-beater in his wins, he quickly loses confidence when the fight isn’t going his way. Both of these fighters can be so frustrating to watch when they’re not hitting their stride, so the winner of this fight will be the one who pushes through his respective deficiencies to become the fighter they ultimately want to be.
Okay, I get the idea of wanting to put a guaranteed banger at the end of the prelims to sell some last-minute PPVs, but did it have to be this one? Drew Dober and Matt Frevola bring fireworks every time they enter the octagon, and both guys are coming off of multiple-fight finish streaks. While Matt Frevola doesn’t have the cleanest striking or the slickest grappling, he is effective wherever the fight goes. The Serra Longo product has demonstrated power in his hands with two first-round KOs, most recently to his name, but he also comes from a camp that takes pride in its fighters having excellent wrestling and BJJ. He’s already shared the octagon with Arman Tsarukyan and Jalin Turner (beating the latter), but his fight with Dober will slot him into the lightweight rankings if he wins. While Drew Dober has already fought 20 times under the UFC banner, it’s taken him a little while to find his stride. However, Dober now rides more momentum than he has ever had in his UFC career, collecting three ultra-impressive finishes in his last three fights. Dober will forever be one of the most exciting fighters in the UFC, with five bonuses in his last seven fights, but the jury is still out regarding whether he is an actual contender in the division. Frevola may be too game for his own good in this fight, as his tendency to rush into a striking exchange could end badly against a power puncher like Dober. However, while Dober is extremely difficult to submit, his best path to victory will be through his grappling advantage. Both fighters have the fans in the palm of their hands, so regardless of the result, both men will probably come away with positive feedback.
How often do we see a 1-1 UFC fighter with little-to-no hype from the masses receives a marquee main card opening slot on a PPV? That shows how much of a problem Kron Gracie is, especially when he gets the fight to the ground. Kron Gracie is the only Gracie family member who currently resides with the UFC, and with plenty of IBJJF and ADCC gold in his mantle, he wears the name well. Gracie mysteriously hasn’t competed in any combat sports for almost four years, so there are questions about his freshness and ability to take a punch. He favors an aggressive style where he continues to come forward, looking for opportunities to engage in the clinch while using kicks and dirty boxing to keep the fight at his range.
Meanwhile, Charles Jourdain looks to get back in the win column to bring Gracie back to the sidelines. Jourdain has spent ten UFC fights establishing himself as a fan favorite with an all-action, all-around style that makes him dangerous wherever the fight goes. Jourdain’s main strength is his dynamic striking, combined with his incredible gas tank, making for a high-output style. Jourdain’s volume could stop Gracie in his tracks, especially in the later rounds; competitive BJJ players often struggle to keep the same level of effort in later rounds, and with first-round and second-round submission wins on Kron’s record, he will look to make it a quick day in the office. Jourdain has shown good competency when grappling defensively against the cage and good defense when a fighter takes his back. Still, the risk will come from takedown attempts in the center of the octagon and potentially being too overconfident about his ability to avoid being submitted. If Jourdain can avoid the submission, he can likely ride to a decision win similar to Cub Swanson’s win against Gracie, but it’s always a risky game to play against this family.
The biggest bummer of the card had to be the recent news of Bryce Mitchell having to pull out of his fight against Movsar Evloev due to injury. Regardless, we must respect Evloev for opting to stay on the card on such short notice and risk his ranked spot against a UFC newcomer. Evloev is 16-0 and 29 years old and is one of the most promising prospects in the promotion. While he still needs to find his first UFC finish, the 145er has quietly built a 6-0 record inside the octagon after he won and defended his M-1 bantamweight title in Russia. Evloev is undersized at only 5’7” in the division, but his technique is a marvel. Evloev prefers his ground game, where he commands an advantage over most opponents, but he has been improving his striking and displays an immaculate style. Fighters who entered the UFC after him, like Ilia Topuria and Giga Chikadze, have jumped past Evloev in the rankings. Still, if he can get his first finish this weekend, he can remind the entire division that he’s coming for the belt.
Conversely, opponent Diego Lopes is no slouch, putting together a 21-5 record away from the UFC. Lopes lost a decision to scary 145 prospect Joanderson Brito, but staying ready has always merited rewards with Dana White. Lopes is riding two straight knockout wins heading into this fight with Evloev, and while he prefers a standing affair, he has a few tricks up his sleeve if the fight hits the ground. Lopes constantly pushes the action, with double-digit first-round finishes on his record. His best chance is to keep the fight in his wheelhouse and look to find an early finish, but he should be aware that Evloev will be looking to grind him out. Let’s see if this opportunity pans out for Lopes!
One of the most active female fighters in UFC history, Jéssica Andrade, continues to wreak havoc across every weight class she possibly could. While Andrade lost a short-notice fight against flyweight Erin Blanchfield, she is stepping into the spotlight just three months later, for the third time in 2023, to fight 115 contender Yan Xiaonan. Yan edged out a majority decision win against Mackenzie Dern her last time out, which was massive for her career in more ways than one. In 2021, Yan lost via TKO to Carla Esparza, where she was exposed for a massive ground deficiency; being put into crucifix in an MMA fight is hard to come back from, but she showed significant improvement by being able to score a win against a world-level grappler like Mackenzie Dern. However, while Dern was looking to exploit her grappling advantage through finesse, Andrade will likely look to bulldoze her way through Yan, offering a different grappling challenge. Yan’s striking combinations are her greatest strength, especially with her punches. However, it’s difficult to see this fight going her way when Andrade also prefers to strike on the inside. Additionally, most fighters tend to possess a significant height and reach advantage against Andrade. While the sentiment remains true regarding the height, they possess almost the same reach. Therefore, Yan will have to stick and move to take home a victory in this tough matchup.
Here we go again, with everyone sleeping on Belal. First and foremost, we must give credit where it’s due regarding Belal Muhammad and Gilbert Burns effectively saving this entire card. After Beneil Dariush vs Charles Oliveira was rescheduled, this PPV desperately needed a marquee co-main event, and these two warriors stepped up to the plate. Both fighters come in on unfavorable circumstances; Belal has been observing Ramadan and had to overcome his fasting period, and Burns will fight in his third PPV of 2023. However, both fighters have been promised a title shot with a win, so this fight should be ultra-competitive, regardless of the pre-fight circumstances. From a direct perspective, Burns definitely has a power advantage on the feet and a considerable BJJ advantage. However, Muhammad will likely have the wrestling edge and tends to throw more volume on the feet. On the feet (while most fans would disagree), Belal Muhammad has a striking advantage from distance – Muhammad is more willing to throw kicks and has displayed incredible takedown defense. Over five rounds, I would slightly favor Belal, but Burns has a clear advantage in being able to end the fight at any time. Belal’s striking has mainly come into question when he fights rangy fighters who throw head kicks, but Burns prefers a punch-heavy style. Muhammad can score an upset if he takes his time in the striking exchanges. Still, Burns may be turning a corner in his career as he fights smarter and looks more optimistically for entries into the ground. Congrats to both of these men for even making it to the fight.
In May 2020, Henry Cejudo retired from fighting to focus on his family, to focus on coaching, and maybe unsuccessfully attempt to sneak his way into a 145-title shot. While he fell short in this endeavor, he got the next best thing with an immediate title shot against Aljamain Sterling upon his return. This fight is tough to predict based on several factors. First, it remains to be seen how Cejudo looks after a three-year layoff. He blew up in his off-time, so he must have naturally had to focus much of his training camp on simply getting down to 135. Despite this natural hump on the road, Cejudo has the better grappling accolades as a former Olympic gold medalist. This fight will be the first time in Sterling’s entire career that he may not have the grappling advantage, and despite his bulky exterior, he has never been known to put fighters out with his strikes. Still, with a size and reach advantage, Sterling will have the luxury of leading the dance on the feet. Cejudo will likely employ the wide karate stance that has led to so much of his success in the octagon and will look to get on the inside to land power punches. Aside from his wrestling, Cejudo’s most incredible skill is his mind; as a master of game plans, he will enter this fight, having watched plenty of tape on his opponent, ready to expose his most glaring weaknesses.
However, Sterling is also a great game planner and will surely know Cejudo’s cerebral approach to the fight game. As such, he will look to mix it up and show Cejudo some looks that he will not have seen much of in his tape. I predict that much more of this fight will occur on the feet than expected, and both fighters have a specific type of advantage when it comes to standup. Matching up two all-action fighters can make exciting fights, but pitting two interesting styles against each other in a scenario that is difficult to predict can also make exciting fights. That’s what this fight brings, and I couldn’t be more stoked for it.