UFC 288: Sterling vs. Cejudo Predictions, Analysis, and Free Picks
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The moment UFC fans have long been waiting for has finally arrived, as the Champ-Champ makes his return from retirement straight to another title shot as Henry Cejudo takes on current bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling. #2 on the billing, Belal Muhammad makes his return to the octagon to take on Gilbert Burns, who will be making the walk for the third time in five months.
Over our last three PPV cards, premium subscribers have gone 12-9 (+3.42 units) through 16 total selections.
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Location: Prudential Center, Newark, NJ
Early Prelims: 6:00 PM EST - ESPN+
Prelims: 8:00 PM EST - ESPN/ESPN+
Main Card: 10:00 PM EST - ESPN+ PPV
Rafael Estevam vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov
Following a second-round finish on DWCS in September, his third ITD finish in his past four fights, Estevam got the call-up to the Big Leagues. Originally scheduled to fight Carlos Candelario a few weeks ago, Candelario’s injury pushed Estevam to this card and a new opponent in Zhumagulov; likely a blessing in disguise.
A perfect 11-0 as a professional, the Brazilian impressed in his DWCS appearance, landing 6.47 significant strikes per minute with 80% accuracy as he piece-mealed a solid opponent in Joao Elias. He also got him to the ground 4.04 times per 15 minutes.
Estevam could not have asked for a better fighter for his UFC debut than Zumagulov, who comes into this fight with a UFC record of just 1-5 having lost three straight fights. His last two bouts have been razor-thin split decisions, which is likely why the UFC has chosen to keep him on the roster.
Seven years his junior and better both on the ground and on the feet, Estevam has more paths to victory here and gets it done.
Pick: Rafael Estevam (-180 at BetUS) to risk 3.6 units
Braxton Smith vs. Parker Porter
Anytime a guy comes into a fight with five straight first-round wins, it’s nothing to look the other way at. A deeper dive into Braxton Smith’s six-fight professional career, however, shows the five wins came against guys with a professional record of 19-9-0, with four of them having five or fewer professional fights under their belt.
Also worth mentioning, all of which have come in the past 12 months, more than eight years after his MMA debut (a loss to Chase Sherman).
Opposite Smith is veteran Parker Porter, who comes into this fight in desperate need of a win following two straight (first-round) losses to Jailton Almeida and Justin Tafa. At 38, a loss here would spell disastrous for Porter’s chances of remaining in the UFC, and I think we see a conservative game plan accordingly.
One area that Smith has never been tested is on the ground, and if Porter is wise, that’s exactly where he takes it early. With all of his wins in the UFC coming via decision, I think we see Porter get back to basics and at minimum force this one into the second round.
Pick: Fight Starts Round 2 - Yes (-105 at FanDuel Sportsbook) to risk 1.05 unit
Kennedy Nzechukwu vs. Devin Clark
From a numbers perspective, this is my favorite play on the board by a landslide.
Outside of takedowns, with a combined 4% submission rate likely won’t come into play, “The African Savage” dominates this fight on paper. With a knockdown rate of .44 (2x Clark) and significant strikes landed per minute of 4.63 (2x), Nzechukwu has the clear edge on the feet and comes into this one with a 6" reach advantage to boot.
Following two difficult losses to end 2021 and start 2022, Nzechukwu has rattled off two straight ITD wins over killers in Karl Roberson and Ion Cutelaba. Conversely, while Clark does come into this one off of a win over Da Un Jung, you have to go all the way back to 2017 to find the last time Clar has rattled off consecutive victories.
These two have also had a common foe in Cutelaba in the past two years, with Clark losing an overwhelming decision and Nzechukwu getting the second-round TKO.
Though we’re late to the party with this one having moved sharply from its opener of +115, I still think anything less than -200 offers value.
Pick: Kennedy Nzechukwu (-176 at BetUS) to risk 1.76 units
Drew Dober vs. Matt Frevola
I was on hand for Matt “Steamrolla” Frevola’s first-round stomping of previously undefeated Ottman Azaitar at MSG in November, and the place was absolutely rocking for the Long Island native. I expect the same home-cage advantage in this one across the river in Newark.
The first-round win was his second in as many fights, overcoming two straight losses to two studs in Arman Tsarukyan and Terrance McKinney in 2021. In 2022, Frevola’s ground game seems to have turned a corner now averaging 2.39 takedowns per 15 minutes (vs. .71 from Dober), as has his power with 1.19 knockdowns per 15 minutes (vs. .71).
Frevola draws a beast in this one, however, with Drew Dober looking to pick up his fourth straight win, all of which have come inside the distance. With this being his 20th fight in the UFC, Dober’s hit list is admittedly full of savages, in part why I think he’s getting more love from bookmakers than I think he deserves. The market largely agrees, with his -350 opening number being beaten down to closer to -200 as of Thursday afternoon.
Already being earmarked for Fight of the Night billing, I think we see a war between these two that I have much closer to even than the market currently suggests.
Pick: Matt Frevola (+188 at BetUS) to risk 1 unit
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*All odds as of the day of posting.
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