January 31st will go down as the day nearly every fighter, fan, and hardcore geek of MMA celebrated when Bryan Barberena submitted UFC wunderkid Sage Northcutt with an arm triangle choke. And the sad part was this was something the UFC had helped to create.
It’s no secret the UFC has always wanted to build their own star and be able to duplicate the process. That is what The Ultimate Fighter was first created for, to build stars from the ground up and be able to have them under a cheap contract for the early stages of their career while the UFC builds their name up with the casual fan.
While the last decade or more of The Ultimate Fighter have not produced any stars, the UFC went a different route and that was signing young talent. Some panned out in the form of Conor McGregor, while others have not. Enter 19-year-old Sage Northcutt who looked like a 90’s teen villian but with the wholesome attitude of Tim Tebow.
Right off the bat the UFC thrust Northcutt into the spotlight by not only giving him two fights against low level competition but also giving him big paydays. And right there, the UFC pissed off a number of fighters, from rising prospect Aljamain Sterling to Matt Brown. “Sage never faced a guy from a top gym. Elite coaches always find the hole.” Din Thomas tweeted.
Meanwhile fighers who were world champions from Robbie Lawler to Demetrius Johnson couldn’t even get a photo with Dana White, let alone get a chance to get the push that Northcutt was getting. Maybe Zuffa was doing it for the right reasons but it caused Sage to be resented by his peers and despised by the fans. When Sage lost, he was labeled by current and former UFC fighters as “soft.” “a quitter,” “a hype job” and “a pussy” for not fighting out of the tap.
“Wow, we got a new president of the quick tap club,” said former WEC featherweight champion Mike Brown, now one of the leading trainers at American Top Team.
But this should have been expected as Sage Northcutt is a 19-year-old kid who is being forced to fight men who are far more mature and experienced. He has only faced five fighers in the Legacy Fighting Championships, which is a mid-level regional promotion. He’s a kid whose best fight until he got into the UFC, was against a guy who was 4-1.
“This kid has a lot to learn. He’s too green for the UFC Level,” Manny Gamburyan stated on Twitter.
“People need to chill on Sage Northcutt. When I was 19 I didn’t know what the half guard was,” Jon Fitch stated.
And that is the problem that Zuffa didn’t understand when they signed Northcutt and then pushed him to the moon. That unlike Ronda Rousey he has no Olympic pedigree to fall back on and unlike Conor McGregor, who already had 17 plus fights, he didn’t have the technique or experience to deal with adversity.
This doesn’t mean that Sage Northcutt is done for good as he is still a rare athletic specimen with solid stand-up skills. He still has a personality that draws casual fans to tune in, and he has not even reached his peak yet.
But UFC has to hit the reset button and figure out a way to let Sage develop while he is in the promotion. In a perfect world, Sage could hone his craft for the next two years before facing a top fighter or even a mid-level fighter. But the UFC has alwasy been too eager to rush fighters and while Sage will get an easy match or two next, it will only lead to another bout with a mid-level fighter who once again might be too much for the younger man. And if that happens, it might really be the end of the line for the Sage Northcutt express. — Chris Connor