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It was hard to miss the glow of delighted schadenfreude from social media, as Sage Northcutt tapped out to a Bryan Barberena arm-triangle at UFC on Fox 18 on Saturday in Newark, New Jersey. No judgment from me: Everyone enjoys this sport for their own reasons, and he provides more than enough fodder to draw the kind of sinister satisfaction from his defeat that he did. If anything, I feel bad for the people who took joy in his loss, for no other reason than the fact that this will be a short-lived source of happiness. At least, it should be.
Northcutt is good for the sport and not just because he’s a genuinely nice -- if not supremely dorky -- counterargument to the negative stereotypes prevalent in the fight game. More accurately, he’s a bellwether that the sport is moving in a good direction. Long gone are the days of the David “Tank” Abbott types. Northcutt is a next-level athlete who is essentially a blank slate for development. If that’s what the future of the sport holds, then I’m all in. While being a tough, unathletic badass won’t cut it anymore, there are some lessons that Mr. Northcutt can learn from them.
Having watched and rewatched his fight, there are a few inescapable realities. For starters, it’s amazing how effective he can be given his inexperience and suspect technique. The first round against Barberena saw the teenager showcase a varied, adaptable skill set. What he lacked in technique he compensated for in speed, power and instinct. Like him or not, the raw materials are all there, and he has another decade to put them together.
Yet, there is no denying the fact that he tapped early. Who knows, maybe Barberena is an unusually strong gentleman who can choke out people from way out of position. Barring that, it seemed as if Northcutt had a moment of panic in the cage. No big deal. This is the perfect time for him to take a loss, and it happened in the most ideal way possible.
It bears repeating: Northcutt is only 19 years old. As anyone over 19 can attest, most 19-year-olds are pretty dumb. It appears that Northcutt is making better life decisions than most of us were at that age, but his youth was apparent in the tap. We live, we learn. While a lot of kids his age are learning how many shots equal one too many, he’s learning the limits of his pain and discomfort threshold in a professional fight -- against a man seven years older than him and who has been fighting for five more years. Northcutt going 2-1 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship at 19 is perfectly acceptable. Compare that to Jon Jones, the youngest UFC champion ever, who at 19 was 0-0 as a professional fighter and over two years away from competing in the UFC. Northcutt has plenty of time.
As for my personal two cents, I think this speedbump is more than acceptable; I’d say it’s preferable to a 3-0 start. Had Northcutt been savagely knocked senseless or been dominated bell to bell, it would be a different story because there would be a legitimate risk to his fight psychology. It’s hard to bounce back from those kinds of losses at any age, but at 19, no one would fault him for focusing a little bit more on that engineering degree. However, Northcutt was caught in the best way possible. An arm-triangle leaves no lingering physical problems and only a short-lived blow to the ego that will serve to motivate him to improve his arm-triangle defense. It was and still is a totally winnable fight for the teenaged Texan. I’d guess he would even open as the betting favorite if a rematch were booked. At the same time, though, a defeat is healthy for him. Undefeated records are burdensome, especially when so much of Northcutt’s career is still ahead of him. It’s out of the way now, and though losses sting, they also breed humility and focus. Plus, it’s not like he’s at risk of getting cut any time soon.
The performance in general reminded me of George St. Pierre’s first fight against Matt Hughes. Clearly, the contexts of these fights are not identical -- no offense to Barberena, but he is nowhere near the wrecking machine that Hughes was at the time -- but at a more essential level, it’s an instructive and hopeful parallel for Northcutt and his team.
St. Pierre was 23 years old at the time, and he was 7-0 in his career with a 2-0 mark in the UFC. Eerie, right? Fighting against a much more experienced but athletically inferior man in Hughes, St. Pierre was generally getting the better of the fight in the early stages. At the end of the first round, though, Hughes fell back into an armbar and St. Pierre immediately tapped. “Rush” wouldn’t have even needed to defend the submission if he just waited; the round would have been over before he knew it. However, it was a vital learning experience for the future champion. This should be the same for Northcutt.
It was because of that fight that St. Pierre took his wrestling and grappling to the next level, and I believe Northcutt should follow that same path. His striking fundamentals are there, and at this point, his standup is the most natural part of his game. What he needs is to capitalize on his athleticism and the sense of timing that it gives him and become a grappling force. Not only will that open up new avenues for Firas Zahabi and company to strategize, but it will also toughen him up mentally in a way that only hard-earned work on the mat can.
Ultimately, this will either be the last time we see Northcutt make this kind of mistake, or it will be a running theme for the rest of his career. My guess is the former. The right people are in his corner, and he has the most important piece of the development puzzle in spades: time. Laugh while you can, haters. May you salivate in cynical satisfaction. “Super Sage” will be back.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul, South Korea with his fiancé and dachshund.