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Sage Northcutt has been described as a lot of things since he back-flipped his way onto the MMA community’s radar in 2015. “A pretty boy who wants to fight” was how Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White branded him on the inaugural season of his “Lookin’ for a Fight” series, a label that stuck even after the former karate champion earned a contract with the promotion and began racking up wins. “A rich, privileged white boy” was how Kevin Lee called it in December 2015, irked at the “Conor McGregor treatment” the then-19-year old was receiving despite being untested against elite competition. “The nicest cage fighter in the world” is another moniker that’s stuck around, a reference to Northcutt’s almost disconcerting cheerfulness and civility in a business that can too often be short on both.
More recently, Northcutt seems to have found his feet in the Octagon after a couple of false starts -- earning the tag of a fighter gradually living up to the hype. And as of last week, he’s also repping the label of “free agent”, telling ESPN’s Ariel Helwani that he’s fought out his UFC contract and very much open to courting offers from the likes of Bellator MMA and One Championship.
What an interesting turn of events for “Super Sage.”
Breaking the Mold
Whilst Northcutt is hardly the first high-profile UFC athlete to test his value on the free market, his youth and position as one of the promotion’s golden boys does put him in rare company.
Whereas Bellator has signed a number of the UFC’s bigger names since Scott Coker took the reins of the Viacom-owned promotion in 2014 -- including Benson Henderson, Phil Davis, Chael Sonnen, Matt Mitrione, Ryan Bader, Rory MacDonald, Gegard Mousasi, Frank Mir and Lyoto Machida -- the common denominator among these signings was their status as veterans; the youngest in MacDonald was 27 when he made the switch and the remaining eight were all north of 30. Just as importantly, all fit into one of two molds: (1) “legends” near the end of their careers wanting to cash in on their name value; and (2) fighters who felt neglected and exploited by the UFC.
By contrast, Northcutt is just 22 years old, and relative to his talent has benefited more than almost anyone from the UFC’s promotional machine. Despite jumping between lightweight and welterweight -- by far the most talent-rich weight divisions in the organization -- enormous promotional muscle was put behind Northcutt from the very beginning of his UFC career, including inserting the Texan native onto the main card of multiple UFC on Fox events after just two fights with the organization.
Even after his ceiling came into sharper focus -- late-replacement Bryan Barberena submitted him in his third UFC fight, as did prospect Mickey Gall in his fifth -- the UFC kept the faith. Indeed, Dana White drew repeated criticism from fans and many of his own fighters for matching Northcutt opposite mediocre talent to protect his stock.
All the while, the former petroleum-engineering undergrad was cashing checks well above those of his more experienced counterparts. He earned a disclosed $80K for his second fight with the organisation (four times the entry level UFC contract of $10K to show and $10K to win); and his victory against Thibault Gouti back in February netted him a whopping $120K.
Soldier of Fortune
That Northcutt is publicly considering a change of scenery, even after receiving what many regard as manifestly favourable treatment from the UFC, is surprising. Northcutt has always gone to absurd lengths to please the UFC brass -- including using his post-fight interview to shill Fight Pass back at UFC Fight Night 80 -- and many perceived his youth and wide-eyed enthusiasm for the brand as signs he was just happy to be on the team.
It appears those assessments may have been premature. While Northcutt was careful to express his gratitude towards White and Fertitta for bringing him into the UFC fold back in 2015, he was also quick to highlight his star power and the enormous financial opportunities that exist outside the Octagon -- including a fight with YouTuber-turned-boxer Logan Paul, whom Northcutt “beefed” with on Twitter last week.
It’s also in many ways a powerful illustration of how much the MMA industry has changed in the past few years, and especially since Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta exited the business in 2016.
In part, that change has been in fighters’ perception of their role in the business. Whereas at one time many fighters valued the brand recognition that came along with fighting for the UFC at the expense of their financial security, a more prudent and foresighted approach seems to be gradually setting in. Fighters are more vocal about the need to provide for their family, more outspoken about fighter pay and less beholden to UFC hegemony -- a trend that many hope will one day translate into a broader labor consciousness.
Relatedly, there has also been a shift in the UFC’s approach to fighter relations.
At one time the UFC would go to extraordinary lengths to prevent a fighter of Northcutt’s prominence from becoming a free agent. At the very least, this would entail offering a contract extension before the term on the original deal expired -- something Northcutt suggested didn’t happen -- and if that contract wasn’t accepted, strong-arm tactics would typically follow.
As former title contender Jon Fitch testified last year in the ongoing antitrust lawsuit against the UFC, fighters who erred would typically be “frozen out” (not offered fights) or alternatively put on a “dark show” (a non-televised bout) by the UFC as a means of limiting fighters’ exposure and hurting them financially. Again, neither appear to have happened here -- though one might speculate that has less to do with the promotion’s change of heart and more to do with the increased scrutiny that the antitrust case, and the Ali Act Expansion campaign, have brought to the UFC’s business practices.
Ultimately, while we’re a long way away from Northcutt donning a Bellator MMA jersey, or starring in a crossover-boxing match opposite Paul, the fact that we’re even having this conversation says a lot: about Northcutt, about the shifting dynamics between the promotion and fighters and about the direction of the UFC in general.
Watch this space. Something tells me we’ll be hearing a lot more about Super’s situation soon.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.