In any other sport, fans are obsessed with finding the next big thing.
Whether it’s anointing Uriah Hall as the next Anderson Silva or Paige VanZant as the next Ronda Rousey, fight fans are constantly looking for future champions and contenders hiding on UFC undercards or in the regional scene. If we can find a legend or two to compare them to, even better. There’s something rewarding about watching a fighter scratch and claw from the bottom of the UFC ladder and work their way toward the top, especially when you’ve been there every step of the way.
After “Super” Sage Northcutt blitzed Francisco Trevino with a whirlwind of strikes and secured a stoppage victory just 57 seconds into his UFC debut, it’s easy to see why fight fans are sprinting to jump aboard the 19-year-old’s hype train. Northcutt’s young, he’s well spoken and he looks like the UFC plucked him from some underground male-model fight club. To top it off, he’s proven he can fight, with a 6-0 record as a pro and a couple of amateur titles. The whispers surrounding the prospect turned into a growing roar in the days leading into his debut at UFC 192, and the noise surrounding Northcutt has increased tenfold since he earned his first UFC victory.
However, it’s time for fight fans to take a step back and remember that Northcutt really hasn’t done anything yet.
The young fighter is already garnering comparisons to huge draws like former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre — Northcutt will actually train with the legend this week — and current UFC interim featherweight champ Conor McGregor. He has even earned the tongue in cheek “Sage VanZant” moniker as he’s become the male counterpart to the young female strawweight. But do a quick stoppage over a guy that was 1-1 in the UFC and some gymnast-style flips in celebration afterwards really warrant the attention Northcutt has gotten over the last couple of weeks?
Obviously, the comparison of Northcutt to GSP, arguably one of the greatest fighters of all time, is extremely premature, even if it has been made by GSP’s own coach, Firas Zahabi of the Tristar gym. Fans need to temper their expectations far beyond the comparisons to MMA greats. Northcutt looked excellent in dispatching Trevino, but Trevino hadn’t exactly set the Octagon on fire in his first two outings. Outside of Northcutt’s UFC win, his competition level has been shaky at best. Yes, he’s been dominant in all six of his fights, but there’s not a single name on his resume worth bragging about. That’s to be expected since Northcutt is still so young and is getting fights so he can develop. Northcutt is 19 years old, and he has a ton of work to do before he can even be considered a serviceable fighter in one of the UFC’s most talent-filled divisions.
Resume aside, there are still a ton of questions surrounding Northcutt’s abilities. While “Super Sage” did secure a couple of submission victories before entering the UFC, the level of competition on the mat gets considerably harder when you step inside the Octagon. We’ve seen plenty of strikers suffer their first loss of many while getting held down and frustrated. Northcutt’s ability to provide an answer to the wrestling possessed by many of the fighters in the 155-pound division will likely decide exactly how far he’s going to go in the Octagon. It’s never a good thing to completely count out a fighter’s skills before you’ve gotten to see them, but it’s equally as shortsighted to just assume a fighter will excel in any area.
Equally disconcerting is the fact that Northcutt has never had to fight go outside of the second round thus far in his young career. It’s great that Northcutt has been able to live up to expectations and take care of business, but sooner or later he’s going to fight someone that won’t go away. While he’s intelligent, Northcutt also throws a lot of volume and could end up wearing himself down the first time an opponent is still standing across from him 13 or 14 minutes into a fight. That’s another reason why we should refrain from comparing him to St-Pierre, the king of five-round fights. Northcutt has to first prove that he can last three rounds with a tough opponent.
While it’s not perfect — and it only goes to strengthen that “Sage VanZant” nickname — the best comparison for Northcutt at this point probably is the young rising female star of the UFC’s strawweight division, Paige VanZant. It was just over a year ago that VanZant made her UFC debut at just 20 years old and, like Northcutt, ended up gaining a massive amount of hype after emerging victorious. The similarities don’t end there. It’s not a stretch to say that Northcutt wouldn’t have half as much hype behind him if he was just another burly fighter covered in tattoos. VanZant has been able to use a combination of skills and supermodel good looks to earn herself a UFC main event after just three Octagon victories. Northcutt has a great chance to do the same if he can keep winning. Throw in the fact that both Northcutt and “12 Gauge” have an infectious personality that seems to attract fans from the moment they got on a microphone, and it’s not hard to see why fans see so much of VanZant in Northcutt.
No one is saying that Northcutt doesn’t have the potential to be an absolute superstar for the UFC if his career works out the way fight fans are hoping. Even if there are plenty of reasons to doubt Northcutt due to his relative inexperience and lack of competition, there’s no denying he possesses a certain “it” factor that resonates with fans in a big way. We’ve seen plenty of young fighters enter the Octagon and make a big first impression in their debut, but it’s rare for a fighter to get the level of support and recognition that Northcutt has gotten in such a short period of time. There’s obviously something special about the kid, but after allowing ourselves to get a little too excited the last few weeks, it’s time to settle down a bit and start getting realistic when it comes to the 19-year-old fighter.