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We’re three weeks into 2016, and we, the MMA public, are firmly re-entrenched in the mixed martial arts circus. If anything, these past seven days have served to throw us all back into the currents that shaped and formed 2015.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s schedule has already reared its head, giving us little time for digestion. Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit’s immediate “Fight of the Year” candidate at UFC 195 and the controversy surrounding which man deserved to have his hand raised is now firmly in the rear view, replaced by scoring squabbles surrounding Dominick Cruz and T.J. Dillashaw’s bantamweight championship chess match. Promotion for UFC 197 kicked off on Wednesday in Las Vegas, with Conor McGregor once again holding court, interrupting lightweight champ Rafael dos Anjos repeatedly with pantheon-level quotes and reaffirming his place as Zuffa’s consistent pulse in the fight media. Hell, Vitor Belfort is booked again for action against Ronaldo Souza, which is just delightful matchmaking for “Jacare” after the grappling king got jobbed on a decision against Yoel Romero at UFC 194 and then got word Romero may have been on PEDs for the fight.
All this to say: We may be in a new year, but things are right back to being what they were. You know what that means, don’t you? Yes, you do. We’re just a week out from the network television debut of moderately powerful Pokemon and preordained UFC poster boy Sage Northcutt, and that means this sport’s foremost teenager is back, doing teenagery things, like flooding your social media with pictures of him performing banal tasks or Photoshopped as a superhero. McGregor says he’s a god, but Northcutt is our muse.
Northcutt is the UFC’s love child and MMA’s stepchild, and regardless of how his career pans out, we’ll get to watch the young man grow up, one awkward interview and Instagram post at a time. Bearing that in mind, here is the first instalment of what I hope will be a long-running, hard-hitting journalistic serial that I like to call “This Awesome Week in Sage.”
This week, Northcutt put his car up for sale.
I just put my Boss 302 up for sale @net_car_showroom_houston 832-455-5746 pic.twitter.com/csNDBGlcgq— Sage Northcutt (@sagenorthcutt) January 20, 2016
Since upping his car game in the new year, Northcutt has opted to offload his 2012 Boss 302 Mustang, and it can be yours for the low, low price of $39,999. And to think, Nick Diaz still has to pay $100,000 to the Nevada Athletic Commission and his bike was recently stolen.
No big deal. UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta said this week that “mid-tier” UFC fighters make $200,000 annually, so any ol’ Zuffa roster fighter might nab that auto.
This week, Northcutt hung out with UFC President Dana White, Matt Serra and Nick the Tooth.
Any good bit of serial programming has repeat characters, so what better way to help get clicks and views for the UFC’s “Dana White: Looking For a Fight” web series than to bring back its pilot episode subject to go scouting for talent.
More importantly for my taste: What does Northcutt talk about in a car with Serra? Does he sit politely and speak when spoken to, or does he gush with praise, telling Serra how awesome it was when he knocked out Georges St. Pierre? I suppose we’ll have to tune into “Looking for a Fight” to find out, never mind the heart-pounding bull riding scenes.
This week, Northcutt was incredibly vascular.
It is anything but unusual for a 19-year-old to take a gym selfie, but most 19-year-olds aren’t pro fighters with video-game bodies. Since his Octagon debut and especially since his most recent opponent Cody Pfister made it a point of pre-fight discussion, accusations of PED use have followed Northcutt. It’s not just his built and shredded physique but also the fact that his Marinovich-esque father, Mark, is alleged to have dealt steroids (as well as cocaine) years ago. Northcutt’s response is to go on routinely posting photos like this:
Sage Northcutt (@sagenorthcutt) January 22, 2016
If this wasn’t coming from the kid who said “That’s awesome!” in a media scrum when told many fighters suspected him of PED use and took it as a sincere compliment, I would say pictures like this were a troll job. I’d expect there to be some Cung Le-type excuse about “good lighting” in there somewhere. Instead, Northcutt’s post-workout photos serve two intriguing purposes. One, the comments suggest that Northcutt does have an organic fanbase that has nothing to do with his unintentionally dorky demeanor; and two, they feed an army of social media wisecrackers, all tripping over themselves to be the first one to tell Northcutt he’s on the juice. Every Northcutt gym selfie post turns into 300-500 comments of people arguing about his diet, genetics and if he can beat Conor McGregor.
MMA is a sport built on hurt feelings, especially when a fighter’s integrity is questioned. Look how surly Travis Browne got in a heartbeat when pressed about stabbing Matt Mitrione in the eyeball repeatedly at UFC Fight Night 81. Not only does Northcutt address the steroid accusations head-on, albeit clumsily, but he actively stokes the fire and baits the troll. I guess to him that’s fishing for compliments.
This week, the upperclassmen gave Northcutt a hard time again.
Speaking of hurt feelings, leave it to Northcutt to keep on smiling, even when those other nasty kids talk reckless at him in the hallway.
With all due respect to Chris Wade’s callout of Northcutt, this week’s king of publicly trashing Northcutt was easily UFC lightweight contender and Iron Sheik disciple “Ragin'” Al Iaquinta:
Al Iaquinta (@ALIAQUINTA) January 22, 2016
Iaquinta remains one of the most entertaining men in MMA, whether he’s trashing a contemporary on social media, venting at a post-fight presser about not getting fight-night bonus money or trashing a Las Vegas hotel room over not getting fight-night bonus money. However, what really puts this tweet over the top is that the whole “shove Sage into the locker!” motif paints the UFC roster in the public space as a high school stereotype and isn’t that far out of line. What’s fun about Northcutt in the high school drama metaphor is that he’s playing two simultaneously maligned roles, ones that you think would be in opposition to one another: the new kid in town and the teacher’s pet.
Being a teacher’s pet, or in this case a Zuffa favorite, typically requires loyalty and time invested. However, while there are over 550 fighters under UFC employ, there are maybe five that are as vigorously pushed as Northcutt at this point, despite the fact that he is presently one of the least accomplished fighters in the promotion. Callouts of “CM Punk” were getting particularly lame, and now we’re aware of the bizarre machinations to determine Phil Brooks’ first Octagon opponent. As far as unchecked Zuffa privilege goes, Northcutt is the poster boy and, when it comes to fellow fighters in the media sphere, a whipping boy. Unfortunately for Iaquinta, as he well knows as an improving-but-established lightweight contender, he’s far too evolved to be tangling with a neophyte like Northcutt. That, kiddies, brings us to our biggest Northcutt story of the week.
This week, Northcutt got a new opponent and weight class.
Not only does Northcutt need to worry about remaining chaste and pure as he visits Newark, New Jersey, on Jan. 30 for his first fight live on Fox, but he has a new opponent, as slated lightweight foe Andrew Holbrook pulled out late this week due to injury. Northcutt will instead take on Bryan Barberena, originally set to face Jonavin Webb on Feb. 21 in Pittsburgh, at 170 pounds. Even if Barberena presents a radically different bout from Holbrook, it’s still a shrewd bit of last-second tinkering by UFC matchmaker Joe Silva and one that may result in an even more aggressive, offensive fight to start the UFC on Fox 18 main card broadcast.
Holbrook, a Chris Lytle protege, would've faced several athletic disadvantages against the bigger, stronger Northcutt and furthermore, Holbrook's best offensive skills are in scrambles, where he can flow from submission to submission. Northcutt's overall MMA game still has a ton of holes due to his inexperience, but his grappling issues aren't submission-oriented, they're rooted in the fact he's a below-par wrestler for the 155-170 weight range as we saw in his fight with Pfister and Holbrook isn't that stout of a wrestler. The 11-0 Holbrook would've been Northcutt's best opposition so far by lightyears, but for such a leap up in competition, his style is one that seemed to suit Northcutt well on the surface, one that would allow Northcutt to use his fast-twitch blitzes from distance and potentially set up a fight-ending flurry.
Barberena, on the other hand, is a physical brute. It’s little surprise that in the post-IV ban world Barberena quickly moved up to welterweight given his enormous size as a lightweight. Not only is Barberena physically imposing in either weight class, but he’s a rugged individual, a southpaw that prefers to throw sudden hooks and uppercuts rather than box. In his two UFC lightweight appearances against Joe Ellenberger and Chad Laprise, he didn’t show great fitness but paradoxically became more effective as both fights went on, stopping Ellenberger in the final round and blasting Laprise several times in the third round of a losing effort. Holbrook may in fact be a better all-around fighter, and the jump to 170 shouldn’t be a big factor for the freakish Northcutt, who is still a growing boy, of course. However, Barberena being an aggressive southpaw barbarian with sturdy takedown defense gives us a sure-fire way to finally see what happens when an opponent really gets into Northcutt’s face and tries to muss up his hair.
The real pity is that the hope for any blue-chip prospects should be that they pass their tests with flying colors and become captivating athletes. If Northcutt goes on network TV and absolutely waxes Barberena, the story won’t be the kid acing a test but how flawed that test was. Folks will demand further examination and expanding drug testing, and like I said, things will be right back to being what they’ve been. We will sit and wait in the corner, eyeballing the next fighter to make a move in the hallway, looking to stuff Northcutt into a locker.
Jonavin Webb (@jonavinwebb) January 22, 2016
Oh. That was quick.