Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
In the aftermath of UFC 226, there was a mixture of buzzed excitement and bemoaned frustration about Brock Lesnar getting a shot at the heavyweight title. Both responses are understandable. On one hand, Lesnar has done nothing to deserve a shot at the title: His last official win in the Octagon was in 2010, and his last appearance two years ago saw him melt the post-fight urinary sample cup with a banned fertility drug that doubles testosterone. On the other hand, he’s really big, and he called some other heavyweights pieces of s---. You can understand the conflicted emotions here.
Yet the naked cash-grab of another title fight for Lesnar is easily forgiven. The Ultimate Fighting Championship is in fact in the business of money-making, and Lesnar is an undeniable means to make said money. The question is why he’s still a draw at 41 years of age, despite back-to-back first-round technical knockout losses and a dud of a fight that ended up as a no-contest.
General celebrity is an obvious answer, though that doesn’t explain much on its own; “CM Punk” is on a similar plane of popularity, and the only remaining appeal of seeing him in the UFC is to see how low the matchmakers will go to dredge up a suitable opponent. The obvious difference between the two former World Wrestling Entertainment stars is that Lesnar is a real athlete with real skills who has actually been successful at the highest levels in the Octagon. Still, that success is now underneath a decade of dust, fenced off by Cain Velasquez’s and Alistair Overeem’s violent reminders of his limitations. There is only so much bankable potency left in competitive hype that is eight years past its expiration date.
There’s also the allure of a freakishly big, athletic man fighting, which is particularly interesting at heavyweight, where anyone can seemingly beat anyone on any given night. Matched against an undersized champion like Daniel Cormier, those old highlights suddenly leap from history into possibility.
Still, what makes Lesnar an enduringly intriguing figure in the fight game is not simply the confluence of those factors; it’s the persona in which all of the other factors are packaged. He’s a great villain, and he better than anyone knows how to weaponize that villainy for entertainment. The bad guys -- in movies, music, sports or any other kind of entertainment business -- will always be the most effective financial drivers. Most of the biggest pay-per-view draws in the UFC have, to some extents, embraced a role as a heel. Those who didn’t -- Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell -- had heels to play off of as springboards to broader appeal.
There’s science behind this. A study published in 2016 found that when audiences seek pleasure over meaning in the entertainment they consume, they are more likely to employ “looser moral standards.” Thus, when we are morally disengaged from what we watch, we are more likely to root for people with characteristics we would otherwise find reprehensible; and what medium encourages moral disengagement more than combat sports? Put simply, we’re naturally drawn to the bad guys, the villains, the heels.
As more fighters are beginning to understand this dynamic and cultivate a public persona accordingly, the genuine golly-gee-willikers charm of Sage Northcutt has become that much more refreshing. Admittedly, Northcutt was easy to hate when he first debuted as a teenager. With the disposition of a Labrador puppy, a look that could best be described as The Mickey Mouse Club on steroids and a comically telegraphed promotional push, “Super Sage” ended up on the receiving end of a great deal of schadenfreude. Paired against the easiest possible opponents, the alleged wunderkind wasn’t a boy wonder as much as he was simply kind. In the cutthroat world of these-guys-really-don’t-like-each-other marketing, being a nice, respectful kid wasn’t much of a standout gimmick. That’s the thing, though; it’s not a gimmick. Calling people “mister” and “sir” and beaming with unbridled, fun-loving energy is who Northcutt really is at heart.
In his win against Zak Ottow at UFC Fight Night 133 on Saturday, Northcutt looked like he’s starting to put the technical pieces of his game together with his undeniable athleticism. It was the best win and finest performance yet from the 22-year-old veteran and a positive sign that he could develop into a real title threat down the road. Equally notable was the sheer joy in his face after notching his first win at welterweight. “Words are powerful,” he spoke into the microphone; and when he said “we all gotta have respect for each other” and that “we could all be more careful with the things we say,” it felt like a direct rebuttal to Lesnar calling Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou pieces of s--- a week prior, even though it almost certainly wasn’t. Amid all the swampy humidity of kayfabe and rehearsed performance that is stitched into the sport, the impossible absence of cynicism and naturally indefatigable optimism of Northcutt is a cool mountain breeze.
None of this is likely to turn Northcutt into a pay-per-view draw anytime soon. There is something inherently boring about being the Good Guy, some font of resentment that associates goodness with behavioral restrictions. It’s why Biggie rapped about his preference for hell in “Suicidal Thoughts,” since “it don’t make sense going to heaven with the goodie-goodies.” This same polluted wellspring is why we tend to fetishize melancholy and pensive sadness as somehow deeper and realer emotions than happiness, as if moodiness is a higher form of consciousness than being appreciative.
It’s good to see a nice guy not finish last. In a sport awash with faux grudges and matchmaking that amounts to competitive performance art, the sincere enthusiasm of “Super Sage” is a much-needed reprieve. Aw shucks, Mr. Northcutt, you gone and got yourself a whole new batch of fans.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.