You watch Sage Northcutt tap to an arm triangle from half-guard and come away thinking that he might not belong in the UFC – or, at the very least, that we need to push hard on the brake. Northcutt might not do anything correct during this sequence. He allows Barberena to isolate the arm. He seems to attempt to remove his arm from danger, but then leaves it hanging when he can’t clear Barberena’s head. And then he just sort of…lets himself get submitted. Northcutt’s performance in this clip should leave every fight fan asking, “What’s the big deal?”
But that’s sort of the thing about progress: it isn’t linear. Most of the very best fighters in MMA history have blemishes early in their careers. Luciano Azevedo tapped Jose Aldo. Artemij Sitenkov and Joe Duffy submitted Conor McGregor. Anderson Silva dropped a decision to Luiz Azeredo. Junior dos Santos was submitted by Joaquim Ferreira. Luke Rockhold was finished by Tony Rubalcava.
The difference is that Northcutt’s speed bump occurred in the Octagon and a fairly heavy promotional push. While it’s worthwhile to question why Northcutt makes more than someone like, say, Aljamain Sterling, we shouldn’t fault either Northcutt or the UFC for the events that led up to his loss on Saturday night.
Over the last couple years, the UFC has been scooping up more and younger prospects. By picking up fighters early in their development, the promotion prevents a rival like Bellator from developing legitimate stars of their own. Their large rosters allows them to do this, as there are a number of fighters under contract who might never have sniffed the Octagon five years ago. (It should be noted that Paige VanZant’s career development suffered because the UFC doesn’t have this flexibility at strawweight.) The UFC can carefully manage the development of young fighters by placing them in increasingly winnable-but-challenging fights. This matchmaking strategy has a long history in combat sports.
The UFC has made mistakes with prospects in the past. Pitting a 20-year-old Rory MacDonald with Carlos Condit in the former’s second UFC fight was…ambitious, and it may have stunted MacDonald’s long-term development despite his success.
On the other hand, you take a case like Sergio Pettis. In Pettis’s second UFC fight, the promotion threw him in with Alex Caceres. Caceres was coming off a four-fight win streak (with one of those wins being overturned due to a drug test failure for marijuana), sure, but his those wins including names like Motonobu Tezuka and Kuang Ho Kang. Caceres submitted Pettis, and then proceeded to drop three straight to better competition. For Pettis, the loss was less the result of the UFC pushing too hard too soon as it was a natural course correction.
The same follows for Northcutt. Barberena had put together a respectable 9-2 record on the regional circuit before splitting a pair of fights in the UFC. He’s 26 years old, so he still has room to grow himself, but this was not former WEC champion and 30-fight veteran Carlos Condit. (Condit, coincidentally, was also 26 when he fought MacDonald.) Barberena represented a winnable fight – Northcutt closed as a 5-2 favorite – but wound up failing the test.
Northcutt may rebound and become a perennial top 10 fighter. Or he might not. The thing about prospects is that they don’t always pan out. Perhaps they should have tempered expectations, but this is the sort of process the UFC needs to use to build stars. You cannot expect fans to watch 40 to 50 fight cards each year and pick out the young talent on their own. You need to highlight said talent and allow fans to connect with them early in their careers.