'The sky is the limit' for Sage Northcutt, who dropped out of college to concentrate on fighting

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

For all those who celebrate a professional athlete’s success, there are just as many, if not more, who are envious of it.

Sage Northcutt knows that all too well.

Growing up, he was an almost too-good-to-be-true combination of looks, charm and athleticism. Northcutt was blessed with great genes and parents who did whatever it took to help him maximize his potential. He made it to the UFC when he was 19 and was 2-0 at the sport’s highest level before he turned 20.

Northcutt generated enormous amounts of media, and while that pleased those who run the UFC, it didn’t please many of his peers who had worked their entire lives to make it to the top and still weren’t getting the kind of attention Northcutt received without asking.

There was envy among his peers, as well as many in the fan base. And when Northcutt lost for the first time, submitting to Bryan Barbarena on Jan. 30, 2016 in a welterweight bout in Pittsburgh, sounds of glee erupted from the fan base, as well as many fighters.

Northcutt was paid more than many similarly situated fighters, and he got more media. It didn’t shock UFC president Dana White, who defended the treatment Northcutt received. White pointed out that Northcutt’s appearance on his “Lookin’ for a Fight,” generated more than three million views. He said Northcutt had a record for the most-watched bout on UFC Fight Pass, the company’s streaming service.

“Anyone who has a problem with what we paid the kid should come to me and I’ll tell them how it is,” White said. “Pull the numbers this kid pulls and we’ll pay you, too. The people who make the most money in this business are the ones who do numbers.

“He’s got a great personality and he’s a likeable guy. He is a guy that people have shown they want to watch. He’s a young guy and he has a lot of work to do [as a fighter], but he’s found his place and if they can develop him, hey, you don’t know what might happen.”

Northcutt was majoring in petroleum engineering at Texas A&M, but made the decision last year to put college aside and focus full-time on fighting. But after he alternated wins and losses, he was left wondering if he’d fulfill his potential.

Men in the oil business generally make more money and have longer careers than fighting, but Northcutt was raised from a tender age to be a fighter and didn’t want to give that up.

“At first, I wanted to do both at the same time,” Northcutt said. “I wanted to study to be a petroleum engineer and get my engineering degree, and fight in the UFC at the same time. But unfortunately, to be the best I can be at the UFC, I needed all focus to be there, and more focus, also.

“Instead of 10 hours a day and so many classes and work, [I could concentrate on fighting]. It wasn’t that hard of a decision. You only get one chance to fight in the UFC and while you have the chance, you might as well take it. Being a petroleum engineer, you could always go back to school later, so I guess I believe I made the right decision.”

The best decision he may have made in that process was to join Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male in Sacramento. Northcutt was there prior to his November win over Mitchell Quinones in November, and he’s continued to train there as he prepares for Sunday’s bout in Austin against Thibault Gouti.

Faber, a UFC Hall of Famer whom Nortchutt without fail refers to as “Mr. Faber,” raved about his protégé. Faber isn’t one for hyperbole and he’s the first to admit Northcutt needed a lot of work. The potential is enormous, though, and Faber is working to develop it.

“Honestly, I believe the sky is the limit for Sage,” Faber said.

Northcutt trained in various martial arts from a very young age, but he never truly learned to be a fighter. At Team Alpha Male, Faber is trying to get Northcutt to, in light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier’s words, “embrace the grind.”

“His practices are a lot better now being with the guys here,” Faber said. “In the past, you know, he had private coaches for this, and private coaches for that, and he just had all these things, but what maybe he needed was to learn to embrace the grind of the lifestyle,” Faber said. “Knowing the difference between being hurt and being injured, living that lifestyle, that’s made a huge difference for him.”

Faber said he believes Northcutt will be sharp on Sunday against Gouti, and will take opportunities to go to the ground if they’re presented. He won’t just rely on his striking.

With Northcutt, the physical skills are obvious. He’s quick, he’s strong and he’s agile. The key is putting it together and being able to perform at a high level while under duress.

And being confident he’s able to go from move to move to move is a large part of it.

“Obviously, I’m trying to keep improving at everything, from the wrestling to the jiu-jitsu to the striking to the transitions, every part of my MMA aspect,” he said. “The biggest thing is are my transitions. Everything is going to keep getting better and better. There is so much improving to [do]. Every day at Team Alpha Male, I’m improving. The biggest thing with that camp is everyone is so positive and has the work ethic to go out there and push the pace and keep going and going and going.”

He’s only 21, but he’s in great hands and is learning how to truly be a fighter. He’s been an athlete who trained in martial arts, but Faber is developing him into a fighter who has a background in many disciplines of the martial arts.

Faber has no doubt that Northcutt can develop into an impact player, a guy known as much for his fighting and his physical gifts as he is for his looks and his bright smile.

“He’s a nice, humble kid and he says all the right things, and that’s who he is,” Faber said. “But this kid is a hard-nosed, tough competitive guy. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to be the best, and guys like that, man, you never know how far they might take it. I’ll tell you this: Nothing Sage Northcutt does in that cage will surprise me. He’s that good.”

Sage Northcutt celebrates after finishing three rounds against Michel Quinones in their lightweight bout on Nov. 11, 2017 in Norfolk, Virginia. (Getty Images)