Sage Northcutt is a curious figure in MMA, both for who he is and for what he represents. The 20-year-old karate stylist with prickly blonde hair, comically good manners, and muscles like the second coming of Zyzz is a self-evident star of the fight world, famous because he's famous—or, more accurately, because the UFC has deemed him worth being famous. He is the heir to a PR push that reflects the promotion's great expectations for him and its baffling sense of what fight fans are drawn toward.
Mickey Gall, by comparison, is a 24-year-old jiu-jitsu brown belt who was brought into the UFC in February as a bit player in a pro wrestler’s MMA odyssey. Gall, of course, defeated now 8-2 Sage Northcutt during their welterweight bout on Saturday night at UFC on Fox 22, sinking in a rear-naked choke—his fourth such finish in his four-fight career—in the second round. As Northcutt stumbles, Gall is suddenly ascendant. And as his first calendar year in the world's biggest MMA promotion draws to a close, there's a lesson: even if the UFC decides to give someone else the spotlight, the right person can always hijack it.
This is the second time in a row that Gall has faced an over-promoted opponent and benefited. In September, he fought CM Punk, the former WWE showman who was signed to the UFC in hopes that he’d lure his pro-wrestling fan base, and choked him out in the first round. (Gall arrived via Looking For a Fight, the UFC’s reality show that was also Northcutt’s ticket and was conceived to find an opponent for Punk.) Gall walked out to a goofy 80s pop song beforehand, gave Punk a cauliflower ear he did not previously have, and with all eyes on him afterward he didn’t fall into the I’ll fight whoever the UFC wants me to fight trap of banality. "I want 'Super' Sage Northcutt," Gall told the crowd in Cleveland. "I think that boy’s corny. I want to punch the spikes out of his hair."
As Gall shouted himself into the foil for Northcutt and his perma-smile, Northcutt responded in fitting style. "He's talking about my hair—he wants to punch the spikes out of my hair—and looking at that from his fights that I've seen and looking at his pictures, his hair kind of looks like mine," Northcutt later said on The MMA Hour. "It just doesn't have the hair gel in it, it doesn't look like. I'm thinking that maybe he should get some hair gel and style it or something."
When they finally met to settle their follicular differences on Saturday, it was one of a few odd fights on a weird Fox card. Gall took Northcutt down almost immediately, spent much of the round on top, and threated a guillotine choke, but Northcutt scrambled back to his feet. In the second round he had greater success, catching Gall with a hard left hook and getting the best of the striking generally—until Gall dropped him with a right hand, spun to his back, and finished the choke. It wasn't the only bit of quasi-celebrity slaying of the night: In the main event, 115-pounder Paige Van Zant, the Dancing With the Stars alumna and UFC golden girl whose probably received even more UFC backing than Northcutt, faced veteran Michelle Waterson and got her carotids squeezed until she went limp, an effort executed with even greater efficiency than Gall's win.
It's tempting to lump criticisms of Van Zant and Northcutt together, but sticking with the theme and with apologies to Northcutt—who shouldn’t be held accountable for being promoted in a way that outweighs the burgeoning talents that got him here—I have no idea why he’s the one that the UFC decided to put its weight behind. Why would the average MMA fan be taken with a fighter solely because he's a wholesome guy who looks straight out of a late-90s boy band, especially when tastes run so clearly in the opposite direction? We have an appetite for misanthropy, not politeness. The hostility between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, all lobbed f-bombs and Monster drinks, made for the two best-selling pay-per-views of the last year. Consider that Northcutt losing his temper against Gall was far more interesting than watching viral videos of him happily ripping apart an apple. Consider, also, that Northcutt showed the same gaping holes in his jiu-jitsu against Gall that Bryan Barbarena exposed earlier this year.
Along those lines, talking about Gall as a true prospect needs to stay in perspective. As adept as he was on the ground, he looked raw on the feet, the punch that dropped Northcutt notwithstanding. Compared to his previous opponents—Punk, Mike Jackson (an MMA journalist also vying for the chance to fight Punk), and the small-circuit opponent he beat in front of Dana While, all of whom had 0-0 records at the time—Northcutt was a grizzled, battle-hardened killer. Gall's post-win callout of Dan Hardy, the former title challenger who’s trying to get a doctor's clearance to return after four years on the sidelines, makes no sense and is a terrible idea at this stage.
But the fact that we’re talking about Gall says everything. Even when the UFC attempts to build a star in a laboratory, someone with the right talent, personality, and four-ounce gloves can break in and start smashing test tubes.
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