What did Sage Northcutt’s painful debut for ONE Championship tell us about the tiers of MMA competition around the globe, and about the perception of any organization not named UFC? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMA Junkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.
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Downes: Ben, this may come as a shock to you, but people on the internet are mad at something a website posted. This week the culprit was a Deadspin headline that read, “Poor Sage Northcutt Gets Knocked Out 30 Seconds Into Minor League MMA Debut.”
As you might have guessed, a number of fans took umbrage with the use of “minor league” to describe ONE.
I’m not here to try to drag the author (who’s already admitted it was a mistake). Furthermore, we don’t even know if he’s the one who chose the headline. You know how editors can be, right?
Plus, the average sportswriter can be forgiven for not knowing the intricacies of the global MMA structure. We should just be thankful Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe won’t have opinions on Northcutt vs. Cosmo Alexandre.
There are clearly tiers in professional MMA, so how would you characterize “minor league” MMA? Why do the majority of American fans still think of the landscape as UFC and everything else? Also, what does it mean when former UFC fighters like Eddie Alvarez and Northcutt head over to ONE and lose their debut fights?
Fowlkes: If your fight promotion has Demetrious Johnson, you’re not minor league. The real minor leagues in this sport are what we often refer to as “regional” promotions.
If you have clauses in your contracts to let fighters bolt the moment they get an offer from the UFC? If you brag about being a feeder for the UFC, or about how many fighters have jumped straight from your roster to the UFC’s? Then yeah, odds are you’re the minor leagues of MMA.
Maybe it’s just my view from inside the bubble, but the responses to this that I saw made it pretty clear that most fight fans don’t regard ONE Championship as the minors. And some of the recent matchmaking has made me wonder if ONE’s goal is to use former UFC fighters in order to make that point.
Giving Northcutt a very tough fight against Alexandre in his debut? Matching Alvarez up against “Tim Nasty” in the first round of the tournament? These don’t seem like the fights you make if you regard your recent UFC free agent signings as precious commodities that must be nurtured and protected.
Maybe instead, the goal was to show that ONE Championship has some very tough fighters on its roster, even if they’re not backed by the three special letters.
That had serious consequences for Northcutt, though. The boy wonder got his face smashed in particularly grisly fashion (though even that couldn’t dampen his general enthusiasm for life). That’s a rough start overseas after leaving the UFC on a winning streak. Does it make you think the UFC was right to let him walk, having squeezed what value it could out of him? Did the attempt to make him a star by simply telling us he already was one teach us anything?
Downes: I don’t know what you mean by “right.” Was it a tactical decision with fairly sound business logic? Sure. Did Northcutt probably ask for more money, and UFC executives realized they didn’t have the clout or the energy to make him a “thing”? You know it. A popular early narrative in the UFC on ESPN era so far is that UFC officials don’t really have to try. They’re getting the money up front. Case in point, last night’s UFC Rochester card.
Then again, I don’t know if the ESPN deal has made UFC officials consciously change their business decisions, or if we’re seeing the continuation of a trend started a few years ago. The UFC has always assumed the brand is bigger than any fighter not named Conor McGregor. The powers that be in the company may have spent some time and capital on Northcutt, but he was a sunk cost by the time his contract ended. At least they still have Paige VanZant, I guess.
As for what we’ve learned from how the UFC handled Northcutt, there are two competing points of view. One side can laugh at the UFC for putting promotional muscle behind an unproven kid who fizzled out. Lots of people say the UFC can’t build stars and simply got “lucky” the Ronda Rouseys and McGregors of the world showed up.
On the other hand, I think the Sage Experience shows how beneficial it can be to have the UFC on your side. Sure, Northcutt never became a champion, but he’s earned a lot more money and fame than any other MMA fighter of his caliber.
Part of that can be attributed to the backlash. Once a lot of MMA fans know you’re a company guy, they’ll do whatever they can to dunk on you as often as possible. That just means more attention.
You also have to give Northcutt credit for adapting to the situation. Whether he’s tearing apples, washing his car without a shirt on, or doing whatever the hell this is, I have a hard time imagining he’s not in on the joke. Maybe we learned that a muscular, conventionally attractive guy who can do flippy stuff can make some decent money in this sport. Wait a minute. That can’t be all we learned, can it?
Fowlkes: Maybe we learned that you can only conceal a fighter’s flaws for so long. The UFC desperately wanted Northcutt to be a thing, even when that desperation prompted some backlash among both fans and fighters. He got advantageous matchups, good card placement, plus the benefit of the UFC hype machine. Then when it was time to negotiate a new deal the UFC decided that maybe he wasn’t going to be a thing after all – or at least a thing worth paying for.
He took his talent to ONE Championship, but by then all the attention the UFC gave him made him a target as well as a symbol. If one of your guys beats up one of the UFC’s guys, maybe you’ve made a point that was worth the price tag. And maybe that point is that you’re not so minor league after all.
Still, it’s not exactly a revelation that there are good fighters outside the UFC. There’s talent all over the place in this sport. The challenge for other promoters has been getting fans to care. Seeing the UFC’s former golden boy get his whole stuff broke might make a strong impression. It might also end up swiftly forgotten.
Ben Fowlkes is MMA Junkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMA Junkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.