When Sage Northcutt debuted in the Octagon as a teen in late-2015, it didn't take long for him to receive a heavy UFC marketing push. Prime spots on major cards, an individualized Reebok sponsorship, a salary that dwarfed the average wages of UFC newcomers; all of it came Northcutt's way. And likely because of it, many fighters in the UFC ranks publicly celebrated when the youngster suffered his first professional loss earlier this year at the hands of Bryan Barberena.
The furor over Northcutt and his red-carpet treatment has mostly died down since that first setback, but after bringing the 20-year-old into Roufusport to help him prepare for Stephen Thompson at UFC 205, reigning UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley admitted to being surprised by what he discovered about the young karate whiz.
"We've all had our comments about Sage as a fighter, I think," Woodley said Wednesday on a UFC 205 conference call. "Some of the fighters were a bit envious of his entrance into the UFC, and some of the endorsements and some of the things that came with it, him being so young. We all had something to say, me included. And after training with him, I had to bite a couple of my words because he's way more well-rounded than what I expected, what I thought."
Woodley is slated to defend his title against "Wonderboy" on Nov. 12 as one of three title fights on the UFC's blockbuster entry into New York. And just as past Thompson opponent Rory MacDonald recruited flashy striker Raymond Daniels to help prepare for Thompson's unique attack, Woodley brought in Northcutt, hoping to glean a few tricks to help deal with a karate stylist.
"He's strong, he's powerful, he's fast," Woodley said of Northcutt. "He's a great resource to train with, so I had to bite my own words, and I would think as long as he still focused and stays true to who he is -- because it sounded like everybody wants him to be somebody else -- as long as he can do that, I think he'll go a long way in this sport. He's young.
"We want to compare him to guys who are my age. He calls me Mr. Woodley and it feels so weird, but I'm like, man, this kid is  years old."
Rather than splitting time between Roufusport and American Top Team, as he has done in the past, Woodley elected to spend most of his training camp for UFC 205 in Milwaukee under the direction of Duke Roufus and the coaches at Roufusport. He seemed pleased with the results, too. He said on Wednesday that his mental and physical preparation both felt leagues ahead of where they did prior to his UFC 201 title challenge against Robbie Lawler, and that Northcutt has helped play a part.
"They're really just bringing the best out of me, making fighting fun again," Woodley said. "It's closer to home, so if I need to bus home and watch the football game or something like that, it's a 45-minute flight or a short drive. So I think, just in general, the fight philosophy that Duke has goes hand-in-hand with my guys from American Top Team.
"(ATT coach) Din Thomas is out here now, he's been out here the majority of the camp, so those guys together are just beautiful minds in the sport, and they're open to other ideals and they're open to other trainers and coaches coming in, and there's no ego involved. It obviously would've been a little awkward for me to train down there (at ATT) when I was competing against Robbie, and just for this particular style (for Thompson), I think I needed more one-on-one attention. But in the future, you'll see me also training at Coconut Creek as well."
As for Thompson, who is actually favored by oddsmakers at UFC 205, he joined Woodley in praising Northcutt, stating that the young welterweight occasionally reminds him of himself when he watches "Super Sage" fight.
"If go back and you watch Sage, we do have a similar style," Thompson said. "He does come from a karate background. He does some of the flashy stuff that I like to do as well. So I'm just prepared knowing that Tyron probably has seen some of the stuff that I throw, that I'm going to be throwing, because I know Sage, he's a karate guy and he's going to go out there and try to simulate the best Stephen ‘Wonderboy' Thompson he can. And you know what? That's okay. I'm ready for it, man. No matter what."