If a few years from now, Sage Northcutt is a perennial fixture in the upper echelon of the UFC lightweight division, there's a good chance he may look back on Saturday night as one of the early turning points of his young career.
The 19-year-old Northcutt suffered his first career loss at UFC on FOX 18, tapping to a second-round arm-triangle at the hands of MMA Lab product Bryan Barberena. And among the many things the experience taught Northcutt, it is that the fight game can be a fickle place for those only dipping their toes in the water.
Northcutt revealed Monday on The MMA Hour that he now plans to begin training "full-time" at Tristar Gym in Montreal, home to decorated welterweights Georges St-Pierre and Rory MacDonald, as well as head trainer Firas Zahabi, and that preparations are being made for the move to happen within the coming month.
"Yes sir, I will be up there full-time, it looks like," Northcutt said. "I do have schoolwork still, because I'm still at Texas A&M, so I'm trying to figure out how exactly that's going to work. If I need to come back to do certain tests and quizzes, or how that's going to work out. So I'm still playing out that schedule, but yes sir, I'll be training at Tristar."
Northcutt spent several weeks at Tristar in late-2015 as a sort of trial run, but did all his camp for UFC on FOX 18 at home in Katy, Texas, splitting his time between training out of Gracie Barra Katy and going to school for petroleum engineering at Texas A&M University.
The fight against Barberena was Northcutt's third appearance in his first four months under the UFC banner, an almost unprecedented pace which allowed little room for improvement, and the results showed it. Northcutt, battling an onset of strep throat, looked out of his depth once the fight hit the floor against the veteran Barberena, ultimately tapping to an arm-triangle from half guard.
The upset loss, along with the manner it took place -- arm-triangles are generally finished from a more dominant position, like side control or full mount -- resulted in a chorus of criticism being levied against the teenager, the loudest of which came from his fellow UFC fighters, many of whom questioned Northcutt's heart or labeled him a quitter.
Northcutt saw much of the venom that was being spewed on social media -- it was hard to miss -- however he shrugged off the criticism as just part of the game.
"No one ever likes that, someone celebrating that someone lost, so obviously it's not something that you want to hear, you don't want to listen to," Northcutt said. "But, I mean, it's the sport of MMA, so I understand that they're talking this and that or whatever. It might not be positive about me. But there's people who are lifting me up and saying great things, so I'm focused on those things. I know that I have a ton of heart out there, so if people think that I was tapping out there because I panicked or the pressure, it wasn't that. It was the fact that I was extremely sick.
"I made a post on my Instagram and my Twitter," Northcutt added, "and I got to see a lot of positive things that were uplifting, so that's always nice to hear. Some comments from the champion of 155, Rafael dos Anjos. Donald Cerrone was awesome. Just so many different people who are so nice and sticking up for me, so it really means a lot."
The criticism doesn't surprise Northcutt, though to see so much of it hurled from his peers was a new experience for the previously undefeated teenager. Northcutt, a well-mannered and polite fighter who is rarely seen without a wide smile, is more than likely a target of circumstance, as the 19-year-old has unquestionably received a large promotional push from the UFC and earned an uncommon $40,000/$40,000 purse for his Dec. 10 win, a figure which far exceeds the norm for a second-time UFC fighter.
Northcutt believes his age may have played a part in the reaction to his loss, although in a realer sense, it also plays to his advantage in the long run.
"I think it could be because I'm very young," Northcutt said. "Like you said, I'm very young. I do have a lot to learn. So now I'm going to get to go up to Tristar and learn as much as I possibly can, and I think that [plays a big part] in everything. Just being 19 years old and being able to be in the UFC has a big effect on every single thing that people look at. So I'm honored and blessed to be in the UFC, much less be 19 years old in the UFC, knowing that I have so much time to learn, so much technique to learn, everything all around to make myself better. I think that has to do with what people are looking at or picking at."
Just two days after his loss, Northcutt was unable to pin down an immediate timetable for his wheels to begin rolling back into action. It doesn't help that as a result of the strep throat, his third such incident in four months, he may have to get his tonsils removed before getting started.
But he is excited about a future in Montreal under the tutelage of Zahabi, and the opportunities training fulltime in a renown MMA gym for the first time ever will present him.
"Normally I do not spar leading up to fights," Northcutt said. "It's just kind of protecting yourself from injuries, and for the moment being, I haven't been at a gym where there is sparring or any MMA fighters at the gym. The gym I'm specifically at is a Gracie Barra gym, so in the future obviously I will. I can spar and train my technique in different ways, going up to Tristar, getting different training partners, different UFC fighters who are in there, very talented (fighters), and getting to learn the most I can out of everything."