Muay Thai champion and coach Ilya Grad had a sparring session with UFC lightweight Sage Northcutt this week and while Grad has high praise for the rising talent, he argued in a subsequent Instagram post Northcutt's father is overprotective and damaging to his career. Video of the sparring session soon emerged and Northcutt's father has responded, challenging Grad's account of what happened. Still, the controversy remains.
Speaking on SiriusXM's The Luke Thomas Show, Grad opened up about what happened, why he took to social media, the reputation he alleges Northcutt's father has in their local fighting community and why unless Northcutt goes to a 'serious gym', he won't ever reach his full potential.
The full transcription of the conversation has been lightly edited for readability.
Let's establish your background. You're a Muay Thai champion. You've fought in Thailand and Southeast Asia for how long?
10 years. I have 54 professional fights, another 50 amateur, so a total experience of over 100 fights now.
My understanding is you were brought in to spar rising sensation Sage Northcutt. Who contacted you to make that happen?
Correction. I wasn't brought in. They actually contacted me the day before. They asked me to work with him. They said they don't have sparring partners, so they asked if they could bring him in.
I'm in Houston. I'm training at Gracie Barra. I said, of course, they can bring him any day. I have other fighters I'm working with. I'm always happy to cooperate with other people.
The video is out. People can watch for themselves. For folks who may not know, what's a sparring session of this variety supposed to look like?
From the start, I always [told] I shouldn't do this, I shouldn't do that. I know he has a big fight coming up. For me, I was going very light. I just wanted to him to get some good work going on. For me, old school Muay Thai, you don't spar hard. You start very light, you start very easy. You work defensively and you work through your defense.
It wasn't hard sparring at all. We were just moving around, having fun and I was making sure we'd have no incidents because I read before that other gyms had incidents, similar incidents, during sparring sessions. So, I was making sure that wasn't going to happen.
But from what the video shows, you guys stop a lot because his father is yelling instructions to him. Is that right?
No, we didn't stop all the time. His dad was yelling. [Sage] stopped even to tell his dad, he cannot be his coach. We were not sparring. We were having a good time, actually, me and Sage. We were working very nice, very controlled. I was talking in between, telling him what was doing well, what he should feint here, work here.
We had a great sparring session, to be honest. I had a good time with him.
Ok, so you two had a productive interaction, but then this Instagram post came out that you wrote. So, why did you take to social media? Have you ever seen something like this?
@supersagenorthcutt came in for sparring today preparing for UFC 200. I want to say something nice because he's a great kid but oh my what a disaster it was. His dad is probably the worst coach I've seen in my life. He walks around talking shit, interrupting his real coach during the rounds and gives poor Sage negative pet talk in between! Then at the 3rd round when I was just warming up they accused me of trying to hurt him and retired him from sparring! - I was shocked they pulled him out only 10 minutes into sparring as I was working really clean and even let him off the hook to create space when he needed to. Never have I seen such bad coaching in my life! You have great potential kid, If you smart tell your dad to stay away from your fight camp so you could actually get some training done! Good luck for 200 ✌️
No. Luke, when you have a dad coming to training, he should stay off the mat. He shouldn't be interfering with what's happening.
But yeah, it was very difficult to work with him because he was complaining that I was trying to hurt him at some point. He said he saw my friends telling me from the other side of the room that I should knee him and hurt him. It was really ridiculous.
To be honest, I didn't think it was going to blow up like that. I could've said, 'Hey, we had a great session', but I chose to be honest instead. To me, it was really a shame because I thought we were going to be working [together] for a while. I just didn't understand why he stopped it because nothing happened. Everything was friendly, everything was controlled. I did everything intentionally not to hurt him and to make sure he's getting better and getting his work in. It was really sad because [Northcutt's father] made a big scene after everything. He just left our place, didn't say thank you, didn't say anything.
For me, it was upsetting for many reasons. One, he was disrespectful to us. It was a shame that Sage couldn't get his training in. That's why I decided to comment the way that I did.
How often have you ever sparred someone whose dad watched and yelled things?
Um, never. That doesn't happen with big boys. You go to the gym, you have your coaches there.
To be clear, you have positive things to say about Sage. This isn't about him, right?
No, no. It's too bad it went out that way because Sage is a great kid. He really is. And I really want him to get the work because I want when somebody comes and trains with me, I want them to get better. It's a shame we didn't get a chance because his dad was there. So, it was absolutely not about him. It was about his training situation. Hopefully, [it's] a wake-up call.
Let's talk about Sage. When you sparred, what did you realize about him? What is he really good at?
He likes to work outside the range, he likes to move in and out. When he steps in he steps really fast and really powerful. I think for MMA, too, it's a little bit different. If he steps in, he will probably continue for the takedown, to go for the ground. But with me when he was stepping out, he was always getting clipped by the left hook afterwards.
Other than that, I think his style is very karate. Very explosive, not so much in combination from the hands, more like one shot, two shots. Maybe if it was for MMA, he'd continue for the takedown again.
To get the best of himself, what does Sage have to do?
He has to leave. He has to leave, he has to go to a serious gym. Look, he's training here in Houston. He has no sparring partners. That's why they contacted me. I know people from other gyms, nobody wants to work with them. It's sad because you need good sparring every day. You cannot do some jiu-jitsu and hit the pads and be ready. You have to be ready for all situations from somebody, hits you hard, then in a fight when you're really tired. I was feeling they were very overprotective with him.
Help me understand. Why can't Sage build a camp around himself and be as successful as he can be?
Well, not here because he doesn't have the right sparring partners. That's why.
When you say the right sparring partners, what does that mean?
He's doesn't have people to work with. He has some people of a very low level that he gets to punch around and then everybody's happy because they think they're doing well during the trainings. You need somebody to push him, so he won't do so well, so he will learn to adjust.
His father, does this guy have a reputation in the Texas area as an overbearing kind of guy? Your post is the first time some of us are hearing about this, but what you're telling me is locally, more people know about it.
Oh, absolutely. Locally, everybody's sending messages and agree with [me]. I'm the only one who actually made it public. Again, unfortunately, he cannot train with other gyms because his dad burned a lot of bridges. My friend that trains with me, UFC fighter Alex Morono, that they had the same experience. The guy came with his dad, they were fighting in between the rounds, Sage got upset and it was just a bad experience. So, that was the only time he got to train together. It's not a new thing at all.
What was his striking coach doing this whole time?
He was there. He was coaching. He was a very nice guy. He's a good trainer. After everything happened, he apologized at the spot and then afterwards with text. He was very embarrassed about the entire situation. He said he shouldn't have brought his dad along because he should have anticipated this would happen again.
And you mentioned you've sparred with other UFC fighters before, right?
Yeah, like I said, I have Alex Morono, who comes regularly. I have Julianna Lima, she comes to train with me, too. Other than that, mostly Muay Thai guys here in Texas.
To be clear, this sort of thing we're describing here never happens, correct?
No, no. You know what? Everybody is so cool. Everybody's friends. Everybody communicates well. Nobody comes and bosses everybody around. That never happens. That's never happened to me before. I was really shocked it did, actually.
From the wider MMA community, what sort of response have you received generally?
It kinda depends about how you felt about Sage before. If you didn't like Sage or you felt he was overrated or you heard stories about his dad before, then you'd agree with what I said. You'd feel right about it. On the other hand, if you're a big Sage fan, then you think we're just talking s--t or trying to get some publicity out of this, which is the last thing I actually wanted from it.
So, very mixed. I think people who actually know me and know from the area pretty much agree with me.
Now that this is out, are you glad it's out or if could do this situation all over again, you'd do things differently?
When it's out, it's out. There's really nothing to do about it, so I'm not worried about it now. Looking back, maybe I shouldn't have used such harsh words. Maybe I would mitigate my speech because Sage is a great kid. I'm sure this is causing him some distress and I really didn't want to do that. So, I'd probably choose nicer words, but I'd probably say something, anyways.