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Fightweets: What Sage Northcutt’s departure means for the UFC in 2019

Sage Northcutt EL
Sage Northcutt is no longer a UFC fighter.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It’s a ridiculously busy fight weekend, with the UFC and Bellator putting on two events each for the first time, a KSW card, and oh yeah, a big heavyweight boxing title fight too.

But before we turn forward, let’s take a look back at the week that was in this wacky sport.

Sage Northcutt leaves UFC for ONE

@SebastionHman: What does it say about the state of the UFC after they let Sage go? about a decade ago all they wanted to do was acquire all the best talent, absorb promotions. I know they are all about the big name draws now and the entertainment side.

If it wasn’t already clear, Sage Northcutt signing with ONE should set this in stone: The UFC we knew during the Zuffa era is dead.

For all you can criticize about the way business was done under the Fertitta brothers — an approach that led to ongoing antitrust litigation — there’s little doubt the old school was serious about making the company the greatest collection of talent the sport of mixed martial arts had ever seen, so much so that casuals think “UFC” and not “MMA” when the sport is brought up in conversation.

Everything from the purchase of PRIDE to the WEC to the WFA to Strikeforce, not to mention going from being all but banned from television to being a network TV property, was a relentless pursuit toward this end.

But then WME/Endeavor bought the UFC, and, well, one little thing started happening after another in regards to the roster. Rory MacDonald signed with Bellator not long after the sale. Gegard Mousasi, who might be the best middleweight in the world, also jumped. Then went Lyoto Machida.

Then fighters like Eddie Alvarez stared defecting to ONE, the Asian promotion which is presently flush with cash. Then the Demetrious Johnson for Ben Askren contract swap happened.

All of moves these can be justified in one way or another. Alvarez, for example, may or may not be right on the brink of his downside after a decade’s worth of wars, so if he can make a big score in ONE, good for him, but you can understand the UFC not wanting to match it.

But Northcutt? Now this is something different. Northcutt’s tailor-made for a fight promotion run by a Hollywood conglomerate, from his Ken-doll physique to the aww shucks mannerisms to the ridiculous upside of his raw skills. That’s why Sage was signed too soon by the UFC in the pre-sale days. That’s why he was given favorable matchmaking. That’s why his fights drew TV ratings and why Sage stories remain big clickers on MMA sites.

After a bit of a rocky road, Northcutt got serious about becoming a real fighter, moving out to Team Alpha Male and putting in legit performances in his fights. He was plainly maturing before our eyes, which makes Dana White’s claim he needs to be sent away for seasoning laughable.

Northcutt reportedly got big offers from every major company, which puts a lie to the notion that he was overpaid — side note: Those who claim he was overpaid sure can’t seem to answer why he got so many big-dollar offers if that was the case — or that people don’t see his upside. I don’t know the actual numbers — maybe ONE is paying so drastically higher than the UFC that it really wasn’t worth the UFC’s while to match.

But letting Northcutt walk sends an unmistakable message: The $7B fight company either doesn’t have the confidence in their own promotional abilities that they’d recoup the money down the road they would have paid Sage, or they have a stubborn budget they’re not going to break under any circumstances, confident that the drip, drip, drip of talent from Mousasi to Machida to Alvarez to Northcutt doesn’t matter as long as the brand “UFC” stays strong.

Whether this pattern continues, and whether the Bellators and ONE Championships of the world can make real inroads in this environment, is a storyline to watch in the new year.

Anderson Silva vs. Israel Adesanya

@RobertMenn: Chances Anderson destroys Izzy upon his return?

Umm, if I had to bet one of these guys destroying the other in this UFC 234 fight in Melbourne, I’d bet the house on Adesanya being the one dishing out the beatings.

But the fact so many seem to think that Silva can turn back the clock demonstrates the brilliance of this booking.

The past few years have been pretty rough on Anderson Silva, though much of it has been self-imposed. He got caught hot-dogging and got knocked out by Chris Weidman, ending the longest title reign in UFC history. He had his brutal leg fracture in the Weidman rematch. He’s been busted twice for banned substances. The last we saw of him in the cage, nearly two years ago, he got a debatable decision over Derek Brunson at UFC 208, an opponent he would have beaten with one hand tied behind his back during his prime.

But there have been flashes of the old brilliance along the way, which has been enough to get fans to hope that the return of peak-level Spider is just around the corner.

Here’s the thing, though: Silva’s hiatuses between fights have been long enough for people to forget that he’s getting old in the meantime. Not only is Silva 1-4 with a no-contest since defeating Stephan Bonnar six years ago, he’ll be 44 next April.

Which brings us to the Adesanya fight. Sure, Silva might tag him and score the knockout, but this seems the coronation for “The Last Style Bender,” the young feeding off the old, the circle of combat sports life. For all the reasons above, if Adesanya trucks Silva, as I suspect he will, the casual fans are only going to see the headlines seeing he rolled over Silva and assuming they’re seeing The Next One. And they’ll be right, but anyone paying closer attention can see this one coming from a mile away.

Francis Ngannou’s redemption

@hunt5588: Is it me or has Ngannou finishing Blaydes (who has been on a TEAR lately) flown WAY under the radar? Consequence of a 630 AM ET main card start time?

It has, but there are a couple things here. I’m going to start off by going on a bit of a tangent.

I’m writing this on Friday, when the long-awaited Paul Daley vs. Michael “Venom” Page bout was announced for Feb. 16 in Connecticut. Most of the reaction on Twitter involved complaints over the fact the fight between two British standouts isn’t being held in London.

Okay, fine: Obviously the U.K. would have been the ideal spot for this. But the kvetching about the location doesn’t factor in all the pieces of the puzzle, from arena booking and availability to which nights work best on the schedule for the content partners whose millions of dollars enable your promotion to exist. It also doesn’t factor in which headline fighters are available to fight on dates that are booked months in advance.

It also glosses over the fact this is a first-round fight in the welterweight grand prix, and Bellator needs to get this show on the road. Had Daley vs. MVP been booked in London, but way down the road, I have no doubt the people complaining it was set in Connecticut would be whining Bellator is going too slow with the tournament.

So yes, in a perfect world, every fighter would get to experience a night like Stipe Miocic had in his hometown of Cleveland for UFC 203. But it doesn’t always work out that way. And that goes for the Ngannou-Blaydes fight in Beijing. Last I checked, Beijing has a population of 21 million people and China nearly 1.4 billion. If you’re trying to crack such a potentially lucrative market, you just might want to give the customers there a headliner worth their money and have the show at a normal waking hour for the locals.

UFC Fight Night Blaydes v Ngannou 2
Francis Ngannou’s win over Curtis Blaydes was much-needed, but didn’t tell us much about him we didn’t already know.
Photo by Emmanuel Wong/Getty Images

Which brings us to the fight itself: Yup, it flew under the radar. It was an impressive and much-needed win for Ngannou. That’s not a small matter, as it was starting to appear Ngannou had slipped into the sort of funk fighters don’t break out.

But we already knew that Ngannou’s right hand is a weapon so lethal, it should probably be banned by the United Nations. And we already knew Ngannou is one hell of a front-runner. He demonstrated both in Beijing, and he’s earned the right to fight another top name and hopefully prove he can get into a dogfight and win. We didn’t learn much we didn’t already know, aside from the fact we shouldn’t write him off. But for now, that’s enough.

Darrion Caldwell vs. Kyoji Horiguchi

@limsma: How excited are you for the cross promotion fight between Caldwell and Horiguchi. Also was this the right move by Bellator, to send one of their champions to the other side of the world in a risky match up. Where it’s harder to get American eyes in him.

I suppose this is where I should be trendy and post some over-the-top GIF of someone looking waaaaaaay too excited. But for real, the champion vs. champion match between Bellator bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell and RIZIN counterpart Kyoji Horiguchi on New Year’s Eve in Japan is pretty damn exciting, as well as being an example of Scott Coker’s “hey, let’s give this a try and see if it works” style of booking at its best.

From Bellator’s perspective, it’s a chance to finally give Caldwell, who has developed into a fine fighter but seems to have been featured on Bellator’s B-level casino cards once too often, a chance to get the spotlight in a major fight.

For RIZIN, it’s a chance to get attention over here — and not the negative kind produced by the farcical Floyd Mayweather “fight”— with a champion who has a name with North American fans. New Year’s Eve in Japan is now back on the radar around these parts in a way it hasn’t been except for the most diehard fans in quite some time.

For both, it’s a chance to fill a niche the UFC doesn’t want to touch. With the UFC demonstrating it no longer prioritizes cornering the market on all the world’s best talent, the door is open for other promotions to cooperate and put on meaningful champion vs. champion fights.

And it’s reasonable to assume that if Coker is letting his champ go over there the first time out, Bellator’s expecting something in return.

Caldwell vs. Horiguchi is as win-win as it gets in this sport.

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