For many MMA fans, their last look at Sage Northcutt was him face-down on the canvas, the victim of a brutal punch from an opponent far heavier and more experienced in combat sports.
The effects of that punch would linger long after the 2019 bout, his debut in ONE Championship. After passing on a new UFC contract with three previous wins under his belt, Northcutt suffered eight fractures in his face that required nine hours to surgically repair. There was extensive recovery time that kept him sidelined.
It would be understandable if Northcutt decided to step away from the sport altogether after the devastating injury. But he said he never considered hanging up his gloves to try something new.
“No, not really,” he said on The MMA Hour. “After my fight, even right afterward, the very next day I was already planning on coming back. It did take a little while — as a lot of people know, for about a year plus, I was just healing up. So that took a little bit of time, for sure. But after that, I was full-blown training.”
Northcutt continued his work with Team Alpha Male and was set to make his return this past April against Shinya Aoki. He even traded some fiery tweets with the submission ace, an uncharacteristic (and some might say welcome) change of pace for the relentlessly sunny fighter. Then he encountered another setback.
“Horrible coincidence, but two weeks out from my fight, I was supposed to leave to go overseas, I got COVID,” he said. “That just threw everything for a loop. I was pretty sick for a little bit. It took like six months of doing blood work, trying to figure out what’s going on.
“I didn’t even know for the first couple of days. I kept trying to train through and started to get run down, ended up testing positive for COVID. ... So I was trying to work around that, and I think trying to do that, I just ran myself down pretty bad. Then I had to sit at home, and that was the hardest thing, not doing anything.”
When Northcutt steps into the ring for ONE Championship’s first U.S. event, it will have been almost four years to the day since his knockout loss to kickboxer Cosmo Alexandre. Newer fans of the sport might not remember the days of “Super” Sage, when he and Paige VanZant stole headlines and stoked debates over whether their skills matched their photogenic qualities.
Northcutt aims to remind fans he’s still an acrobatic talent when he meets Ahmed Mujtaba at ONE Fight Night 10: Johnson vs. Moraes 3, which takes place May 5 in Broomfield, Colo. In a way, he’s glad he faced serious adversity at 26, when he still has time to bounce back.
“Having a loss like that and trying to come back on top of having an injury, 100 percent it kind of gets to you a little bit,” he said. “But I try not to let it get to me too much. I’m glad this happened at a time when I was so young and didn’t happen later in my career. I have a full career ahead of me. It happened now, and it’s better than later.”
When Northcutt returns, he’ll compete in the weight division he should have been competing in all along: Lightweight, which in ONE tops out at 170 pounds. There’s a strong argument his promoter never should have booked him in a fight at 185 pounds, but he doesn’t hold it against ONE. He lived quite a bit of life during his time off.
“It was more like a learning experience,” he said. “Obviously, that weight class is a huge weight class. Looking back, I shouldn’t have fought at 185 — 170 pounds, I was new to the hydration test, that was a first for me. So fighting at 170, that’s my natural weight. I walk around at 175 — I’m right there close to my weight already, and I’m three-and-a-half months out. That’s just a learning experience for me. No grudges.”
Now, there’s only time to make up as he works toward a fight with Aoki, the type of opponent that would go a long way toward building the success he’s sought since stepping onto the national stage as a teenager.