Sage Northcutt is 19 years old. He is 6'1" tall. We are standing in the lobby of the Gracie Barra gym in Katy, Texas, where he trains in mixed martial arts, and I am realizing he is perhaps the most in-shape human I have ever seen in person. The veins bulging from his arms appear to have veins of their own.
I did not know this was even possible.
It makes complete sense that he is a physical freak of nature once you know his background. When he was five years old, his father Mark pushed him to do pushups and situps every day. He started with roughly 250 of each; by the time he was seven, he was doing 1,000 of each. Every day. He ate chicken and fish and rice and egg whites and avoided all sweet stuff.
By six years old, Northcutt was all rippling muscle. He had the kind of abdominal muscles most of us can only dream of having.
"People used to say that it wasn’t good for a little kid to be that ripped, or to have abs," Mark says. "But we made it fun for him to do pushups and situps."
It certainly did not stunt his growth. His dad claims Northcutt can step onto a track and run a five-minute mile without training or run a 4.5 40-yard dash.
He is attractive. He has modeled professionally since he was a kid and has dabbled in acting. He has a magnetic smile, memorable (and very spiky) hair and the kind of face the UFC loves, because it is the kind of face that is easy to market and the kind of face that could, if handled properly, make the UFC a lot of money someday. And he is charmingly polite, except for his insistence on calling me "sir," which makes me feel quite old.
Nineteen years old. Looks like an Abercrombie model. Polite and respectful. Oh, and he's also a very good fighter. It is easy to see why UFC President Dana White—who discovered Northcutt while scouting talent at a Legacy Fighting Championship event in June—jumped out of his seat with excitement after Northcutt demolished opponent Gage Duhon. White's eyes sparkled with the kind of glee that only comes when you discover a potential new moneymaking opportunity.
And make no mistake about it: He is still very young, and he needs plenty of time to develop. He is the third-youngest fighter in the history of the UFC.
But Northcutt could someday be a massive star for the UFC.
Northcutt (5-0) began training in karate at four years old. Mark is a black belt in the sport, and he pushed his three kids into karate instead of team sports. Northcutt began competing in karate tournaments at age six; by the time he was 12, he'd traveled to Russia, Croatia, Italy and many other countries for tournaments. He won 77 world championships.
Northcutt attended Seven Lakes High School in Katy, where he earned a GPA of 4.0 while actively training in mixed martial arts. If that's not an indication of how driven and smart he is, perhaps this is: After graduation from high school, he was accepted into the prestigious petroleum engineering program at Texas A&M University. It is enormously difficult to earn a spot in the program, much less maintain the perfect grades he does.
During his freshman year at A&M, he took on a complete course load that left little time for training. He traveled back to Katy for training on the few weekends he wasn't busy with engineering projects, and he maintained a cardio regimen each night, but the opportunities to properly train for fighting were few and far between. At the conclusion of his freshman year, he and his family decided to cut back on his coursework, giving him a year to focus more on his fighting career. Between May and August 2015, he fought three times; he will fight a fourth time on Saturday night.
Northcutt is unconventional in many ways. He does not watch tape of himself fighting. In fact, he rarely watches UFC events at all. His father says that whenever the UFC is on the TV, Sage is usually off doing something else. He is not immersed in the world of mixed martial arts, which seems like a healthy decision.
Neither he nor his family have ever attended a live UFC event; this Saturday will be the first. Yep: The first UFC event Sage Northcutt will ever attend is one he'll be fighting in.
Another thing that sets him apart: He does not spar for his fights. His coach Chris Mango says that Northcutt's striking is already so advanced, developed by a lifetime of practice, that they don't really need to focus on that aspect of his game. And Mango is well aware of the dangerous effects that continual hard sparring in the gym can have on the human brain and sees no reason to subject Northcutt to that practice.
This is a new thing. The method of heavy sparring a few times each week is standard practice in mixed martial arts. It is ingrained in the culture. But it seems like simple math: The more hard shots you take in training, the fewer you can take when you're actually in a real fight.
Northcutt's skill in striking affords him the opportunity to sidestep sparring altogether. But there is a movement rising in mixed martial arts, led by the UFC, to drastically change the way fighters train for fights— to train smarter and not harder. It is easy to imagine a day when Northcutt's training methods are no longer an outlier but the norm.
If the UFC plays it smart—if it gives Northcutt opponents who are commensurate with his skill level—it could very well have a future star on its hands. But he is young, much younger than fighters usually are when stepping onto this stage for the first time. His dad hopes the UFC will bring him along slowly and allow him time to develop rather than try to cash in on his marketability by matching him with the best in the lightweight division before he's ready.
"I don’t think he should fight someone in the top 20 or 30 for his first three or four fights," Mark says.
For now, Northcutt is taking it all in, and his youthful exuberance is refreshing and, frankly, feels a little bit strange. So many of us from the regular media beat are used to fighters trudging through their fight-week responsibilities. Northcutt is obviously loving every moment of it.
"This has been his goal for his whole life," his mother Becky says. "He's just embracing it."
At the conclusion of his open workout on Thursday in front of approximately 100 fans and media, Northcutt poses. The fans cheer, so he leaps in the air with a spinning backflip. They cheer again, so he does it again, this time with an even wider smile.
He is young, and he has a long way to go. But this kid may be the future of the UFC.
We'll have to wait to find out just how good he is.