Northcutt, originally signed to the UFC at just 19 years old, will face Gall in his fifth UFC contest, with less than three years of professional experience and just nine total fights. A hyper-athletic prospect, the karateka’s dynamic finishing ability and magnetic personality drew immediate public attention when he was scouted during the Dana White: Lookin' For a Fight reality series.
Gall, meanwhile, is but a month from his twenty-fifth birthday, and possesses even less professional experience. Gall is a gifted speaker and self-promoter who, after his first professional victory, made an impassioned public plea to Dana White, situated cageside once again while filming his reality show, for an opportunity to be Phil “#CMPunk” Brooks’ debut opponent.
Gall was given an opportunity in the UFC with less than three months of professional experience. Facing fellow UFC debutant Mike Jackson, he submitted his opponent in a mere forty-five seconds. Subsequently, Gall was tapped as Punk’s eventual foe.
Predictably, the talented and physically gifted grappler ran roughshod on the former professional wrestler, taking him down with ease before bludgeoning him and eventually securing a first-round rear naked choke.
After defeating “Punk,” Gall called out Northcutt in his post-fight interview, a callout which showcased his intelligence as both a self-promoter and a prospect with the desire to rise through the sport.
Matchmaking inexperienced fighters is a difficult proposition, and at the UFC level, often leads to disappointment. Northcutt himself has stumbled over such hurdles.
While both Gall and Northcutt undoubtedly possess high ceilings for athletic accomplishment, professional experience is fundamental to such accomplishment, and finding your footing within the UFC is a process which has stunted the growth of many talented up-and-comers.
Age is Just a Number
As a general rule, total time in the sport is a more reliable indicator of development than age, with most fighters peaking less than a decade into their careers.
While there are many exceptions, technical growth reaches a point of diminishing returns around the sixth or seventh year of a fighter’s pro career. Even those with four years of experience are often incapable of developing rounded skillsets quickly enough to overcome UFC-level opposition.
These two elite prospects could find themselves challenging the upper echelons of their divisions in a matter of years; the struggle, then, is how best to match them in an organization packed with fully developed, rounded fighters, even at the lower end.
The genius of Gall’s callout lies not just in his opponent’s star power, but in their relative closeness in terms of professional experience. While Northcutt’s nine total bouts and close to three years of experience far exceed Gall’s own, he may be the least seasoned and most appropriate opponent for a gifted man who is still in the developmental stage.
Northcutt is not only a public attraction with legitimate star power, he is a technically enticing opponent for Gall; a striker by trade, he is a natural lightweight, his lone career loss coming in the UFC’s welterweight division against #BryanBarberena. Barberena’s toughness and grit allowed him to weather Northcutt’s early storm, eventually securing top position and finding an arm-triangle choke.
While the difference in experience between the two is significant, Gall’s advantage resides not just in his size, but in the technicality of his grappling.
Gall is an unusually skilled grappler relative to his age and experience, a powerful wrestler with excellent senses for finishing takedowns, and technically sound positional control. He is extremely aggressive, possessing great power in both his standing and ground striking, and quickness persistently applied both in his forward pressure and his level-changing takedowns.
Neither man is close to the peak of their abilities, and will not be for several years. The void in Northcutt’s grappling ability will not be closed overnight, and this is an area in which Gall holds a decisive advantage.
With less than six minutes of combined professional competition, the true depth of Gall’s technical ability is unknown. No opponent has offered any sort of legitimate challenge for the New Jersey-based welterweight. With a brown belt and close to a decade of jiu jitsu experience, including successful pure grappling performances in both NAGA and Grappler’s Quest, the David Adiv-trained submission specialist is presumed to have a much deeper well of grappling ability than he has so far been required to show.
In his debut against Ron Templeton, the most important trait Gall showed was confidence. Gall circled around his foe, throwing stiff jabs and somewhat awkward right straights to both the head and body, mixing in low round kicks, feints, and even an arcing high kick.
Pace, often an issue for inexperienced fighters, was no such roadblock for the man who would win the CM Punk sweepstakes. Gall attacked constantly, consistently applying his growing skillset in a manner indicative of a fighter with great intrinsic aggression.
As Templeton brought his forearms up in a rudimentary guard, Gall quickly adjusted, throwing left hooks and right uppercuts to work around the defenses of his turtling opponent. Seeing that he was committed to this turtling defense, Gall threw another left hook-right uppercut combination before ducking under and securing a double leg takedown.
From half guard, Templeton attempted to use overhooks to prevent a knee-slice pass. Gall, sensing this, threw an elbow before disengaging, securing head control on his scrambling opponent, and jumping to side control.
Eventually, trapping Templeton’s arm behind his back as he secured back mount, he finished the rear naked choke.
Positional grappling and instinctual aggression in all phases are the calling cards of Gall’s technical game. In his UFC debut, he confidently marched Mike Jackson to the fence and, as Jackson circled out, he threw a jab and a right cross, dropping his foe, and immediately scrambled to the back, finding the rear naked choke once again. The entire contest took just forty five seconds, and Gall’s punching technique was noticeably crisper than in his pro debut.
In his breakout performance, a dominant exhibition of ground striking and positional superiority against the aforementioned Phil Brooks, Gall shot under a sloppy entry to secure a takedown, immediately raining down punches from top position, repeatedly passing guard, mounting, brutalizing, and eventually submitting the inexperienced “Punk.”
Super Striking, and then Some ...
Northcutt, meanwhile, is a karateka by trade, and displays all of the hallmarks of the MMA-adapted karate style. He fights primarily on straight lines, leaping in an out of range to strike quickly as offensive opportunities present themselves.
The twenty-year-old, not yet in his prime, possesses absurd physicality. The speed and power with which he explodes, covering space in the Octagon with blinding quickness, places his raw physical gifts amongst the top of the UFC roster. In his debut against Francisco Trevino, Northcutt displayed many unorthodox striking tools.
Then just 19 years old, “Super Sage” opened the bout by switching stances repeatedly, before settling into orthodox and throwing a picture-perfect lead leg hook kick. Kicks with the lead leg form the bulk of Northcutt’s outside striking techniques, showing preference for side kicks to the leg and body, performed with the dexterity and grace of a man who had practiced such techniques since early childhood.
As the 33-year-old Trevino fell to the mat as a result of a failed kick, Northcutt showed strong killer instinct, immediately landing punches to his grounded opponent before viciously flurrying on him against the fence with incredible hand speed, and eventually securing a double leg takedown, where he dropped elbows on the side of Trevino’s head until referee Herb Dean waved off the bout.
Remarkably gifted as he may be, many feared that a loss was an inevitability for such an unpolished prospect. Trevino represented the absolute bottom end of the UFC’s lightweight division, and a consistent diet of such opponents was not feasible, unless the UFC was willing to sign suitable opponents specifically to face the young star-in-the-making.
While he overcame a difficult first round to submit Cody Pfister in his next outing, these fears were eventually realized when he faced incredibly durable and consistent grinder, the aforementioned Barberena, in a welterweight bout.
Northcutt claimed to be ill entering this contest, and it is unknown how much this illness affected his performance, but after a successful first round, he gave up top position while attempting a cartwheel kick in the second, and was eventually submitted with an arm-triangle choke from halfguard, positioned on the wrong side of Northcutt’s body.
The loss raised questions in the minds of many concerning the young talent's heart and conditioning. The most important fight of his career, and the one which best addresses these questions, was his #UFC200 performance against Enrique Marin.
Conceding the takedown, Northcutt managed to use a kneebar to sweep, scrambling to find the mount and eventually halfguard, decisively winning the scrambling battles and thus the first round.
In the second round, he would face adversity once again. Attempting a lateral drop, the inexperienced prospect ended up in bottom position once again, giving up side control and narrowly escaping multiple Kimura and fully-extended armbar attempts.
The image of Northcutt as a frontrunner was dispelled as he came back from near-finishes and an early third-round takedown to open a cut on Marin’s face with elbows, attempting a front choke and establishing top position in the final minute of the fight, from which he punished Marin with punches and secured the decisive third round, picking up a unanimous 29-28 decision.
It was a performance which showed not only Northcutt’s ability to come back from adversity, but to consistently apply his offense over the course of a grueling 15-minute bout without tiring. Though it will never appear on a highlight reel, it was a pivotal technical performance for the budding superstar, showcasing all of his strengths as well as his dedication to closing the holes in his grappling game.
Neither Gall nor Northcutt is anywhere close to their technical primes, and the result will say little about either fighter’s ceiling. For two men with the potential to eventually challenge for championship gold, the experience of facing a similarly gifted, technically developing prospect can only promote growth in both fighters, and will serve as a beneficial long-term experience.
It is a matchup made intriguing not only by their relative lack of seasoning, but by the stylistic intricacies; both are almost assuredly capable of landing significant, fight-changing offense in their preferred phase of the fight, and a lackluster bout is highly unlikely.
A fast-paced, frenetic match up of dynamism feels inevitable, and as the contest reaches its conclusion, the winner’s star will shine even brighter, while the loser’s will merely flicker, its most luminous days still far off in a distant future.
UFC on FOX 22 Fight Card:
- Paige VanZant vs. Michelle Waterson
- Mickey Gall vs. Sage Northcutt
- Urijah Faber vs. Brad Pickett
- Mike Perry vs. Alan Jouban
- Henrique da Silva vs. Paul Craig
- Cole Miller vs. Mizuto Hirota
- Bryan Barberena vs. Colby Covington
- James Moontasri vs. Alex Morono
- Josh Emmett vs. Scott Holtzman
- Leslie Smith vs. Irene Aldana
- Eddie Wineland vs. Takeya Mizugaki
- Hector Sandoval vs. Fredy Serrano
- Sultan Aliev vs. Bojan Velickovic