Critics of women’s MMA have pointed out, really ever since the heavy push of Gina Carano in the Elite XC days, that the promotion of that side of the sport is as much or more about looks than actual fighting ability.
It’s a charge that has some truth to it. In today’s UFC, looks alone without fighting ability means nothing. But does it get you preferential treatment? Even today, the answer is clearly a yes. Like most things promoters do when it comes to decisions not based directly on wins and losses, it has to do with selling what the public is going to buy. The success of Paige VanZant as a television draw and as an overall star as compared to fighters who are clearly levels above her is clear evidence this still exists today.
With the women, the fact was that prior to the UFC, the biggest women’s star was Carano, and when she retired after her loss to Cris Cyborg, interest in women’s MMA declined greatly. It was revived a few years later, and while Ronda Rousey’s looks didn’t get her the championships and quick wins, they did help make her a huge draw and gave her early opportunities to be in the spotlight and get early title shots that she otherwise wouldn’t have gotten.
Even though Cyborg’s win over Carano was high profile, it didn’t lead to her being able to carry women’s MMA, which declined with her as the top star. But years later, eventually wins can matter, since Cyborg has proven to be one of the few legitimate drawing cards in the UFC today.
But this is not just a women’s thing.
Case in point is Sage Northcutt. This past Saturday, Northcutt, the heavily hyped 22-year-old who looks like he came right out of a starring role in a teen show like “Saved by the Bell,” with a fitness model physique, was second from the top at UFC Boise.
Keep in mind that Northcutt, while 6-2 in UFC, has never faced anyone with any kind of a name except Mickey Gall. Gall, who finished Northcutt in the second round on the highly rated “Sage and Paige” FOX special on Dec. 17, 2016, became a star by beating C.M. Punk in a highly publicized contest.
Northcutt’s positioning on Saturday came while competing on a show that included former UFC title contenders like Chad Mendes, Liz Carmouche, and Cat Zingano, as well as several fighters who have more than proven themselves to be top tier over the course of long careers like Dennis Bermudez, Darren Elkins, and Eddie Wineland, not to mention top-10 ranked Marion Reneau and a legitimate fighter on the rise in Alexander Volkanovski.
Northcutt (11-2), struggled in the first round, but did come back to beat Zak Ottow (16-6) by finishing him in the second round in what would have to be considered his biggest career win.
The sad reality is that the general public gravitates toward people like this and promoters are out there serving what they perceive the public wants. In boxing, if somebody like Northcutt came along, they’d be protected for years. And at first, Northcutt was protected by the UFC, but his first loss came to a fighter who was believed not to offer much of a threat. His second loss, to Gall, was one where he figured to have a tougher time, but it was also a key match on a network special.
Some of Northcutt’s skills with his karate background from childhood are very clear. And he certainly can improve. But give him a normal face and body, and he probably wouldn’t even be in the UFC, let alone already being in a television commercial and booked high on cards.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five of the stars of Saturday night’s show.
JUNIOR DOS SANTOS — As a former UFC heavyweight champion with a long tenure as a headliner, dos Santos (19-5) defeated the debuting Blagoy Ivanov (16-2, 1 NC). Ivanov was best known for beating Fedor Emelianenko en route to winning the world sambo championship, and making a comeback in MMA after nearly being stabbed to death.
Barring being called to be an injury fill-in, dos Santos isn’t likely for a title shot until after the retirement of current champion Daniel Cormier.
Dos Santos won every round over Ivanov in workmanlike fashion. But he didn’t do it in a manner where anyone came out of it thinking he needs to get a title shot soon. Francis Ngannou (11-3) has been talked about as a potential next opponent. It’s good for Ngannou, who needs redemption after his terrible performance the prior week in losing a decision to Derrick Lewis. Dos Santos is a big enough name that a victory over him will jump-start Ngannou back near the top of the division.
As far as quickly getting in the title fight discussion, there is an obvious direction. Dos Santos should push now for his trilogy fight with Stipe Miocic (13-3). Each has a win over the other. For both, it’s the right win to get the winner an eventual title shot.
CHAD MENDES — Coming off a two-year suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, Mendes (18-4) returned and scored a first-round win over Myles Jury (17-3), signalling he needs to be taken seriously.
For Mendes, he could next face the winner of the Aug. 4 fight with Cub Swanson (25-9) vs. Renato Moicano (12-1-1). He also could be put in as a test for rising fighters Alexander Volkanovski (18-1) or Zabit Magomedsharipov (15-1).
NIKO PRICE — Price (12-1, 1 NC) scored what could end up being a candidate for knockout of the year, not so much for the devastation, but for the positioning. Price threw hammer fists from the bottom to finish Randy Brown (10-3), in a fight Brown had been winning.
Next future opponents could be Michel Prazeres (25-2) or Siyar Bahadurzada (24-6-1), either of which will be a step above the level of competition that he has been facing.
CAT ZINGANO — Zingano (10-3) was a takedown and ground control machine in winning over Marion Reneau (9-4-1).
Zingano has been battling one injury after another for years, but hadn’t won a fight since beating Amanda Nunes four years ago. Nunes is doubtful going to face Zingano next, since her bout with Cris Cyborg is looming. A good next opponent to earn a title shot would be against Aspen Ladd (6-0) or Raquel Pennington (9-6).
ALEXANDER VOLKANOVSKI — Volkanovski scored his biggest career win over top-ten ranked Darren Elkins (25-6).
The biggest question coming out of the fight was how the fight was how two judges gave Elkins a round when none of the rounds seemed all that close and the first round probably should have been a 10-8, given Volkanovski scored two knockdowns and had several near submissions.
With 15 wins in a row, highlighted by a domination of a tough Elkins, it’s time for Volkanovsky to face top-10 competition, if not top-five. Mendes and Mirsad Bektic (13-1) look to make the most sense.