A little less than three years after he made his Octagon debut not too far from his family home in Katy, TX., Sage Northcutt weathered a rocky start to rally and stop Zak Ottow in the second-round of their welterweight clash in Boise, Idaho.

It was Northcutt’s first finish since choking out an overmatched Cody Pfister in the co-main event of the infamous December 2015 “Paige & Sage” event in Las Vegas, but more importantly, the victory pushed his winning streak to three.

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After several years of inconsistency and waiting to see if his skills would eventually catch up to the hype, the humble, earnest young man, who was thrust into the spotlight, was starting to show improvements and make a little headway. He had settled on competing at welterweight after bouncing between the 170-pound ranks and fighting at lightweight through his previous seven trips into the Octagon and was starting to look like more than just a mid-90’s boy band member crossed with an action figure and infused with Christian values and proper manners.

So, when UFC President Dana White announced on the UFC Unfiltered podcast that the organization had opted not to re-sign the first fighter plucked from the regional circuit through his “Lookin’ for a Fight” web series, it caught a lot of people off guard, especially given White’s reasoning.

“Sage is young, and Sage needs some work,” White said. “Let him get some work in some other organizations, and we will see where this kid ends up in a couple of years. Maybe we will pick him back up again.”

All of what the White said was correct, but it felt odd hearing it three years after he personally offered Northcutt a spot in the UFC as a 19-year-old. And White was often seen as one of his biggest supporters. Fans and media thought all the things White was feeling in November, when Northcutt was first signed by the promotion. But after having come this far and invested as much time and money into building him into a prospect, cutting bait when his contract expired made the last three years feel like a waste of resources and energy.

If he was good enough to compete in the UFC and be groomed as a prospect after just five appearances, it just seemed incongruous that he was somehow less ready to compete on the biggest stage in the sport three years later, after putting together a 6-2 record and winning three straight.

Four days later, Northcutt was introduced as the latest addition to the ONE Championship roster and during his first round of media appearances with the Asian MMA juggernaut, the emerging welterweight made it clear that leaving the UFC was his decision, not something that was forced upon him.

Speaking with MMA Fighting when ONE Championship held an open workout in Los Angeles earlier this year, Northcutt explained that he was offered a new contract and a bout with Demian Maia following his win over Ottow, but he was already eager to move on from the Las Vegas-based organization.

Later that day, during a Q&A session with fellow former UFC competitors turned ONE Championship athletes Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez, Northcutt commented on the level of respect between competitors and shown to the fighters in ONE Championship compared to his former place of employment.

“if one of the fighters doesn’t do good out there, the CEO of ONE Championship or any of the people that work for ONE Championship talk bad about the fighters because of the performance. They know what it takes to get out there, how much energy it takes, and we’re always trying to go out there and perform great.

“I think that’s the big thing: that everybody has respect for each other.”

With the UFC chapter of his career closed and the next chapter set to begin when he takes on kickboxing champ Cosmo Alexandre on the main card at ONE Championship: Enter the Dragon this weekend at Singapore Indoor Stadium, it will be interesting to see if White’s declaration that Northcutt still needs a lot of work proves true or if the now 23-year-old fighter, who once felt hand-picked to become one of the faces of the UFC, can continue his run of success and eventually morph into a major star for the Singapore-based fight promotion.

We could start getting some insight on how this will all shake out as soon as this weekend, as the pairing with Alexandre is a dangerous one.

Although the 37-year-old is primarily a kickboxer, he heads into his matchup with Northcutt with a 7-1 record, having earned seven consecutive victories, five by way of stoppage, including avenging his debut loss to Josh Quayhagen. While he hasn’t competed in an MMA bout in two-and-a-half years, Alexandre has been active on the kickboxing scene, competing five times, registering four straight victories before suffering a second-round knockout loss to Nieky Holzken last November in his sophomore appearance under the ONE Championship banner.

Despite being 14 years his junior and having the more diverse skill set and great overall athleticism, Northcutt is still raw when it comes to his striking defense and Alexandre is more than capable of connecting with something nasty that spoils his debut, much like Timofey Nastyukhin did to Alvarez when the former multiple-time titleholder made his debut at the end of March.

From a tools standpoint, Northcutt has always profiled as someone with the physical gifts and natural athleticism needed to compete at a high level. He’s lightning quick, strong for his size and in his best moments, it’s easy to see how with strong coaching, a lot of drilling and a some more experience, “Super Sage” could develop into a superstar.

Unfortunately for the genuinely likeable youngster, there have also been several moments in the cage where his shortcomings and flaws have been on full display.

Despite years of training and all his natural gifts, he still looks completely unaware of what to do when taken to the ground and put on his back. Not only does he struggle to get back to his feet, but he also makes poor technical choices that put him at risk. And while his striking offense can be flashy and exciting to watch, his defense and head movement still need work.

His move to Team Alpha Male midway through his UFC run has helped tighten up some of the basics, but the Sacramento-based fight camp is no longer the elite talent factory it once was and no longer boasts the dynamic training environment it did in the past.

That’s not to say that Northcutt won’t continue to make improvements working with Urijah Faber and company – just that it’s worth monitoring his continued progress over these next several appearances because if he’s ever going to take the next big step forward in his development and establish himself as a legitimate contender in the ONE Championship welterweight division, it needs to start happening now.

Northcutt was thrust into the spotlight at an early age and put under the MMA microscope at a time when he should have been continuing to hone his skills on the regional circuit. To complicate matters even further, he was ushered into marquee fight card slots without having earned his way into those positions, resulting in the young fighter drawing the ire of fight fans and many of his contemporaries.

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None of it was Northcutt’s fault – he simply did what any fighter in his position would have done, accepting what was offered to him before trying to make the best of it – but it’s difficult not to wonder how things might have been different if handled a different way?

But what’s done is done and is in the past and now it’s time to find out what the future holds for “Super” Sage Northcutt.

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