Though it’s easy to think of Vitor Belfort these days as a grizzled 38-year-old veteran who has been there and done that in mixed martial arts, to longtime followers of the sport, the moment most will think of when it comes to “The Phenom” dates back to February 7, 1997.
That night in Dothan, Alabama, a 19-year-old unknown from Brazil got known in the space of two fights that lasted a combined two minutes, as he blitzed and dismissed Tra Telligman and Scott Ferrozzo to win the UFC 12 heavyweight tournament.
It was a shock to the system in a UFC that had largely featured older fighters, older being a relative term. Mark Coleman (33), Dan Severn (39), Don Frye (32), Tank Abbott (32), Ken Shamrock (33) and Royce Gracie (31) were all in their thirties by the time 1997 turned into 1998, with some of the aforementioned group already moving on from fighting in the Octagon. Frank Shamrock was about to join the promotion at the age of 25, but he had an extensive career in Japan before fighting in the UFC.
Belfort was something new, something fresh, all flying fists and feet, and he finished people with a flourish when he did get the win. Yet strangely enough, he didn’t open the door for teenagers around the globe to start training mixed martial arts. He was the exception, not the rule, because with the sport far from mainstream, parents weren’t exactly sending their kids off to MMA school to build pugilistic prodigies. The UFC roster was subsequently populated by college wrestlers competing several years after their last class, longtime vale tudo and jiu-jitsu competitors, and those who had made their bones fighting in Japan.
Of course there was Belfort, BJ Penn, Robbie Lawler and Nick Diaz, but it wasn’t like an army of those too young to legally drink was making their way to the Octagon.
Yet nearly 19 years later, things have changed, and for proof, look no further than the case of Max Holloway. When the Hawaiian made his UFC debut against Dustin Poirier on February 4, 2012, he was 20 years old and the youngest fighter on the roster. Today, the featherweight contender sits at number 21 on that list, just above fellow 22-year-old Kelvin Gastelum.
That’s 20 fighters aged 22 or younger, ranging from 19-year-old Sage Northcutt to 22-year-old Albert Tumenov, and five of them – Northcutt, Paige VanZant, Kevin Lee, Rose Namajunas, Justin Scoggins will be in action next week.
That’s a youth movement right there.
So how did this happen? Simple. The UFC isn’t an underground spectacle anymore. Go through a major city in the United States and odds are that you’ll see a UFC Gym somewhere. Your mother probably knows who Ronda Rousey or Conor McGregor is. And for parents looking for an activity to keep their kids off video game consoles, they often move toward some form of MMA, and not the strip mall karate place with a 300-pounder calling himself “Master.”
When you add all these factors together, and given the popularity of the sport, fighters are starting earlier and training all disciplines at the same time. When that happens, jiu-jitsu fighters, kickboxers, or wrestlers are not being created. MMA fighters are emerging from those gyms, and with a better regional scene that is less like the Wild Wild West of the old days and more like an organized sport, the move up the ladder is a hundred times faster than it was in the UFC’s formative years.
But there are still the veterans of the sport, the ones who came up on hellish regional circuits and learned their craft far from the bright lights of one of the sport’s mega gyms. Are the young guns ready for them? Luckily in the UFC, they’re going to find out rather quickly, as it’s not like boxing, where a hot prospect can often get fed 15 cupcakes before fighting someone who fights back. Every fight is important here, and the aforementioned five up and comers will find that out sometime in the next 10 days.
Lightweight Lee will get his biggest test on the biggest event of 2015 when he faces Brazilian veteran Leonardo Santos, and Scoggins will square off with fellow flyweight prospect and “old man” at 24 Joby Sanchez on next Friday’s TUF 22 Finale card.
But all the attention at this point is on VanZant and Northcutt, who take the Paige and Sage show to The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on Thursday, December 10. And why not? They’re young, marketable and they put on exciting fights. But is it too much too soon for both?
The 21-year-old VanZant will likely find out the answer to that question sooner rather than later, as her bout with equally intriguing rising star Namajunas next week isn’t just a main event; it’s a matchup between two top ten contenders at 115 pounds, with the winner likely entering the title picture in 2016. Those are high stakes, and you have to wonder if VanZant, despite her 3-0 UFC record, is ready to be thinking about champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Maybe not, but as a fighter, you know she is, and that mindset is probably her biggest strength. In a lot of ways, VanZant reminds me of current bantamweight contender Miesha Tate. She’s obviously marketable and a fan favorite, but when it’s time to fight, she’s no glamour girl. VanZant is tenacious from start to finish, and her strength is not necessarily technical, but one in which she breaks opponents. In that sense, she’s a truth machine. If you haven’t prepared for 15 hard minutes, she will find out. That gives her a shot against anyone. She may not win them all, but opponents will know that they’ve been in a fight.
Northcutt, while certainly the more spectacular of the two, having finished all six of his pro wins, will probably have a slower path to the top, given that he’s competing in one of the UFC’s shark tanks at 155 pounds. For reference, just note that the division is so talent-rich that it took Donald Cerrone eight straight wins to get his title shot against Rafael dos Anjos. So “Super” Sage, who faces fellow Texan Cody Pfister next week, is likely to follow a steady route much like fellow striker Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. Like Thompson, Northcutt is a phenom who has been studying traditional martial arts since he was a young child, and by the time all the aspects of his MMA game come together, he will be a dangerous man.
That’s the outlook today. But with any young athlete, what usually derails them from greatness is the person looking back at them in the mirror. Outside distractions, overinflated egos, being rushed before they’re ready. They’re all real things in the big business of pro sports, and it’s how an athlete reacts and adjusts to these things that will determine whether he or she is a shooting star or a superstar.
And watching that process never gets old.