Sage Northcutt not afraid of Shinya Aoki’s jiu-jitsu: ‘It’s not just a grappling match’

In some ways, Sage Northcutt has been preparing to fight Shinya Aoki for nearly three years.

Following a litany of injuries suffered in his ONE Championship debut, Northcutt was ready to return to action in April 2021 when disaster struck yet again. Just before he was set to travel to Singapore for the fight, he started feeling sick, and it didn’t take long to realize he wouldn’t fight.

“I think if I remember correct, maybe a week and a half before flying out to Singapore for the fight, came down with COVID,” Northcutt said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “Didn’t even know I had it at first. I kept training, I was like I’m run down pretty bad, felt really sick. Got tested, tested positive for COVID.

“It was pretty much to the point of having the fight. I was right there. I was very bummed out about that. You couldn’t have predicted that would happen.”

Another long layoff followed before Northcutt finally made his return to action this past May, almost exactly four years after his last fight. He ended up spending just 39 seconds in the cage, snatching a nasty heel-hook submission to put away Ahmed Mujtaba in his first win in nearly five years.

Northcutt admits it was an incredible feeling, even if it didn’t even really felt like he fought that night.

“It felt so good,” he said. “I can’t describe the amount of feelings that I had going back out there after almost four years. Stepping out there, you have the butterflies, your nerves are going, but it’s the good kind of nerves. Where you’re anxious to get out there and perform. I put in so much hard work, trained so hard. It felt really good to get out there and get a win also.

“I didn’t really feel like I had a fight! I’m thankful it went the way it did. I got to show a little bit of my skillset that I’ve been working on. I always like to go out there and perform in a way that excites the crowd.”

If not for some nagging injuries, Northcutt was glad to compete again in 2023. But instead, he’ll make his return at ONE 165, which airs as a pay-per-view broadcast on Jan. 28 at 3 a.m. ET in the United States. That’s when he’ll finally get the chance to face Aoki after going through a second training camp to prepare for the submission specialist and legend from Japan.

“This is something that’s been in the works for a long time, especially for Shinya, too,” Northcutt said. “He was in a fight camp the whole time, too.

“I think the biggest thing, this is a big opportunity for me. He’s not only a legend of the sport, but he’s had 60 pro fights. He’s an ex-champion for ONE Championship. This is the biggest fight yet. Something I’m looking forward to.”

There’s no secret Aoki’s best weapon is his grappling. In 47 career wins, he has finished 30 by submission.

Aoki will typically do almost anything to get the fight to the ground, which often includes grabbing onto his opponents and pulling them down to the canvas with him.

Northcutt knows all too well that Aoki won’t likely spend much time trading strikes on the feet, and there’s a good chance they’ll end up on the ground together at some point. He would remind Aoki and anybody else watching that this isn’t just a grappling match.

“I guess the good part is it’s mixed martial arts,” Northcutt said. “It does start standing up. If we get to the ground, it’s not just grappling out there. You do have strikes. ONE Championship has a different set of rules. You can elbow from anywhere you want. You can knee to the head on the ground, knee to the body. You have practically everything at your disposal.

“It’s not just a grappling match. Same thing with the striking. It’s not just a striking match. Being prepared to do what it takes out there.”

If he does get caught up in those scrambles, Northcutt has confidence he can hang with Aoki and simultaneously deliver plenty of damage of his own. He’s done everything possible to ensure that he won’t join Aoki’s highlight reel, and instead, it will be the former ONE champion added to his.

“I train with some of the best wrestlers, the top jiu-jitsu guys in the world,” Northcutt said. “I have a team of great coaches, a great team at Team Alpha Male.

“I feel very confident in my grappling skill set, especially taking into the fact that it’s not just straight submission grappling out there. It is mixed martial arts. Grappling with strikes, grappling with everything combined in there. I’m feeling good about it.”

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