Josh Koscheck (right): Dave Mandel | Sherdog.com
Josh Koscheck didn’t enter the arena during UFC 121 in October to simply take his seat at cageside. He was punching in.
A chorus of boos rained down on the sandy-haired antagonist, and soon the ticket-buying public at California’s Honda Center was buzzing not about the ongoing fight in the cage, but about the highest-profile fight of Koscheck’s career, Saturday’s UFC 124 welterweight title bout against Georges St. Pierre in Montreal.
“He sat down and he raised his right hand up with the middle finger pointing to the sky,” said Brian Diamond, a senior vice president at Spike TV who sat in front of Koscheck at UFC 121. “[He did it] with a smile on his face and it sent the crowd into a burst of ‘GSP!’ cheers. I turned around and said, ‘You know what, it doesn’t matter if they love you or if they hate you, as long as they don’t ignore you.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m just doing my job.’”
Some 23,000 people -- an all-time UFC attendance record -- are expected to fill the Bell Centre to witness hometown hero St. Pierre humble Koscheck. This for a rematch of a fight Koscheck convincingly lost three years ago, and since which St. Pierre has proved immeasurably dominant while Koscheck went 6-2, including his first knockout loss. But after 10 weeks of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series on Spike -- during which Koscheck used his trademark brand of smirking psychological gamesmanship to taunt rival coach St. Pierre -- it’s a fight everyone wants to see.
It’s clear that Koscheck represents the state-of-the-art when it comes to attracting the type of energy it takes to sell a fight in 2010. What’s less clear is the degree to which the enigmatic Pennsylvanian has stepped out of his own skin to achieve it.
Koscheck, who turned 33 last week, undoubtedly has a command of how he comes off through the television camera and how it leads to more lucrative business for his fights. Trainer Javier Mendez said Koscheck is the best at understanding the “cause and effect” of how he carries himself and the business his fights generate.
Some who know Koscheck say this awareness is mainly the product of his desire to make as much money as he can. But even if the money wasn’t in play, others who know the lifelong alpha male aren’t sure he’d be much different.
“He was like that in college,” said Tim Flynn, who, as head wrestling coach at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, presided over Koscheck’s 2001 NCAA Division-1 national wrestling title win. “He’s always had a little bit of a wise guy in him, like that prankster. Just trying to get under your skin and mess with you, all in fun. Fun for him, and everyone else gets angry.”
On the collegiate mat, Koscheck masterfully blended his disposition and work ethic into a remarkable run, including an undefeated 2001 season and attaining a rare four-time All-American status.
Flynn, to this day a friend of Koscheck’s, said his former charge was something of a heel in an amateur wrestling context.
“As his career progressed, he was mean on the mats,” Flynn said. “So obviously if you’re on the opposing team and he slugs you a little harder than you’re allowed in college wrestling, yeah, they didn’t like that. He’d give up some penalty points. He had a little bit of a mean streak and that made people not like him very much, and he was our best guy. The fact he was, he was kind of a mean prick.”
Fresh off the wrestling mat, Koscheck embarked on a mixed martial arts career. The pivotal first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” shot in 2004 after Koscheck had two fights, saw him infamously pour water on a sleeping and agitated Chris Leben. That sparked a showdown which led to the highest rated episode of “The Ultimate Fighter” outside of some installments of Season 10, which was aberrant due to ratings juggernaut Kimbo Slice.
Lesson learned. Koscheck was learning how to create conflict and draw people into the prospect of his getting his comeuppance, the “cause and effect” Mendez references. In a game where fighting ability is only half the package to stardom, Koscheck clearly had an evergreen knack for agitation. So he went with it.
“With Josh, with Rashad Evans, with those guys like that, the first impressions that fans have taken of them from ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ will never be broken. Regardless of what they do, it’s never going to change -- they’re going to get booed,” said Daniel Cormier, an Olympic wrestler who trained with Koshceck at the Olympic Training Center and today is his campmate at American Kickboxing Academy. “Josh says it’s easier to just let you guys feel however you’re going to feel than to work and make it change.”
Easier indeed. The fact that Koscheck has a UFC title shot contrasts sharply with his AKA teammate Jon Fitch, who, despite a nearly flawless record, struggles to get anywhere near title consideration among UFC brass. With the exception of a few caution-to-the-wind knockout victories, Koscheck’s takedown-and-position control style isn’t much different from that of Fitch. One gets the sense the pair could have the same exact fight with the same sequence of techniques, and Koscheck’s fight would engage the crowd while Fitch’s would not.
Koscheck rarely addresses how consciously he goes about marketing himself. He disavows needing conflict to get up for a fight. In a Fight! Magazine profile published in September, he referenced retired NBA star Dennis Rodman as being “one of the best rebounders, always the best, but nobody paid attention until he entertained.”
“It’s about money for me, man, it’s a living,” Koscheck said in a media conference all Monday. “This is my job. It’s funny, you have all these people that say I’m the bad guy, I’m this, I’m that. It’s funny to see all these people come up to me when I’m in public that want my autograph and want my picture.”
As head trainer at American Kickboxing Academy, Javier Mendez has had a front-row seat to watch Koscheck evolve as a persona and a fighter. Mendez said Koscheck is an insanely hard gym worker and harsh self-critic, but is always braced for an opportunity to bring more attention to himself.
“Koscheck is fantastic at knowing when to turn the key on,” Mendez said. “He’ll be in a situation where he sees an opportunity that’s going to make him look good or bad, and he’ll do it, knowing full well the effect works in his favor no matter what.”
It’s a subtle thing. It’s not as if Koscheck goes from a gregarious guy in the room to a rambling promo man in front of the camera. He tends to be on the quiet side in camp, more of what Mendez called “a grump.” Fellow AKA coach Bob Cook said Koscheck’s mood often dictates to what degree he integrates with the rest of the camp.
“I’m never really truly happy unless I’m in the Octagon,” Koscheck said in Monday’s media conference.
AKA up-and-comer Wayne Phillips said he doesn’t see even a hint of the “TUF” antagonist in the gym.
“That’s what’s kind of weird, how much he keeps to himself,” Phillips said. “You never really hear him talk in practice, and then on TV he’s always talking. It’s more of a character that maybe he puts on for TV.”
Teammates see a decidedly more understated Koscheck, one who has recently bristled at any hint of praise after a workout because it’s “not good enough to beat Georges,” and whose coaches have to worry that Koscheck will simply go home to Fresno and train in his gym there if they force him to take a few days off to mend his body.
“Lately he’s been listening a lot,” campmate Luke Rockhold said. “He’s been listening to everybody and taking in the techniques. Sometimes he blocks everybody out.”
That includes teammates. Rockhold remembers arriving at AKA four years ago and getting awkward vibes from Koscheck.
“At first, he really gave me the silent treatment, like I wasn’t there at all,” Rockhold said. “I really had to earn his respect. I was really resentful of him in the beginning. Training together, it seemed like he was really trying to put it on me and torture me when he got a chance to. If you’re not, like, a threat to him, he’s always trying to help you. If you’re bigger, or if people are hyping you up, he knows there’s some talent there, so he’ll really give you that cold shoulder. He never gave me any credit until I broke through to a certain point.”
Strangely, you can get an idea of where you stand with Koscheck based on how many shots you get in during sparring. Mendez said he’s seen Koscheck discreetly hold back in sparring sessions when in against a teammate who’s having a bad day.
“Koscheck goes out of his way to sacrifice his body to let these guys tee off on him just so those guys can get their confidence back and feel ready of the fight,” Mendez said. “To me, if that guy deep down inside his heart was a real, total prick, why would he do that for his teammates?”
The scene calls to mind an unaired clip from this past season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Koscheck was portrayed on the national television broadcast as a guy who relentlessly poked and prodded at Team GSP medic Brad Tate for being a “male nurse” until Tate snapped and scuffled with Koscheck.
The impression was that Koscheck was an unapologetic bully who reveled in seeing a non-fighter bystander lose his cool and took physical liberties with him. Koscheck’s Wikipedia page was vandalized repeatedly the next day.
But footage from cutting room floor released on Spike’s website showed a remorseful Koscheck apologizing to Tate after the incident. It also showed Tate mocking members of Koscheck’s team for their accents and instigating. Fans who saw the clips were taken aback at how markedly different their impressions were of Koscheck after viewing them. Diamond said the footage was not included in the final cut because of time issues, and said not every storyline that take shape during filming can play out on television.
Viewers may have felt a bit manipulated, wrapped up in a subtle campaign to establish a fighter as a bad guy who you want to see get his. To date, no public complaints from Josh Koscheck.