AKA standout Josh Koscheck (16-5) introduced himself in the groundbreaking premiere of The Ultimate Fighter as a pot-stirring instigator, centering the emotional and oft-inebriated Chris Leben in the cross-hairs of his scope. Despite having only two pro fights under his belt, Koscheck, an NCAA Division 1 champion and four-time All American, was justifiably lauded as one of the top wrestlers to transition into MMA at the time.
Koscheck's remarkable credentials served him well on the show and fully compensated for his lack of experience, propelling him to a visibly gratifying upset over Leben, his nemesis and rival, who was an experienced foe with eleven fights. Koscheck was knocked out of the brackets after he nearly eked out a decision over Diego Sanchez, who was already a King of the Cage champion with an undefeated record (11-0) and ended up winning the show.
The TUF coaches complimented Koscheck for having a sponge-like ability to learn and progress, and the fact that he was fighting Georges St. Pierre just over two years later surely justifies their assessment. In his first eight outings in the Octagon, Kos had one hiccup against Drew Fickett, who was thoroughly dominated for fourteen and a half minutes before landing a Hail Mary knee in the closing moments. All others fell, including Sanchez in their rematch at UFC 69, and it was plainly apparent that Koscheck had developed into a mature martial artist.
He lost to GSP, as everyone does, but stayed admirably competitive in every round. Back in the saddle, his consistency came into question when Paulo Thiago blasted him by first round TKO and Muay Thai technician Thiago Alves beat him by decision, but, after meeting GSP the first time, Koscheck won six of eight to earn a rematch. The result was the same, but Koscheck -- or more specifically, his right eyeball -- deserves applause for withstanding an obscene agglomeration of the champ's stiff, snapping jabs. Koscheck suffered a broken orbital that required surgery allowed just one contest in 2011, which was a commanding knockout of former champion Matt Hughes.
Mike Pierce (13-4) made his MMA debut parallel to Koscheck's first title shot in 2007. Competing at a steady pace of once per quarter, he won eight of his first ten with five TKO stoppages. Pierce also became the welterweight champion of the Oregon-based SportFight organization, a promotion founded by original Team Quest members and MMA pioneers Randy Couture and Matt Lindland. One defeat in that stretch was to current middleweight contender and All American wrestler Mark Munoz in Pierce's second outing; the other to ATT-bred fighter Nathan Coy, who recently lost to Tyron Woodley in Strikeforce. Also of note: Pierce survived to a decision with Munoz at a time when "The Filipino Wrecking Machine" earned his nickname by absolutely trouncing all comers.
Pierce's strong sequence out of the gate attracted the UFC's attention, and his big-league run began with a decision victory over Brock Larson. He was initially slated to face Koscheck next, but ended up taking an even larger leap in competition in longstanding number-two leviathan Jon Fitch. Despite dropping a decision, Pierce gained some respect for putting Fitch on roller-skates with a fierce combination in the third. Since then, Pierce has rolled with four wins in his last five, the sole blemish being a narrow split decision to another stellar wrestler in new top-ten entry Johny Hendricks.
Gifs and analysis in the full entry.
Koscheck's first method of finishing was capitalizing on the dominant positions that his wrestling produced, as his five submissions consist of all rear-naked chokes and one neck crank, but striking was the real catalyst for Koscheck's evolution as a top-level fighter.
His hours slaving away in the gym are evident in the comfort of his stance and his basic grasp of fundamentals and footwork, but the searing power of his overhand meathook does most of the dirty work. He did unleash a rare high kick to sink Dustin Hazelett and assumed the role of a calculating technician to outpoint Sanchez in the rematch, but the right hand is by far his most threatening weapon.
Having such a simple format has been a double-edged sword: Kos's timing, power and ability to gauge distance have made him a force on the feet, but it's still a fairly one-dimensional approach and his knockout losses can all be attributed to technical deficiencies. Most of those shortcomings are defensive, such as leaving his chin unprotected when loading up his right hand, and having lax and/or predictable head movement.
The threat of a knockout, fear of a takedown and natural instincts are more prevalent in his striking than the polished mechanics.
When you isolate the best strikers he's encountered (GSP, Pete Spratt, Chris Lytle, Thiago Alves, Anthony Johnson, and Paul Daley) and review how he fared on the feet, the results leave me with a fairly negative opinion of Josh Koscheck's striking. GSP and Alves had their way with him, Daley did as well when he wasn't flailing underneath him, and he spent no significant amount of time standing with Lytle or Spratt.
That leaves his mutual foul-fest with Johnson at UFC 106, where they both had their moments standing (right) before Koscheck implemented his wrestling.
The animation above is a pretty fair example of his tendencies, both good and bad. He keeps his balance well, reacts to block the high kick, slips the overhand and keeps his right hand up defensively -- but he also eats a few shots, lowers his head to the same spot with the same timing and leaves his chin exposed, albeit briefly.
Even though it's more of a footnote in this analysis, the gif to the left speaks volumes about his voracious wrestling.
When I think Mike Pierce, my mind replays the sequence to the right. Staggering Fitch, who endured five rounds of ungodly punishment from GSP, was quite a promising sign.
Pierce is a burly and broad-shouldered tank who has never been finished. All four of his losses were decisions, two of which were dealt by elite welterweight wrestlers and another by an elite middleweight wrestler. He's finished seven of his thirteen wins with six TKOs and one submission. He throws tight, crisp punches and excels at in-fighting, occasionally cleaving with short elbows at close range.
Much of his scrap with phenomenal collegiate wrestler Johny Hendricks transpired in the clinch. The pair locked horns in open space and ground away with pulverizing blows while jockeying for position.
To the left, Pierce grabs the single collar-tie and snaps Hendricks' head back with an uppercut, then cracks a horizontal elbow over the top when breaking contact. He's not much of a one-shot striker, but the type that gradually chips away with many different techniques from many different angles. Clinch tactics will be pivotal as that's where Koscheck works most of his takedowns.
Pierce, like Koscheck, maintains a strong semblance of balance when throwing his hands, but has a more compact stance and consistent defense.
On the right Pierce heaves another right elbow over the top, this time with an underhook on his left side. His thorny resilience in the clinch is what allowed him to make the early statement that Hendricks would have to work hard to put him on his back. When the dust cleared, both fighters had landed one takedown apiece, which testifies to Pierce's deceiving wrestling skills despite having the inferior credentials.
Pierce also does a good job of switching up his pace and rhythm, alternating anywhere between a casual shot or two from outside while circling away to exploding with a flurry while springing forward.
Here he needles a straight right through Paul Bradley's guard and cuts a sharp angle to his left. It's never anything dramatic or fancy -- just an intelligent application of his deep bag of tricks.
Koscheck generally loads up his right hand and waits for the right moment to get in, connect and get back out, whereas Pierce engages more frequently.
The two outstanding threats that Koscheck presents are his takedowns and overhand right, and Pierce's bulletproof beard and striking acumen seem equipped to handle the latter. His takedown defense and footwork will dictate the former. While Kos gets the nod in his area of specialty, Pierce's staunch performance against a similarly accredited wrestler in Hendricks bodes well for his chances.
Koscheck is the deserved favorite on the betting lines, but I'll risk a vote for the underdog. In plain terms, Koscheck is the better wrestler and has more punching power but I think Pierce has the more complete game and the intelligence to capitalize on it.
My (Bold) Prediction: Mike Pierce by TKO.