The co-main event of tonight's UFC on Fox 3 Josh Koscheck vs. Johny Hendricks. The main card, which begins on the Fox Network at 8:00 p.m. ET, is captained by a lightweight tilt that pits Jim Miller vs. Nate Diaz.
Considering the heavy emphasis on the wrestling background of Josh Koscheck (17-5) and Johny Hendricks (12-1), I consulted with Mike Riordan, our resident expert on all things wrestling, to share his thoughts on the pair's past and present wrestling acumen.
Mike Riordan: Hendricks is the most accomplished amateur wrestler in this weight class in the UFC and Koscheck is only slightly behind -- nobody else on the roster at Welterweight comes close. In their college days they both exhibited a physical and aggressive style combined with solid all-around technique. Koscheck was probably the more physical and athletic of the two and to this day is one of the meanest wrestlers I've ever seen. Hendricks possesses more finesse and technique than Koscheck, but he himself is not lacking in physical gifts. I find it interesting that, while Koscheck has fully embraced his role as a bad guy in the UFC, it is Hendricks who was one of the biggest heels in the history of NCAA wrestling; his antagonistic antics would earn him oodles of hatred and vitriol from opposing fans.
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Mike Riordan (cont'd): Though their wrestling pedigrees are beyond reproach, I have been fascinated by the fact that, when placed in an MMA environment, both of these fighters are vulnerable to take downs from opponents who would never score an offensive point against them in a million years in an actual wrestling match. Kos becomes particularly vulnerable to takedowns when he himself is looking for one. He has gone from a one-mode fighter to a two-mode fighter. Along with his "takedown" mode he has developed a "sprawl and brawl" mode. You can see in his fight with Mike Pierce that he switched these modes in the second round, changing from sprawl and brawl to takedown mode, and he was in takedown mode when Pierce, in turn, was able to take him down.
Kos's finishing ability once in on a shot is second to none and this is a clear carryover from his collegiate days. What has always perplexed me is his inability to adroitly integrate his shots into striking combinations and footwork. His typical set-up for a shot is a single jab or straight. While I don't envision much more progress in Kos's game in this area, the jury has yet to come back with a verdict on Hendricks as an MMA wrestler, but should be at a point where we can look forward to full striking/wrestling incorporation. Hendricks has the wrestling, has worked hard at his striking and should be poised to marry the two, something Koscheck has never done with great success.
Dallas Winston: Big thanks to Mike for the stellar breakdown. Join me in the full entry for the match up analysis.
As mentioned by Mike above, physical aggression and unforgiving churlishness are integral aspects to the way Koscheck and Hendricks conduct themselves. As MMA continues to evolve, we've seen wrestling-based fighters cement a few different options for how to build upon their foundation. Of course, becoming well-rounded and eliminating any glaring flaws is always a given, but it's wise to establish a secondary proficiency that stands out above all of the other new tools they're learning.
Bellator welterweight champion and Olympic wrestler Ben Askren has deviated from the more popular path by complementing his wrestling with BJJ and submission grappling. Striking, however, has been the more attractive choice, which does not often come easily nor naturally to a wrestler, as certain elements of the stance, balance and footwork in MMA contrast to what's been drilled into their reflexes through wrestling. A wrestler choosing to blossom his striking game typically fits into the "technical" or "brawling" categories.
There is no better example for the effectiveness of a brawling wrestler than Dan Henderson, who's capitalized on the reality that all the finesse and technique in the world can be quickly compensated for by crushing the chin with a punch. Koscheck and Hendricks seem to have chosen different paths here, as Koscheck has maintained his rugged and primitive tendencies of the past by hurling the home-run swing where Hendricks has drifted more to the mechanics-side by developing a tight and crisp boxing game. I see this playing an important role between these two similarly accredited athletes.
It's difficult to assess how they stack up in the wrestling department, as either have been susceptible to being taken down and also aren't guaranteed to take down lesser accomplished wrestlers in the Octagon. I believe that will be decided opportunistically through on-the-fly elements like fight I.Q., reaction and timing rather than credentials or technique. We can, however, take a look at how their striking tendencies compare and how they employ it to complement their wrestling.
Mike touched on the key factor of how Koscheck does not excel in setting up his takedowns. Another challenge for a wrestler is seamlessly blending all of MMA's dynamics together, and Koscheck seems distinctly rooted in either strike-mode or takedown-mode. Hendricks has been more fluid in tying his skills together, as he can launch a stiff volley of straight punches, carve out an angle from which to attack from -- for both his head (head movement) and his body (footwork) -- and pressure his opponent with a more unpredictable and diverse set of tools. That is not to say that he's been more successful than Koscheck in adapting his background.
Kos has shown a tendency for a more repetitive approach by winging a giant haymaker and then ducking his head down and shooting. The position of his head has been particularly traceable; something that champion Georges St. Pierre exploited with a precise and plunging jab. The act of dropping levels is imperative for a wrestler and the motion and position of the head dictates were the body goes. GSP took Koscheck completely out of his element by showering Koscheck's head with leather no matter where it was, which gave him no safe-zone nor respite to collect his thoughts.
In fact, Koscheck's predictable head position played a role in almost every area where he's struggled in the past: it was why Paulo Thiago was able to catch him with a huge punch, why Drew Fickett was able to spark his comeback submission with a well-placed knee, why Thiago Alves was able to anticipate his takedown attempts and sight-in his Muay Thai, and why Koscheck was forced into 100% wrestling mode to defeat Paul Daley and Anthony Johnson.
The way Hendricks uncorks his punches is much more composed and complete than Koscheck: he keeps his hands up and returns them to his directly back to his chin after he strikes, he keeps his elbows glued to his ribs when throwing punches and he maintains an excellent semblance of balance to avoid the perils of over-committing. Additionally, keeping his guard up, his hands front-and-center and maintaining good balance makes it easier to flow into another dimension, such as entering the clinch, defending a takedown or pursuing one.
The subtle advantages that Hendricks gains from taking the more technical approach have (and could potentially again) emerge as flaws for Koscheck and balance out Koscheck's more proven wrestling adaptation. Loading up that enormous right hand offers more punching power, but is also accompanied by the vulnerabilities of over-committing (a loss of balance to some degree and an unfavorable position or location) or defensive porosity (guard down, hands out of position, susceptible to counter-strikes or takedowns from side-angles). What I see as a big difference-maker is that Hendricks retains his polished technique but still has plenty of power on the end of his hands.
The straight wrestling comparison might inch toward Koscheck based on past performances, but Hendrick's methodical and composed style overall negates that slight edge in a battle that will likely be dictated opportunistically. The subtle mechanics of Hendrick's striking, the way he meshes his attributes together and the fact that he's never been finished give him the nod in my eyes. Though Koscheck has faced a greater number of higher-level opponents, Hendricks has displayed traits that more effectively minimize risk and enhance his strengths.
My Prediction: Johny Hendricks by TKO.