Note: It's impossible to know whether or not Josh Koscheck is deliberately poking opponents in the eye. Mike Riordan's opinion is his own and does NOT represent the editorial opinion of Bloody Elbow or SBNation. Kid Nate
Josh Koscheck's eye-poking is becoming a major story. We have seen him poke the eyes of three recent opponents and these pokes have yielded great effect. His eye poke of Johny Hendricks during UFC on Fox 3 put Johny in great jeopardy as did his pokes on Mike Pierce.
Though these eye-pokes appear to be related to a striking technique, I am of the mind that Koscheck was first exposed to this variety of eye-poking as an amateur wrestler and has adapted it to mixed martial arts. One could chalk these pokes up to an innocent by-product of a range finding method. It's impossible to state with certainty if Koscheck is doing this on purpose, but the fact remains that his opponents keep getting poked in the eye with consistency. Let's look at where Koscheck could have picked up the habit. Some evidence even exists of Kos committing such an infraction as far back as his amateur wrestling days.
The Eye-pokealypse is here! Read this article to discover its origins in Koscheck's amateur wrestling background.
Intentional eye-pokes pop up from time to time in amateur wrestling. Having been the recipient of various eye pokes in my day, I hold eye-pokers in the deepest of contempt. Eye-pokes are explosively painful, are rarely called by refs, and can cause the pokee to lose unjustly. Eye-pokes happen on all levels of wrestling but the more that is on the line, the greater the poking possibility. Here is Terry Brands famously getting thumbed in the eye by Cuba's Jesus Wilson in the 1993 world freestyle wrestling finals.
This demonstrates both the potential pain caused by these pokes and the cynical ingenuity of the eye poker. Brands is tougher than boiled and a thumb to the eye caused him to writhe in pain on the mat. Ow! Imagine how much of a difference an eye-poke such as this could make at a crucial juncture in a fight. Eye pokers are trying to inflict as much pain as possible in the hope that it gives them a competitive advantage. The skillful pokers are clever about it as well. Wilson knows quite well that he is perfectly positioned so that the referee can not see his dastardly thumb gouge.
Josh Koscheck has been cultivating quite a track record of his own for dastardly ocular assaults. He executes his eye-poke in a specific way: extending his lead hand forward in a pawing manner with the palm of his hand turned down and fingers extended forward. The beauty of this nefarious technique is that it can be performed under the premise of functioning only as a range finding device for striking and, as a bonus, it sometimes allows for opponents to poke themselves in the eye with their forward motion.
For those unaware of what Josh Koscheck's eye-pokes look like, here is another fighter in a non-UFC fight with a demonstration of the approximate "technique" (the fighter in white trunks here is pawing forward like Koscheck, though not necessarily intentionally poking his opponent's eyes).
I believe that Koscheck first learned a technique similar to this as an amateur wrestler, that he has incorporated it into his striking patterns and that he is indeed doing it on purpose.
In freestyle or scholastic wrestling, the act of forcefully extending the arm palm forward to an opponents forhead or scalp is a common and effective maneuvre. This allows a wrestler to initiate contact and engage in a hand fight while maintaining a desirable distance. You usually see this performed by wrestlers who have offenses that rely on space and speed. This certainly describes Jordan Burroughs and here he is performing this sort of hand jab to set up a spear single in last year's world finals against Iran's Goudarzi.
Wrestling technique tangent: Notice that Burroughs is primarily extending his hand over his rear leg, which is his left. This sort of "wrestling jab" is the opposite of boxing where the jab originates from the lead leg side. Extending the front leg hand in wrestling leaves one open to a quickly timed single from an opponent. Reaching with the rear leg hand has the same potential effect but the leg is farther away, increasing reaction time and thus making it a safer procedure.
Wrestling is not a tickle fight and there is nothing wrong with a good stiff hand pop to the head. This becomes a dirty tactic, however, when the fingers are intentionally turned down in the hopes of making contact with the eyes. In theory the eye contact can be unintentional, but I would argue that when a skillful wrestler commits repeated "unintentional" pokes, that the act speak for itself.
I do not mean to characterize amateur wrestling as some sort of free for all of dirty tactics. By and large it is not. But occasionally, to my disapprobation, some feel the need to grab the advantage through various forms of skulduggery. One of these forms is the eye-poke in question. Never have I seen this variety of eye poke performed with such flagrance as in the 2010 wrestling match at 197 pounds between Purdue's Logan Brown and Kent State's national champion Dustin Kilgore (Brown is 1-0 in his MMA career and I hope that Kilgore eventually enters the sport). In a way I am indebted to Brown as he has given me ample opportunity to provide GIF illustrations of what the Koscheck style eye-poke looks like on a wrestling mat. Based on how his opponents would react to him in competition before the instant match, I had figured that Brown was somewhat dirty, but this match takes the cake. Brown (in the black headgear) paws his fingers forward and pokes Kilgore in the eyes
and again from his butt after a takedown (not totally relevant but I find its ridiculousness amusing)
I could make eight or so more more gifs with additional pokes from Logan, and this is a seven minute match! The problem posed to a referee by this method of eye poke is its benign appearance in the context of a combat sport; the act alone does not itself prove the specific intent to poke the eyes. Koscheck has such "success" with his pokes by exploiting this problem. Referees have to make the difficult judgement over whether there is anything wrong with simply extending the fingers to touch the opponent's head. These difficulties aside, refs need to increase their level of vigilance and rigidity of enforcement. Consider that if a competitor were to spend hours in a practice room extending his hand thusly, he would develop a sense for the exact plane on which his hand needs to extend in order to rake an opponents eyes. After all, wrestling, and martial arts in general are about precision: the repetition of the same results from the same actions. Brown, above, was aware of the likely results of his finger thrusts in the above match and I think that Koscheck is also guilty of the very same thing in his recent fights.
This accusation bears a little more gravity considering that Kos may have been guilty of this act during his wrestling career. Here is Kos wrestling University Of Illinois standout Matt Lackey at the 2002 US freestyle open.
A bald-headed Koscheck, in blue, is seen here with some suspicious paws to the face and it is very possible that Lackey's glance at the ref is meant to inquire whether he saw the fingers near his eyes as well. I believe that it is reasonable to assume that Koscheck is every bit a knowledgeable about how to cagily poke the eyes in a wrestling environment as Brown does above and that he brought this knowledge with him into the Octagon.
Josh Koscheck probably first learned the art of the eye-poke as an amateur wrestler and modified it to serve as a tool in mixed martial arts where strikes are present and the gloves leave the fingers exposed. If a high level wrestler performs a wrestling related maneuver in a way which repeatedly and predictably results in eye-pokes, it is likely that the intention behind these acts is to poke the eyes. Koscheck happens to be an incredibly skillful wrestler and the frequency at which these pokes occur prove their intent. These pokes are intentional and unacceptable. The Eye-pokealypse is happening now, now it is in the referee's hands to deal with it.
Come back next time for an article on nut grabbing. (Psssst, watch Wilson's right hand)
Mike Riordan is a high school wrestling coach, unsuccessful division one collegiate wrestler, and student of the sport of wrestling. He is a part time contributor to Bloody Elbow on matters of collegiate and Olympic wrestling. He is looking forward to everyone telling him about how clever his pun was in the title of this piece.