As an OG of the inaugural TUF show, 35-year-old Josh Koscheck has grown up before our very eyes. Initially no more than an exceptional athlete with prestigious wrestling accolades (four-time Division 1 All-American, one-time national champion), the inexperienced competitor methodically rounded out his arsenal with basic but extremely effective boxing, increasingly functional wrestling tactics and, overall, just a better command of MMA's complexities.
Koscheck notched his first official UFC fight with just two pro outings on his record and vaulted up the contender ladder by winning all but one of his eight bouts. The lone defeat -- a last-minute knee-dinger and subsequent choke-out courtesy of Drew Fickett -- was not unlike Koscheck's later loss to Paulo Thiago, who, despite finishing in the 1st frame by uncorking a left hand from hell, had not been getting the better of the previous exchanges. Those surprising losses are really the only questionable ones for Koscheck, as reputable welterweights Thiago Alves, Johny Hendricks, Robbie Lawler and champion Georges St-Pierre (twice) account for the rest.
Along with the functionality of his right eyeball, GSP might have stolen a tad of Koscheck's spirit in their second meeting, which was one of the most dominant and one-sided beatings without a finish in UFC title history. Unveiling a sharpened striking arsenal, technical footwork and stifling orchestration of range, St-Pierre snapped Koscheck's head back with a torrent of plunging jabs that connected with unsettling frequency throughout the fight. Koscheck did bounce back with a man-sized thrashing of former welterweight kingpin Matt Hughes, but razor-thin split-decisions against Mike Pierce (win) and Johny Hendricks (loss), along with an atrociously violent TKO loss to Robbie Lawler, followed the Hughes win.
Whereas Koscheck is looking to regain his seat at the top, Tyron Woodley is still carving his way up the ranks. Boasting similar wrestling credentials as a two-time Division 1 All-American and Big 12 national champion, Woodley was picked up by Strikeforce after his second pro fight and remained unbeaten until meeting Nate Marquardt in his 11th turn, which was for the vacant Strikeforce welterweight championship.
Marquardt, a former middleweight who dwarfed Woodley in the cage, neutralized his takedowns and finished him in the 4th frame with an unforgettable massacre via punches and elbows. Woodley scored a 1st-round KO over Jay Hieron in the follow up but came up short in a decision loss to Jake Shields.
If the Shields fight is any indication, Woodley might be in trouble against Koscheck. Shields is one of the best submission wrestlers in MMA history but not quite elite in the wrestling aspect alone. Koscheck is, and I'd wager his striking and explosiveness are a full-level higher than Shields' as well. I think Woodley has excelled when he has at least one crystal clear advantage and, on paper at least, he won't have any against Koscheck.
Allow me to clarify: Woodley could absolutely punch Koscheck in the face, take him down or win this fight -- so it's not as if his striking and wrestling will be useless. However, he's fighting somewhat of a mirror image of himself, only one with considerably more proven punching power and top-level experience. Despite the fanatical discussions about MMA wrestling, much of it hinges on intangibles like timing, instincts and set-up; it's rarely a head-on takedown battle.
Understanding all of those elements and how they relate, synchronizing them fluidly and implementing them against prestigious competition precisely describes the learning curve that wrestling-based fighters undergo. And that learning curve is experienced through consistent confrontations and generally occurs over a period of several years. My point is just that Koscheck has a significant headstart over Woodley in that department. It might sound harsh, but the reality is that Woodley is yet to beat an opponent on the Top-10 rankings list, where Koscheck has been a staple for many years.
Woodley has two wins via strikes and, though they were amongst the biggest of his career (Andre Galvao, Hieron), it doesn't seem likely that he'll blast Koscheck out on the feet. There's no question that Woodley's wrestling background and athleticism could result in a few or several takedowns on Koscheck, but I'm thinking he'd have to hold position and ride out the round to gain ground on the score cards -- meaning Koscheck should be savvy enough to pop back up or initiate a scramble to escape.
On the feet, Woodley is more technical and polished than Koscheck in a traditional sense. Koscheck took the Dan Henderson route and electrified his striking with a scorching right hand, and the results speak for themselves. Conversely, Koscheck starts out throwing fairly straight punches with a tight guard but eventually settles in with looping strikes and lax defense. This is where Woodley's quick hands, good instincts and short, straight punches could make a big difference.
It's unfortunate that simple stats like height and reach are so unreliable nowadays, because I'm tempted to cite Koscheck as a few inches taller and longer.
I'm fairly surprised that Woodley comes in as the favorite here. While I am still expecting noticeable evolutions from Woodley, who's only in his fifth year of MMA, comparing their skills and factoring in the level of competition has me leaning toward Koscheck with his own carelessness as my biggest concern.
My Prediction: Josh Koscheck by decision.