As 20th anniversary fight approaches, Josh Koscheck looks at his role in sport's growth

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Josh Koscheck, who along with Chris Leben had the first UFC television fight that captured the public's attention in a big way, looks back at the night that made his career and helped pump oxygen to a sport that had been surviving on life support.

There's something fitting about a week where UFC celebrates its history with its 20th anniversary show and Josh Koscheck being a part of the event.

Koscheck (19-7), who was a key part of one of the most pivotal moments in UFC history, is in something of a must-win situation when he faces Tyron Woodley (11-2) on Nov. 16 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena as part of UFC 167.

Lost somewhere in the story of the growth of UFC and the reality show that made it happen was that the first time mainstream America was really talking about the promotion was actually a little less than two months before the Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar fight on Spike TV.

UFC became true national water cooler talk for the first time on February 15, 2005, the morning after the fifth episode of the show. The first star created on the show was Chris Leben. He became the show's most talked about character when he relieved himself on the bed of another fighter. In the first few weeks on the show, Leben acted like a big-mouth bully. He drank heavily and talked big. He constantly bragged that he had knocked out Mike Swick, one of the fighters in the house. Thanks to Leben, the audience for the show was growing weekly and it was becoming something of a hit.


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At the point the key episode was taped, the fighters in the house, had been cooped up for three weeks in real time and were growing tired of telling their life story to roommates over-and-over. Dana White decided to take everyone out to the Hard Rock in Las Vegas for drinks. Everyone, with the exception of Diego Sanchez, who refused alcohol, came back plastered. Leben had spurred it on, telling the other fighters that he didn't want any babies that night, ergo people who weren't going to drink.

After they returned, at about 1:20 a.m. local time, Leben was arguing with Bobby Southworth, a teammate of Swick's at the San Jose, Calif., based American Kickboxing Academy. Koscheck, another teammate, was more the secondary character in the argument, hanging out with Southworth, the clear instigator. Southworth and Leben nearly went at it, until Swick diffused the situation. While Leben had talked big, that night he noted that he'd never been in a street fight, and didn't want to start now. The guys had been told in no uncertain terms that if they got into a fight outside the cage, they were going to be kicked off the show.

Then Southworth uttered the immortal words, calling Leben a "fatherless bastard." Leben had not seen his father since he was two years old. It was the middle of the night, he had far too much to drink, and he broke down. Southworth, seeing Leben's reaction, came back and apologized. Leben, in tears, refused to accept the apology. He refused to even go back in the house. Eventually, he got tired, got a sleeping bag and went to sleep outside.

Koscheck, who was new to the sport after failing to make the 2004 Olympic team in wrestling, was laughing with Southworth inside the house about how after all the weeks of big talking, Leben was out there crying. He and Southworth continued to drink in the house for another two or so hours. At about 3:30 a.m., with Leben asleep on the grass, Koscheck and Southworth sprayed a garden hose all over Leben, waking him up. Leben, soaked and infuriated, didn't fight either, but punched through the window of a door to the house, cutting his hand up badly.

With blood dripping from his hand, he kicked in another door, to the room Griffin was sleeping in, who woke up the next day noticing pieces of his door in his bad. Nate Quarry, who was a teammate of Leben's at Team Quest in Oregon, calmed him down and took him to the hospital.

Careers were made that day, and one could argue, so was the sport. Leben, who had been the most hated guy on the show, suddenly was viewed sympathetically, and has since had a long career as a popular fighter. Quarry became one of UFC's most well-liked fighters for the rest of his career, as he stood up for his friend to White, saying that if Leben was kicked out, he would leave the show with him.

Koscheck and Southworth became the most hated characters on reality TV. Lorenzo Fertitta and White decided that instead of kicking three of the best fighters off the show, that they would have Koscheck fight Leben.

The episode with the garden hose being sprayed did a 1.4 rating, an exceptionally strong number for a show that started at about 11:10 p.m. on a Monday night. The next morning, people who had no idea what UFC was were hearing about this crazy reality show with fighters and that there would be a big fight on TV the next Monday night.

All through the week, the word about the show and the fight created a vibe that UFC had never had before, and really hasn't had often since, limited to some of the biggest fights in history.

It had all been taped months earlier, but Koscheck was oblivious to how what was taped was going to be a life changing experience and seminal moment for the fledgling sport. There wasn't even a hint in his mind that he was about to start a long career as one of UFC's all-time greatest villains.

"I had no idea," Koscheck said, looking back about nine years from when that garden hose night took place. "I had no clue until it aired. After that episode aired, it was crazy. I went from walking down the street and nobody knew who I was, to all kind of people coming up to me. I could see things had changed. It was the power of television."

The fight itself, which aired on February 21, 2005, was actually a letdown. Koscheck was an MMA novice. But as a wrestler, he was a four-time All-American and won the 2001 NCAA title with an undefeated season. Not knowing anything else, he just took Leben down and held him down, winning the decision.

Ratings increased 44 percent from the prior week, doing a 2.02 rating, actually higher than the Griffin vs. Bonnar show, that did a 1.96. It was a ratings record that held up until Ken Shamrock's last fight with Tito Ortiz. To this day, only a handful of UFC fights on cable have beaten that number.

Koscheck and Leben were instant stars. A lot of fighters may have been upset that this incident in many ways defined their career, particularly the way the audience saw Koscheck. But while he didn't set out to be UFC's top "heel," when the fans appointed him with that role, he accepted it and made the best of the situation.

Today, just because fans have seen how other fans boo Koscheck, and the fact he revels in it, he's booed by a new generation of fans who not only didn't see that episode of the show, but don't even know about it.

"I could care less whether they like me or they don't like me, if I'm a hero or a villain," he said. "I care about just winning fights. My No. 1 primary goal is to win. I don't care if there are 50,000 people in the stands or two people."

It might hurt Koscheck's image for people to know that, at 36, he's now running his own gym, the Dethrone Base Camp in Fresno, Calif, which specializes in training young kids in wrestling. Central California had been a high school wrestling hotbed for decades.

"At my camp for kids, we have kids winning national titles all the time," he said. "Amateur wrestling is a great feeder program for the UFC."

Koscheck of late has been training heavily at his gym with Chris Honeycutt, who placed second in the 2012 NCAA tournament at 197 pounds at Edinboro College, Koscheck's alma mater, and is just starting his MMA career.

"He's been training with me for a year-and-a-half," said Koscheck. "He'll be the next big thing in MMA. He reminds me a lot of myself. He works his butt off. He eats, sleeps and trains. I've had a good training camp. My gym is popping. Dethrone Fresno is packed. My wrestling kids program is packed, and we've got kids jiu-jitsu and kids boxing."

Koscheck and Sanchez are the last two survivors of that season who are still battling top level competition.

"Yeah, it's pretty crazy it's been that long and all those guys have fallen off the boat," said Koscheck, who if he beats Woodley, it would be his 16th UFC win. That would tie him with Randy Couture, Anderson Silva and Chuck Liddell for third place on the most UFC wins list behind Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes, who share the record with 18. "I feel great. I feel better than I did two years ago as far as my health and my training in general. I've trained super hard for this fight. I've got the experience. I know what it takes to get ready for a fight."

But there are bound to be questions that are age related. His contemporaries on the show are almost all retired. And he's coming off two straight losses, a knockout at the hands of Robbie Lawler and a split decision loss to current No. 1 contender, Johny Hendricks.

It's the latter fight, which he still believes he won, and a strong case can be made that he did, which has him convinced the Lawler fight was a fluke and he's still among the top welterweights in the world.

"I felt I won the fight, but obviously three (actually two) judges saw it differently," he said. "That's the way it is. I believe I'm still right there with the best guys. I really truly believe that. I just have to go out and perform. Most of the time, it's me beating myself. I've got to make a statement and believe that I can put it on this guy (Woodley) and get the victory."
The memories of those two fights remain fresh in his mind.

"I think about it all the time," he said. "The reason why I don't let things go so well is because I train so hard. When you put that kind of time and care so much, those things hurt. But you use them to motivate you in training when things are tough and you're tired and you don't want to work out."

Having fought Hendricks once and St-Pierre twice, Koscheck is favoring the champion to retain and set UFC's all-time win record.

"I think Georges St-Pierre will have the edge," said Koscheck. "For one, he's got the experience fighting 25 minutes. Two, he's got more experience sticking to his game plan. He's methodical and picks guys apart. I think his cardio will be better. Hendricks has a habit of getting fat when he's not training. GSP is ripped and in training all-year round."

Even though he thinks he could have gone on when it was stopped, he doesn't question the loss to Robbie Lawler in his most recent fight on Feb. 23, a first round stoppage.

"My hats off to Robbie Lawler," he said. "He was a better guy that night. You make a mistake against a guy like him with his hands, and your night's over. I made a mistake. I stayed on my knees too long and took a couple of hard punches. Was I out? No. But Herb Dean stepped in and that's the game. I take it as part of the learning process."

UFC 167 is a night of major welterweight fights, with Lawler facing Rory MacDonald, two people Koscheck thinks have a shot with St-Pierre.

"I think it's one of the toughest weight divisions in UFC," he said. "There are a lot of good fighters who could win the title. It's a deep division, young guys like Rory, veterans like Lawler, those two guys are capable and one punch away from being champion. I don't know if Rory and GSP would fight, but it would be interesting."

Koscheck's advice to MacDonald may surprise some since Koscheck and longtime training partner Jon Fitch for years were pressured into fighting each other and always refused. He said if MacDonald wins, he'd advise him to take the title fight against his teammate and sometimes training partner.

"We've (he and Fitch) never considered it," he said. "I just think there were too many guys for us to fight. When you spend eight years at the top of the division like me and Fitch did, people question and wonder. But if one of us ever won the title, then I'd have to make a decision. He's got something I want. But that never happened. It is what it is for Rory. I know that I'd have made the decision to fight. I want that title. I want to make that money. But it may vary based on the camp and type of relationships you have in your camp."

Woodley, his next foe, also has a wrestling base, being a two-time All-American at the University of Missouri, where he was a teammate of Ben Askren.

"Tyron's a good fighter," said Koscheck. "But his biggest downfall is that he lacks cardio. I've watched a lot of his fights, and he gets tired. I think that's going to be the difference. I always come in shape and I can fight at a hard pace for 25 minutes. He's a good fighter, explosive, fast, young, good hands."

He thinks that the conditioning is something that for Woodley, with his thick musculature, is an inherent difference that Woodley won't be able to overcome.

"He knows he won't be able to get in shape like I can. He's the type of kid who can train 365 days a year, twice a day, but he's still going to get tired. Look at his fights on the Internet. You'll see after the second round, you'll see how tired he gets."

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