Love him or hate him, Josh Koscheck’s rise from serial wrestler to one of the most complete fighters in the UFC can’t be anything but respected.
“To be honest, I’m not sure I even want to do this,”Josh Koscheck says. We are sitting at one of his favorite Vegas haunts, the 24/7 Café at the Palms, in a city founded on luck, superstition, and the willingly objectified, and he’s confronting all three before his Mongolian chicken arrives. His assistant, “Chewy”(also known as David Spitz), is there too, sporting similarly bleached hair and nodding in total agreement with Koscheck’s concerns. “Tell me, who has won their immediate fight after appearing on your cover? Huh? No, no, no, don’t hem and haw, just tell me.” Chewy is giving me a look like, yeah, what’s up with that, dude? You’re so smart, go on and tell him.
“Jose Aldo,” I say, “Oh, and Fedor . . . ”
He’s skeptical. If there’s a FIGHT! cover jinx he wants it out in the open, to counter jinx that shit, because he doesn’t need things beyond his control dictating the outcome of his welterweight title bout with Georges St-Pierre in December. It’s strange to think he’s giving this magazine credit for being in collusion with governing forces, but, if the answer was “nobody,” there’s a possibility you’d be reading about some other fighter right now.
To be fair, Koscheck could be a little paranoid. It’s a day after shooting has wrapped up for The Ultimate Fighter 12, thus making him privy to a secret history that belongs to everyone else’s future. He celebrated last night with shots of the unfortunately named “ass juice” at the Double Down Saloon, which has become his watering hole. Then, unable to sleep, he gathered up Chewy and went and played blackjack until 5 a.m., coming away with $5,000, which he has in $100 bills folded thick as an In-N-Out Burger double-double.
“I can’t do the Mike Swick poker thing, the build’s too fucking slow for me,” he says. “You know, we don’t agree on everything, but blackjack’s one of the things that Dana White and I share in common.”
On his best nights, he’s walked away with as much as $50,000 from the tables, which slightly exceeds the average annual household income in his Western Pennsylvania hometown of Waynesburg, a blue-collar town known for its mining of coal. Waynesburg is 97% white. Koscheck is 50% white and 50% black. He prefers the term mulatto, and it’s tough to be a mulatto in a place where people don’t easily embrace miscegenation. In a big way, the “N” word that was slung his way growing up helped him become who he is. Those slurs became his tireless work ethic and drive, and soon enough he had that ability to stay frustratingly raveled when provoked. That only served to piss people off further.
“I pulled him off a number of kids in the wrestling room,” his coach at Edinboro University, Tim Flynn, says. “The neat thing was, he’d get into a fight and he wouldn’t get emotional about it, he’d just laugh after wards. And the other kids with all that adrenaline and testosterone were like, ‘He’s a dick!’”
That was another lifetime, though. Sitting here with his famously peroxided head of curly hair hidden below a broad-rimmed ball cap (in an attempt to conceal his identity), Koscheck doesn’t belong really to anywhere or anybody. In some ways, he never really has.
The last time he was home in Fresno was six months ago, and he’s anxious to get back to his “girlfriend,” a 2007 Ferrari F430 Spider coupé. He’s excited about his new 6,000-square-foot American Kickboxing Academy gym, which he runs with another former wrestler, Jason Craft. “There are designs for more,” he says. Kos is also looking forward to seeing the Zinkins, the land and development mavens he considers his family, with all the little kids running around that he treats as his own. His high-powered manager, DeWayne Zinkin, has a F430 Spider, too, only his has a little more torque. “I love DeWayne,” Kos says of the man who opened the door for guys like him and Jon Fitch at AKA. “Without him I’d be dead.”
Having grown up “believing we weren’t poor,” Koscheck says he’s had battles adjusting to this kind of lifestyle—battles with materialism and accessibility, partying and distractions, tunnel vision and treating people who cared about him badly, and dealing with fame.
“That transition . . . nobody will understand that except those who’ve gone through it,” he says. “You can go a million different paths when it happens, and I was a selfish, self-centered person. It looked like I didn’t care to people, but I was just fixated on a goal. I’d go to sleep and wake up in the morning thinking about winning and training, winning and training. I am wiser now.”
If you’ve been reading his Tweets, it’s hard to tell if he’s being a dick (as he’s accused) or if he’s sharing some kind of satori (as he alleges).With posts that say things like “counting my blessings today, lil monkeys,” one suspects it’s closer to neither than both.
“Love me or hate me, fine by me, so long as you pick one,” he says. “I don’t give two shits. I’m a winner. People will always be critical of the successful. If all these people are hating on me, it means Josh Koscheck is doing something right. It’s simple, man—nobody cared about Dennis Rodman until he started wearing a wedding dress and acting like a crazy man. He was always one of the best rebounders, always the best, but nobody paid attention until he entertained.”
This is one mode—the brash, cocksure one. There are others. His standard answer mode crops up a lot, too. But the latest is the “New Enlightened Koscheck” mode, which blinks on from time to time like a light bulb over his head. Not three minutes after giving two shits he says, “I feel so blessed to be in the position I’m in, coaching The Ultimate Fighter 12, and then to fight St-Pierre for the title. This is the biggest opportunity of my life. But winning is not the most important thing. Money isn’t either. Family is the most important thing in my life. All the rest is icing on the cake.”
Everybody has an opinion on Kos—most are unflattering. Writer Tomas Rios says, “Koscheck is a notoriously miserable human being and terrible coach.” He doesn’t seem miserable. Fellow welterweight Dan Hardy says, “He’s a fucking idiot. He’s got no filter from his brain to his mouth.” One could argue the other way on that. Coach Flynn, whom Koscheck won a wrestling national championship for at 174 pounds, says, “To be honest, Josh was more like a coach at Edinboro—if we weren’t around, he’d be keeping the kids in line. He was very mature.” But Dana White nailed it six years ago on the first TUF when Koscheck was getting ready to fight Chris Leben. He said,“I have a hard time reading Koscheck. He’s really tough to read.” That’s true to this day.
Koscheck talks a lot of shit, but that is very different from being an open book. And really, if he doesn’t win the 13 UFC fights in earning his title shot, if he doesn’t piss off 18,000 people in Montreal or act “like a crazy man” on cue, if he doesn’t hose down Chris Leben just at the right moment when the sport was taking wing, well, nobody would much care.
le of years ago, Bo Jackson told writer Michael Weinreb, “I know how to feed guys like you, with a long-handled spoon. I never let you get too close. I tell you what I want you to know, and I tell you what you want to hear.”
That’s sort of like Kos. It’s possible that it’s unconscious, but while he’s always got plenty to say, he’s also naturally exclusive. What has he really said? Exactly what he wants you to think. Having been on his own essentially since he was 16 years old, it’s apparent that he learned to keep his problems to himself along the way. The less he admitted, the more invulnerable he became. Keeping the right cats in the bag also gave him leeway as an antagonist, his favorite pastime.
Remember in that first season of the The Ultimate Fighter when Bobby South worth called Chris Leben a fatherless bastard and the house ignited in drunken hijinks and Nate Quarry did an impromptu therapy session with Leben to bolster his morale? The consensus was that South worth crossed the line, and—you might recall—Koscheck was his accomplice the whole way. Nothing strange about that, except that Koscheck was a fatherless bastard. Nobody talked about it, because he didn’t let it be known.
Koscheck has met his biological father once. “He came to where I was working at the time, and I just said, ‘You know, I’ve made it 18years without you, and I think I can make it 18 more. But leave your number, and if I need you, I’ll get in touch with you,’” he says.
His mom—Anna Spencer, a white girl who was likewise 18 years old when she became pregnant by Josh’s black father—wasn’t ready for a baby, so he was raised primarily by his grandparents, Charles and Loretta Koscheck, along with support from his aunts. It was his grandparents that got the “ornery Josh” involved in sports early onto help sort out his frenetic energy.
“I remember going to school and begging my friends for $1.25 to buy lunch, so there were a lot of circumstances back then, both financial and racial,” he says. “Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, you definitely stand out as a mulatto if you’re not a typical white American/redneck Pennsylvanian. One of the things I did to take race out of the equation was sports—football, baseball, and, obviously, wrestling. It became my way of dealing with discrimination in a primarily white community, and it made me more popular among my peers.”
While attending Waynesburg Central High School, he maintained a solid B average in the classroom and proved to be a quick learner in whatever he set his mind on. Outside the classroom, he was making a name for himself as one of the area’s greatest athletes. He never left the football field in a given game, carrying the ball 25 plus times as a star running back and then dishing out hits as a strong safety on the other side of the ball. He believes he could have gone on to play football at the college level and beyond, but wrestling was his calling.
By now, people know about Koscheck’s wrestling pedigree, about his storied 42-0 junior season at Edinboro and the national title, about him being one of maybe 100 four-time All-Americans in the history of collegiate wrestling. In the early-to-mid-aughts, Koscheck was one of the baddest mofos on the mat. He was a “program changer,” who single-handedly put Edinboro wrestling on the map. He used a rugged style, slapping and slugging his opponents, very strong and raw. The first year he made the semifinals at NCAAs, he went out and clubbed the University of Penn’s Rick Springman in the head, giving Springman a penalty point. It was that kind of thing that made Flynn tug his hair at the roots, but it didn’t matter in the end.
Koscheck still won. And he kept winning, and winning . . .
“When your hardest working guy is your best guy, and he’s a vocal leader, and he’s a prick, you’ve got something,” Flynn says. “And nobody turned it around faster than Josh. He was red-shirted his freshman year, and I don’t know what day it occurred, or exactly how, but sometime during that year he decided he wasn’t losing to these guys anymore.”
After his collegiate career, Zinkin and Bob Cook—both who’d long bemoaned the fact that there wasn’t a draft for wrestlers, and were determined to do something about it—got in contact with Koscheck while he was coaching wrestling at the University of Buffalo, and asked him to come to Fresno and study mixed martial arts at AKA.
Just like that, the second life of Koscheck was born.
“I’ll never forget, we went to see him at the freestyle nationals at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas,” Zinkin says, “and because he had to cut a lot of weight, he had a bad tournament. He walked over and held up his shoes and said, ‘You see these shoes? They’re retired now—it’s time to fight.’”
Though he had virtually no experience aside from his wrestling, Cook alerted him to the casting of TUF, and Koscheck—a raw, auto did actic kid with a chip on his shoulder—made a tape of himself speeding 120mph on his motorcycle, doing a wheelie, and he landed a spot in the house.
“Back when I did The Ultimate Fighter, nobody knew shit,” he says. “We didn’t even know if the show would be picked up. The UFC took the dice, put all their money on the line, shook it up, and threw it on the craps table, and said, ‘Please God let somebody pick this show up.’ And that’s what happened. Thank God for the UFC and Spike TV. Otherwise, none of us would be here. I wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be here sitting at the Palms talking about my career and my life.”
Looked at that way, life is a big craps table, and Koscheck is one of the most fortunate men alive. He relocated to Fresno after the show taped and has never looked back. The evolution he’s undergone as a fighter through 17 trips inside the Octagon has come from dedicated hours in the gym at AKA. Guys like Mike Swick, Jon Fitch,Ben Askren, Chuck Liddell, and Cain Velasquez are his “brothers,” and they’ve helped build each other. As such, they vow never to tear each other down.
“If there was an ultimatum given to me to fight Jon Fitch or possibly leave the UFC, I would leave the UFC,” he says. “There’s no way that’s happening.”
He’d rather rule the UFC’s Welterweight Division than leave the company. If history has a say, especially given the many succinctly timed things in his life, he sees his fight with St-Pierre as occurring at just the right moment. In 2007, when he first met GSP, Kos says he was a different person mentally. He’s mellowed now, he says, and his priorities are different in the grand scheme of things.
“At some point, I’m going to lose. GSP is going to lose. Anderson Silva is going to lose,” he says. “Maybe it won’t be fighting, but at something in life. A true champion shows they can come back from that adversity. One of the things I say is ‘Shit happens,’ and when it does, I’m right back in the gym the next day, grinding my ass off to prevent it from happening again.”
Kos has a lot more weapons in his arsenal in 2010, too, and the confidence to use them. These days Kos can out strike you. He can knock your block off like he did to Yoshiyuki Yoshida. He can harass you like he did to Anthony Johnson or exacerbate you like he did to Paul Daley. He can frustrate you by forcing things to the ground like he did to Chris Lytle. Or, he can do his level best to make you stand up—w
hich is exactly what he intends to do in his rematch with St-Pierre.
A couple of weeks later, Kos is back in Fresno. He brings his Ferrari to the strip mall where his gym is. “Sick, isn’t it?” he says.“That’s my girl right there.” Zinkin parks his Ferrari alongside Koscheck’s, and passersby—wondering what the hell’s going on—stop to take pictures. I ask him if it’s nerve racking to drive a $240K car that, if dinged, dumps appreciably in value. “Hell no,” he says. “It doesn’t make me nervous at all.”
Inside, Koscheck answers the phones when they ring. After 32 years, he’s recently got some ink on his arm that resonates with him, a biblical tattoo that reads “Joshua 1:9.” He likes the passage behind it: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified. Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Not exactly the wisdom of a heel. But heels get paid, he’ll tell you. Heels are memorable. Heels are all the more hateable because they win. Doesn’t a heel have to be strong and courageous, too?
And that’s something that both the new and old Koscheck gets about this sport—athletic gifts, hard work, and skill go so far to get you in, but being interesting is where names are made. Why squander a chance to play up your strengths, to be like Dennis Rodman, who wore leopard prints in his hair and made headlines as an indisputably talented freakshow in every city he went?
“I understand more on the entertainment side than a lot of the guys,” he says. “My thing is, there are very few fighters I hang outwith. These cage monkeys are not smart enough for me. I get offended when I’m hanging around a bunch of cage monkeys.” He does a Neanderthal impression, saying, “Ugh, I’m going to punch this guy in the face, ugh.” There’s that polarizing cockiness, that arrogant Koscheckian look that’s a cross between apathy and disdain. “Come on boys, there’s more to life than just being in a cage and giggling and hopping around like a damn monkey, you know? I put myself around business people, people who can get me relationships.”
He’s having some mischievous fun along the way. When he beat Paul Daley and whispered sweet nothings into Semtex’s ear—prompting Daley to throw away his UFC career with a post-bell sucker punch—Kos said he experienced one of the best, most orchestrated moments of his life.
“I knew that night, if they booed me, I definitely had a gameplan set up,” he says. “So I thought what I’d do to these cocksuckers if they start booing me. I’ve never seen 18,000 people just go from boos to just fucking utterly, royally pissed in three seconds . . . one,two, three. People were standing up, their eyes got big. And you could feel the tension. The hairs on your arms stood up. I thought, oh shit, I just pissed all these motherfuckers off. It was awesome! It was by far one of the greatest moments of my life. So awesome, so amazing.”
It’s not lost on him that those cocksuckers were St-Pierre’s people. In his spacious gym, among his own people, the story is different. He is just a dude. He wants you to know that. Depending on his whim, it might be the only thing he’ll let you know. In an hour, he will be rear-ended in his Ferrari on his way home. He will not pout about it or make heavy weather of it or point an accusatory finger at the FIGHT! cover jinx. Instead, he’ll tweet a photo of him and the girl who ran into him, with a message that “Life is good” and “Thank God nobody was hurt.”
“You know what? People still may hate me after they see TUF 12, they may still think I’m an asshole, and that’s their opinion, and I don’t truly care,” he says. “But all the hard work I’ve done my whole life is boiling down to one night against Georges St-Pierre. And you know what? It’s not the most important thing in my life. I know that for a fact. A belt? People will forget about a belt. People will forget about when I beat Georges St-Pierre. They will forget the champion. Now, family? I’m going to have that the rest of my life. That’s the difference between Josh Koscheck before and Josh Koscheck now.
“Nobody should judge a book until you’ve read it. What you see on TV, versus the real person—way different. Don’t judge me until you meet me or have a conversation with me, because at the end of that conversation you’re going to say, ‘This guy is down to earth. This guy is real.”’
At the end of our conversation, I can say those things with less certainty than I can this: Josh Koscheck is definitely his own man.