MONTREAL – It's going to be the same, only different, when Georges St. Pierre and Josh Koscheck meet on Saturday for the Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title in the main event of UFC 124 at the Bell Centre.
Koscheck was developing his reputation as the top villain in mixed martial arts when he met St. Pierre at UFC 74 in Las Vegas in 2007, but he still was a neophyte in terms of experience in the cage. St. Pierre won a unanimous decision in a bout that largely was a wrestling exhibition.
They'll meet again as vastly different athletes on Saturday in front of a likely record live crowd and a pay-per-view audience that could tickle 1 million. The names are the same, but their games are not. Rarely do athletes at the highest level of a professional sport change their games as profoundly as Koscheck and St. Pierre.
Koscheck now is as feared as much by opponents for his striking as he is for his wrestling, having devoted himself to becoming a threat in all areas.
"He was still very much in the early stages of his MMA career [when they fought before]," Koscheck coach Bob Cook said. "He was fighting at a pretty high level even then, but he was still trying to figure it out and learn it."
Koscheck realized after that fight that in order to compete in the upper echelon of the UFC, he would need to diversify his game. As a result, he spent long hours in the gym, drilling his standup in an attempt to add a dimension his game lacked.
Without a respectable standup game, he was like a golfer who couldn't putt. He wasn't going to beat the division's elite men with just his wrestling.
"His confidence started to grow when he knew he could rely on his hands," Cook said.
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And within a year, Koscheck's hands quickly became lethal weapons. He knocked out Yoshiyuki Yoshida on Dec. 10, 2008, in one of the more memorable knockouts of recent vintage and proved opponents would have to be wary of more than just his wrestling.
He has gotten so comfortable fighting on his feet that he is predicting a first-round stoppage of the man whom many believe is the world's top fighter.
"I plan to piss 23,000 people off Saturday by knocking [St. Pierre] out," Koscheck said.
Koscheck, though, won't find the same man standing across from him on Saturday that he did in 2007. St. Pierre, too, has evolved. The UFC, which often likes to add a name to its events for marketing purposes, could easily have dubbed UFC 124 "Evolution" as a nod to the development of the overall games of both main event participants.
No word better describes the process both Koscheck and St. Pierre have gone through since last they met.
St. Pierre was coming off a stunning knockout loss to Matt Serra at UFC 69 when he met Koscheck at UFC 74. St. Pierre clearly was a big-time talent, but he had a lot of questions to answer at that stage of his career.
St. Pierre changed many of those who were closest to him, feeling too many told him what they thought he wanted to hear rather than what he actually needed to hear. Like Koscheck, he threw himself into his training in a search for answers.
He literally traveled the world seeking knowledge. While he's one of the greatest athletes in the sport, his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach, John Danaher, said it's St. Pierre's ability to absorb coaching that makes him so unique.
"He's mastered the art of learning," said Danaher, a black belt under Renzo Gracie. "His ability to learn is what has helped him to continue to make progress over time. Most professional mixed martial artists have a certain skill set that is associated with them, and they use that and sustain themselves throughout their careers with that. But he's one of the few who continues to change, modify and adapt and bring in new techniques over time."
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He's meticulous when it comes to doing things correctly. And so, even though he had routed the hard-punching Dan Hardy at UFC 111, the first thing he did when he returned to the locker room was get onto the floor and question Danaher about mistakes he made when going for an arm bar submission in the first round.
That kind of obsessive drive is what has made him great. And though he has come under some criticism recently because he has failed to finish either of his last two fights, he hasn't let that bother him.
He said Hardy deserves credit for fighting his way out of the arm bar but also said that fighting is a matter of using the right tool and taking what it available.
"In warfare, if you want to kill a human being, you're going to use a gun," St. Pierre said. "You're not going to use an atomic bomb. When you want to explode a car, you're going to use a bazooka. You're not going to use a bomb. Everything I do, there is a place for it.
"If I'm fighting one type of guy, I'm going to do certain things to beat him. I'm not going to use all my cards and show the whole world what I've got. Every time I step into the Octagon, everything I do, I've been thinking about it. "
But like Koscheck, who alternately on Wednesday predicted either a first- or second-round knockout, St. Pierre expects an early ending on Saturday.
"The goal for this fight for me is being able to finish Josh Koscheck," St. Pierre said. "The last time I fought him I won by decision, but this time I want to take him out, either by knockout or submission."
Koscheck has the same goal and has repeatedly tried to goad St. Pierre into a toe-to-toe slugfest.
"I'd rather get knocked out than win a boring decision," Koscheck said, though he's unlikely to turn down the belt should he win the most boring decision in UFC history on Saturday.
Significantly, he said proudly, he isn't the same man he was when he lost to St. Pierre in 2007.
Neither, though, is St. Pierre. And that's the intrigue in the rematch.
Both men have undertaken significant career transformations and are vastly better, more complete fighters than they were when they met at UFC 74.
The names are the same, but the script should be totally different.
- Josh Koscheck