Less than three weeks ago, Josh Koscheck was taking his grandfather for a cruise in his Ferrari when his manager, Bob Cook, called and asked him if he was interested in fighting Matt Hughes. Hughes’ original opponent, Diego Sanchez, had suffered a broken hand and had to withdraw from the fight.
Of course the answer to that would be yes under normal circumstances, since Koscheck has wanted the fight as long as anyone can remember.
But this time there was a catch. The fight would be 19 days away.
"I didn’t even hesitate," Koscheck said. "I didn’t even realize he was fighting Diego Sanchez. I was out of the loop. He said, `It’s 19 days away.’ I said, `Let’s do it. I’m in shape.’ This is a big fight for Matt Hughes and it’s a big fight for me."
A day later, the bout between Koscheck and the former two-time UFC welterweight champion was announced as the new co-main event for Saturday night’s UFC 135 pay–per-view at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
Koscheck (15-5) was not Dana White’s choice for a replacement. As soon as White learned Sanchez had broken his hand, he called Cook about the availability of Jon Fitch, Koscheck’s teammate at the American Kickboxing Academy camp. Fitch, recovering from surgery from a torn rotator cuff, wasn’t going to be ready.
"I texted Dana White that day and wrote, `It’s your favorite son, Kos, I’d like to fight with Matt Hughes," Koscheck said.
To add pressure to make his dream fight with Hughes happen, after Koscheck sent White the text, he revealed it publicly and said he was ready, willing and able to do the fight. This made it difficult for Hughes (46-8) to turn it down, because Koscheck was clearly the best available opponent who didn’t already have a big-name upcoming fight.
Even though Hughes is no longer the powerhouse that ruled the division for five years, nor is he a title contender coming off a 21-second loss to B.J. Penn in his last fight in November, Hughes is still one of the biggest names to the public at welterweight.
He was champion in 2005 when UFC first got on television and he coached the second season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” As one of the original UFC stars created by television exposure, Hughes has an enduring legacy with the current fan base. He was one of the first fighters to get a national endorsement deal, with Toyo Tires, and his 2006 first-round demolition of Royce Gracie was, at the time, the most successful non-boxing pay-per-view fight in history.
In taking the fight, Koshceck gave up fighting in his home-away-from-home, San Jose, where he was earmarked to be on UFC’s debut card at the HP Pavilion on Nov. 19. While he grew up in the small town of Waynesburg, Penn., and now owns a home and an American Kickboxing Academy franchise gym in Fresno, Calif., San Jose has been his training base since 2005.
Koscheck been teased on Twitter about the idea of fighting as a middleweight in San Jose, causing a lot of speculation as to who his opponent would be.
"I was definitely looking at fighting at 185, but it was because everyone at 170 was already tied up," Koscheck said. "There was nobody available I was eager to fight. I told my managers I’d love to do 185 with Chris Leben [reprising a grudge match off the debut season o ‘TUF’], or Wanderlei Silva. I was just looking for a big fight. Things happen for a reason."
A consensus top-10 welterweight for several years, Koscheck is coming off the worst injury of his career, a broken right orbital bone suffered in his Dec. 11 fight in Montreal against Georges St. Pierre in a losing title challenge.
Koscheck suffered the injury in the first round, and by the second round was having trouble seeing out of his eye even though he continually told the doctors he was fine. He was having no luck in the fight and was down heavily on the scorecards, but he refused to quit even though he concedes the injury was the single most painful thing he’d ever suffered in his life, both in and after the fight.
"I was in a lot of pain, and had a couple of surgeries," Koscheck said about the fight aftermath. "I had neck surgery in college [fusion of the C-5 and C-6 vertebrae]. When I was four years old, I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing with a hatchet and cut off my toe. But my pain in both of those surgeries couldn’t compare to this one. There are so many nerves in the face, the pain level is a lot more.
“I got through it via pain pills and morphine that night. It was a fun experience, needless to say that I don’t want to go through that again. It taught me to move my head and not get punched as much. I’m blessed to be back in the Octagon again."
While the eye damage was such that it could have been career threatening, he said there was never a moment where he thought he wasn’t coming back.
"I always knew I was coming back regardless of the outcome of what the doctors said," he said. "The doctor that I saw in Boston [Dr. Maria Tribulis] was amazing. She didn’t have to put any new lacerations on my face. She went into an old cut. She’s worked with a lot of great athletes over the years, with the Patriots and other sports teams in Boston. She did a great job."
Koscheck has claimed that he’s better than Hughes in every single aspect of the sport. Hughes has often faced people with better stand-up, but his ability to implement his wrestling game won him most of those fights. And while both were NCAA All-Americans in wrestling, Koscheck had the better collegiate career, placing top four in the nationals in all four years of competition, including winning the 2001 NCAA title at 174 pounds. Hughes never placed higher than fifth in the nation.
He was completely out of the gym for three months. Even running was painful for awhile. When he started back training, he first focused on low-impact jiu-jitsu, focusing on ground technique. But in recent months, he’s been back to hard training, in particular the all-out sparring sessions with the likes of Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold and King Mo Lawal, in helping all of them prepare for their fights on Sept. 10.
So he said he’s got no issues with taking a punch, and physically is ready for a fight.
"I was doing everything they were doing," he said. "I’ve been training for quite a while. This is a good comeback fight for me. I think fans deserved this fight a long time ago and now we’re getting the opportunity."