It has been three and a half years since Georges St. Pierre and Josh Koscheck met for the first time at UFC 74. St. Pierre was fresh off his shocking upset loss at the hands of Matt Serra. On the other end of the spectrum, Koscheck was on a five fight win streak and coming off the biggest win of his young career against Diego Sanchez.
The Serra loss had led to the predictable MMA fan reaction by many that GSP was never as good as the hype. Some fans had questioned St. Pierre's heart since his loss in his first fight with Matt Hughes when he was so intimidated by the long time champion that he couldn't look him in the eyes. Then there was a situation one fight before Hughes when St. Pierre was ready to give up after a tough first round against B.J. Penn. Tapping out due to strikes against Serra only added to the questioning of his heart and now added new questions about his chin.
Koscheck seemed to improve by leaps and bounds every time he stepped into the cage and coupling that with a tremendous wrestling pedigree had many convinced that Kos could pull off the win. This, of course, ignored the reality of GSP having handled Matt Hughes in their rematch and an unbelievable beating of Frank Trigg, both tremendous MMA wrestlers. Still, Koscheck was young and developing while both Trigg and Hughes were guys likely past their best days. Koscheck had youth, confidence and he was ready to get in GSP's head. From a 5 Ounces of Pain piece before UFC 74 explaining why Koscheck would win:
If he was nervous for Serra then don’t you think he might be scared shitless of Koscheck, a fighter who has an inane ability of making good fighters look bad?
GSP is a good wrestler with good submissions but his greatest strength is his striking. The concern is that Koscheck is essentially the old New Jersey Devils of the UFC.
The Devils utilized the trap as a way to neutralize an opposing team’s skating ability and bring their offense to a screeching halt. The end result was usually some very boring hockey. When Koscheck hits one of his shots and gets a fighter on their back, it’s the same idea.
Over at Bloody Elbow, Luke Thomas represented the other side of the coin. He made a clear case for GSP winning the fight:
GSP has shown fragility in the past, this much is true. He looked nervous against Hughes the first time they fought and paid the price for it. But what happened after that? GSP became an unstoppable force in the welterweight division. And what happened after BJ turned his face into hamburger in the first round of their fight? He came back to pressure the The Prodigy, proving he wanted the fight more that night with huge takedowns and a willingness to exchange in the pocket. What this means is that GSP is susceptible to error and more importantly, susceptible to failure. He's a fighter so gifted that he's got very little preparation for certain forms of adversity because he's never seen what they look like. He's excelled to the top without much resistance, so when resistance actually comes his way, he can be overwhelmed. But the key - and this is the whole key to GSP - is that he uses negative experiences as learning experiences better than anyone in the game. He is a student of the game at heart. Most of the time he spends learning how to win and because he's so good, that takes him very far. But to be a champion - and as fate would have it, to remain a champion - you have to know how to work through challenges and persevere. That's something GSP has learned on the job.
Sam believes Matt Serra exposed a GSP too mentally fragile to handle our expectations and the position as top dog. I believe Matt Serra showed GSP just how much harder he has to work. I believe that is where Sam and I are truly divided. We probably both agree GSP is the more talented fighter, but we don't agree about his mental ability. It's a fight and anything can happen at UFC 74. Kos can come out like a bat out of hell and race through GSP, proving Sam totally correct. For my money, though, I don't think that's going to happen. If GSP is on his game and we see a GSP who is prepared and focused, this fight isn't even going to be close.
St. Pierre would go on to not only avoid Koscheck's takedowns, but he simply outwrestled him. GSP hit takedowns of his own and completely controlled the grappling game. So all the concern about GSP's mental fragility and his vulnerability to the takedowns of Koscheck seemed to be for nothing and GSP has not looked back since using the Kos fight as the first of what currently sits at seven consecutive wins.
Koscheck has not been able to find consistent success since the loss to St. Pierre. He rebounded with a pair of wins over Dustin Hazelett and Chris Lytle before agreeing to step in on late notice against Thiago Alves. Alves battered Koscheck to hand him his third career loss. Josh then had a tremendous knockout of Yoshiyuki Yoshida but his love of his improving (but still rudimentary) striking led to a sloppy punch that got him knocked out by Paulo Thiago in a huge upset. The poor form shown by Koscheck led to me writing a piece on just how his technique failed him, an idea that I revisited recently on Bloody Elbow when talking about how GSP's boxing trainer Freddie Roach predicted that Koscheck would get knocked out because of his tendency to "jump in" with his punches. Koscheck has picked up three straight wins coming into Saturday night's bout but there are reasons to question the true "meaning" of all three.
So here we are, heading toward 2011, and we're preparing to watch the two men rematch after a season of coaching The Ultimate Fighter. And yet again we're talking about the same storylines. Koscheck feels that he intimidates GSP, he focused on it during TUF and he is talking openly about it to the media. For his part, St. Pierre tells ESPN that he is afraid, but he embraces the fear:
"I don't hide that I'm nervous, that I'm scared," St. Pierre told ESPN.com. "But I'm at my best when I have that feeling. I embrace it.
"Josh Koscheck doesn't embrace it," St. Pierre said. "He's not like me.
"From the outside, [Koscheck] wants to look like a bully, like a guy who can bully me around," St. Pierre said. "But inside, he is very worried. He's very insecure about himself.
"That's why he acts like this. He tries to insult me, to make me worry. But in reality, he's the one who's worried; he's the one who's nervous too."
And this might be the true evolution in Georges' game. He has improved technically, but mentally he is learning to embrace the feelings that used to come close to breaking him and turn them into a positive. A mentally fragile man likely does not come out against B.J. Penn in the rematch and demolish him despite having had trouble with him in their first encounter. Similarly, Georges ran through Matt Serra like a man possessed in their rematch. Georges figures out what he is afraid of and how to defeat it.
In addition to saying he will beat GSP mentally, Koscheck has made it clear that he is "not just a wrestler anymore" and plans to beat St. Pierre standing and on the ground. Of course, this is very likely just talk to open Georges up to the takedown. But it is true that Koscheck has worked on his overall game. There are still big technical holes in his striking game, and if he plays around on the feet too long Georges will exploit them. But he is just good enough standing to try to play there long enough to set up takedown attempts rather than being as obvious as he was in their first meeting.
Both men have evolved since August of 2007. Both have picked up new tricks, patched holes in their game and they are better for the work they have put in. On Saturday night we'll see if all that work has changed the outcome or if St. Pierre can embrace the fear to continue on as the best welterweight in the world.