Monday, March 12, 2007

Koscheck’s Keys to Ending the Nightmare

By Michael DiSanto

Matchmaking is an art, not a science. There are few hard and fast rules to guide the process. Those that do exist, however, are rarely broken.

One such matchmaking axiom is to avoid pitting two highly-touted, extremely popular contenders against each other until a title is on the line or demand for the matchup has resulted in an extremely lucrative main event.

On April 7, Georges St-Pierre will defend his UFC Welterweight Championship against TUF 4 winner Matt Serra in the main event of UFC 69. But St-Pierre versus Serra is not the most intriguing matchup of the night. That honor is reserved for the grudge match between two of the UFC’s fastest rising stars – Diego Sanchez and Josh Koscheck.

It is a bout that breaks all the matchmaking rules. Then again, the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its head matchmaker, Joe Silva, are far from conventional, which is one of the reasons why the sport has taken the world by storm over the past two years.

Both Sanchez and Koscheck are wildly popular after their run on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter. Since that time, each has shown that he is a legitimate title challenger. And there is very real bad blood. Such a combination of factors screams for a prolonged buildup filled with matchup-focused marketing that culminates in a big-money pay-per-view main event.

In other words, the UFC is treating the fans to an amazing grudge match between two of its best young competitors long before the bout has reached its maximum potential. It is no different than opening a bottle of 2003 Stag’s Leap Cask 23 without cellaring it for five years.

It might be premature, but it is one hell of an experience, nonetheless.

This is a fight that may very well decide the future of the 170-lb division, or at least create a long-term rival for current 20-something kingpin, St-Pierre.

What is going to happen once the action gets underway? What must Koscheck do to defy the nearly 2.5 to 1 betting odds and secure victory?

Let’s break it down.

Don’t stray too far from your roots

With all due respect to the myriad of former Olympians who have stepped into the Octagon over the past decade, Koscheck is the Michael Jordan of mixed martial arts wrestlers. The Eastern Wrestling League Hall of Fame inductee finished in the top four in the NCAA championships each of his four years at Edinboro University, including winning 42 straight matches his junior year en route to a national championship at 174-lbs. The four-time Division I All American finished his collegiate career with an eye-popping 129-17 record.

Suffice to say, nobody in the welterweight division is going to outwrestle Kos – including Matt Hughes, B.J. Penn, St-Pierre or Sanchez.

Kos needs to use that advantage to the fullest, something he did not do when the pair locked horns in the TUF semifinals back in late 2004 (shown on television in early 2005). Instead, he chose to stand and strike with Sanchez, ostensibly due to his trepidation over fighting on the ground with an ultra-skilled submission fighter. But that was before Kos had any real training in defending submissions.

Since that time, Kos has dominated each and every opponent (including his one official loss to Drew Fickett) with his elite wrestling skills. His game plan for this bout should be no different. He needs to explode through Sanchez with dominant double-leg takedowns. Sanchez may possess excellent takedown defense, but Kos attacks with such explosive power that even guys waiting to sprawl find themselves on the canvas looking up or driven back into the fence. If the latter occurs, Kos can rely on his superb wrestling technique to execute a high single-leg takedown, a leg trip or just muscle him up and slam him to the ground.

As a result, the AKA-based fighter should be able to score takedowns at will, and that accomplishes two very important goals: it scores points with the judges and gives Sanchez a vivid reminder that Kos can physically dominate him in the wrestling arena.

For a bully like the “Nightmare,” who is one of the better frontrunners in the sport, Kos imposing his will and dominating the takedown game will frustrate Sanchez, possibly causing him to either go into a mental shell or forcing a silly mistake. In either scenario, Kos increases his chances of winning dramatically.

Don’t shoot wildly, use the standup game to set up takedowns

Anyone watching Kos’s bout with Fickett understands the importance of setting up takedowns before diving in. In that bout, Kos dominated the action for 14 minutes of the 15-minute bout.

Then, he made one fatal error.

In an attempt to score one final takedown, Kos ducked his head from well outside of striking range and sort of ran in for the double-leg takedown. Fickett, a savvy veteran, seized the opportunity to land a knee to the head that forever altered the outcome of the fight.

After living with Kos for several weeks during the taping of TUF and facing him in a two-round exhibition bout, Sanchez knows that Kos is the vastly superior wrestler. He knows that the AKA fighter can score takedowns at will. There is little doubt, therefore, that he will be looking to time a takedown attempt with a knee or a kick a la Fickett (or James Irvin versus Terry Martin).

The best way to prevent Sanchez from timing a takedown attempt with a knee or kick is to throw just enough hands to keep him guessing as to whether a takedown or another jab is coming next. Moreover, landing the jab allows Kos to step inside and shoot from a safe distance. In such instances, there won’t be enough time for Sanchez to gather his thoughts, reset himself and fire a knee before Kos takes him down.

Kos needs to be careful, however, not to fall in love with any success he experiences on the feet. There is no doubt that after two years of training with Javier Mendez and crew at AKA, he has the skills to stand and strike with Sanchez if he so chooses. But that opens the door for the Nightmare to land a big right hook or left uppercut and turn out the lights.

Granted, nobody is going to mistake Sanchez for Chuck Liddell any time soon. He did, however, drop Joe Riggs with a crushing right hook in his last outing. Sanchez’s punching power, therefore, demands respect. And Kos has a bad habit of fighting with his chin up during exchanges, particularly when exchanging blows on the inside where Sanchez is the most dangerous.

Standing and trading with Sanchez, therefore, makes little sense, even if Kos believes that he can win those exchanges 80% of the time because he can take Sanchez down and dominate the top position virtually all of the time.

Maintain ground position and start collecting taxes

Once on the ground, Kos should take a page from Tito Ortiz, meaning he should work a very methodical, deliberate ground-and-pound attack. When Ortiz faced jiu-jitsu black belt Vitor Belfort at UFC 51, he dominated the fight on the ground by maintaining a solid wrestling base and keeping Belfort flat on his back, which is a great way to control his hips and prevent submissions or sweeps.

What that means, is Kos should work hammer fists or elbows and keep Sanchez very flat as long as he fights from a closed guard. If Sanchez begins to get frustrated, he will open his guard (or transition to butterfly guard) to try and create space to work for a submission or a sweep. Most guys try to pass into side control at that point, but Sanchez has elite jiu-jitsu, so he is very dangerous during such a transition. In the first round, Kos is better off staying inside the guard and working hammer fists or elbows while controlling Sanchez’s hips.

Once the second and third rounds arrive, both fighters will be extremely lathered up with sweat, making it much more difficult to hit a submission. Also, Sanchez will begin wearing down from the sustained pounding from hammer fists and elbows. At that point, Kos can work to pass to side control when Sanchez opens his guard.

It is a conservative approach that isn’t overly crowd pleasing, but it is extremely effective, as we have seen from guys like Ortiz, Hughes and Randy Couture.

Prop him up and unleash hell

One technique that is extremely effective against skilled jiu-jitsu practitioners is to drive an opponent up against the fence after the takedown. Once there, the goal is to prop the jiu-jitsu guy’s head up against the fence and take his hips out of the equation, which again eliminates the threat of submissions. Ortiz and Couture are masters at doing just that, which is why neither man has been put in a fight-ending submission hold inside the Octagon.

If Kos can prop Sanchez’s head up against the fence, he can stack him up and begin throwing punches with bad intentions. That will force Sanchez to open his guard and take extremely risky chances to walk the fence in an attempt to stand up. In that instance, Kos can pop over Sanchez’s legs, secure the full mount and basically unleash hell in the form of unabashed ground and pound in search of a stoppage victory.

Again, Sanchez is sort of an “MMA bully,” meaning that he beats guys by dominating them physically and breaking their will with superior positioning and an unyielding ground-and-pound attack. He isn’t accustomed to overcoming adversity in fights. He isn’t used to being physically dominated.

If Kos is able to repeatedly put Sanchez on his back and keep him there, it will force Sanchez to fight from unfamiliar positions and test his mental fortitude. Sanchez may break mentally in that situation and Kos could score an impressive stoppage victory. On the other hand, Sanchez may pass the test and show extreme resolve by maintaining his composure in the face of physical domination. But in that case, Kos still wins a decision.

Dominate the takedown game, use strikes to set up takedowns without engaging in an all-out standup war, stay conservative on the ground to maintain control of Sanchez’ hips, and use the cage to smother his jiu-jitsu. If Kos does those four things, he will put an end to Sanchez’s 19-fight winning streak and place himself next in line after Matt Serra and Matt Hughes for a shot at St-Pierre’s 170-lb title.

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