More than ever, it's sink or swim for Kos

Longtime followers of MMA no doubt blanch a bit when they hear Josh Koscheck casually refer to himself as “the old man” of the UFC welterweight division.

After all, it doesn’t seem all that long ago that Koscheck and that first bunch of lovable misfits showed up and started punching doors at their McMansion in Las Vegas on the debut season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Considering the miles we’ve all put on in such a relatively short time -- plus, the impending “live” debut of TUF 15 today -- it's almost enough to make the most jaded observer want to pack his stuff and go sleep in the yard, Leben-style.

If you’ll excuse what feels like a particularly pained metaphor, perhaps Koscheck has done just that during the last few months. The consummate 170-pound villain appears to have suffered the MMA equivalent of a mid-life crisis of late, permanently uprooting from the American Kickboxing Academy and striking out on his own as he prepares for his May 5 showdown with Johny Hendricks at UFC on Fox 3.

In doing so, Koscheck has officially reached the awkward third act of his athletic career. He’s the captain of his own ship now, no longer just a fighter, but a gym owner and the architect of his own future. Having already lost twice to Georges St. Pierre he’s admitted he’s more interested in big paydays than the divisional rat race, even offering to go up to middleweight to get them. It’s odd that matchmakers have responded to that shift by setting him up with back-to-back fights against up-and-comers like Mike Pierce and Hendricks, but that’s probably a topic best left for another day.

Koscheck is far from done -- the five fights left on his relatively new UFC deal attest to that -- but whatever moves the 34-year-old has left on the board, now’s definitely the time to make them.

By leaving AKA, a team that has always taken pains to cast itself as one of the sport’s tightest-knit, in favor of his own Dethrone Base Camp squad (and burning bridges with coach Javier Mendez on the way out) Koscheck has put the bulls eye squarely on himself for the remainder of his career.

He knows his time is running short and he knows his best chance to reaffirm his status as a player at welterweight is while St. Pierre is out with a knee injury. To his credit, he also seems to understand what's at stake for him by choosing to try it on his own terms.

“I definitely have a lot to prove because everybody is looking at me like, ‘OK, he left, now what's he going to do? Is he going to be successful or is he going to fail?’” Koscheck told MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani recently. “I can guarantee that in my life, when I put my mind to something, I can usually get it accomplished.”

By blaming Mendez’s coaching for the fact that AKA has produced a litany of top contenders but only a few champions, Koscheck will take the full brunt of whatever happens next for him. If he beats Hendricks and goes on to reenergize his career, he makes it look like he had a point. If he loses, if things don’t go better for him at the Base Camp, then his words inevitably start to look like the sour grapes of a guy trying to explain to himself and everyone else why he came so close, but never captured UFC gold.

Some athletes thrive under that kind of scrutiny and maybe Koscheck is one of them. Running your own camp typically isn’t a recipe for success for fighters, but in fairness, we've never seen an in-his-prime Koscheck coached by anyone other than the guys at AKA. Maybe the change will indeed do him good. Maybe he’ll turn back the tide of new 170-pound contenders and pave his own road back to the top.

Maybe not.

Either way, it’s all on him now, and that’s probably the way the “old man” has wanted it all along.