Koscheck becomes a man without a country

Here he comes again: All that matters to Josh Koscheck is that you keep talking about him. Dustin Bradford/Icon SMI

Josh Koscheck invites you to hate him. Why? Because he was one of the earliest subscribers to the “as long as you care” camp. If you can’t stand him, that’s like saying you won’t miss the chance to see him get his head smashed in. That’s like saying you love him.

But something about Koscheck’s heel mode has never seemed right. When he was calling Chris Leben a “fatherless bastard” on the first season of the “Ultimate Fighter,” he just came off like your ordinary punk. By the time he was coaching opposite Georges St. Pierre on the show 11 seasons later, his demeanor had only been tweaked by success -- it was cockiness with actual backing. This version, the entrepreneurial one, had a Ferrari in his garage in Fresno; the first version had just a few trophies from his collegiate wrestling days at Edinboro University.

Does any of this make for a heel? Definitely annoying, maybe shallow. If we’re talking heels heels, Koscheck is certainly well heeled and open about it. Koscheck has always been hard to know aside from his materialistic desires. Even his close friends, the ones who know the “real” Koscheck, are generally business people where real is often interdistinguishable from the alternative.

But think about that, anyway -- if only specific VIPs know the other side of Koscheck, and it’s a circle that’s so tight and protected from commoners as to become elitist, doesn’t that amount to the same thing?

It’s a strange place to have to go in search of a genuine center. But that’s Koscheck -- or as much of him as we can glean.

Yet heel or not, he’s once again making his way back up the welterweight rungs as a sort of man without a country. He lost his title bid to Georges St. Pierre in December 2010, effectively turning him into the Rich Franklin of the welterweight division. As he recovered from broken orbital bones suffered in the St. Pierre bout, his options were limited to this: migrate or guard the gate. By the time Koscheck resurfaced to fight Matt Hughes nine months later, he was talking about exclusive “big fights” or a possible run in the middleweight division. This was Franklin all over again (only, you know, he was threatening to sue Stephan Bonnar).

Then things changed.

With St. Pierre’s knee injury, the introduction of an interim belt, and a victory over Mike Pierce at UFC 143, Koscheck appears to be neither gatekeeper nor division-hopper. Instead he appears again as a contender. And just like that he will fight Johny Hendricks in May in a bout with significant ties to another title shot.

In this way, Dan Hardy might have touched on more than he knew when he said that Koscheck was an “unflushable.” Think the idea of Koscheck/St. Pierre III isn’t exciting? Kos couldn't care less of what you think. He even went so far as to say he hoped St. Pierre would never fully recover from knee surgery. If you can’t beat them, hope for divine intervention.

But here’s where things get different -- this time, as Koscheck makes his way back, he’ll do it as a lone wolf. He revealed after the Pierce fight that he was no longer training at his long-time hub in San Jose, Calif., the American Kickboxing Academy -- that he was now a full-time member of himself in Fresno. Though this feels like the way it should be, AKA has always been the sweet side of Koscheck’s loyalties. This was what kept him from looking like a bounty hunter with peroxide curls -- training partners Jon Fitch and Mike Swick were his brothers. They were part of his “inner-circle,” part of the Zinkin bond.

Now they are separate. And even though they're no longer gymmates, Koscheck still contends that he’d sooner retire than fight Fitch. A little mystery toward the deeper chords of brotherhood? Maybe. But if you listen to what Koscheck has been saying for the last couple of years -- all this braggadocio stuff about being a “gold-digger, baby” -- you’d have to wonder if loyalties would tend toward Fitch or Benjamin Franklin if presented.

Perhaps then we’ll know if he’s a true heel or a man of very strict guns and principles. Because right now he’s a prolific fighter who we love to hate, yet who’s smart enough to know exactly how reversible that phrase is.

And the strange thing is, at 34 years old and entering his 20th UFC fight since 2005, Koscheck might finally be coming into Koscheck. Here’s a guy who left AKA to go the course alone, who is inviting New Jersey to make like Montreal and give him full-throttle hate, and who, despite it all, is a win away from perhaps forcing a fight on the public that virtually nobody other than he himself wants. Well, you know who he caters to, and it isn’t the public.

Only it sort of is. By daring you to hate him, he’s ensuring that you at least care. And that’s a pretty calculated heel if there’s ever been one.