Josh Koscheck, Rashad Evans and Michael Bisping all leave major footprints on the growth of the sport

Michael Bisping

The retirement of Josh Koscheck and Rashad Evans, and Michael Bisping a few weeks ago, is almost apropos with it being the probable end of The Ultimate Fighter era.

There’s some sort of a full circle arc with this likely being the last year of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, and the recent retirements of three of the stars who were keys in the early seasons that put both the show, and the UFC itself, on the television map.

The recent retirement of Josh Koscheck, followed by last Monday’s retirement of Rashad Evans, came several weeks after the retirement of Michael Bisping.

All three had obvious things in common. They were enduring stars who reached main event status and garnered championship fights coming off the first three seasons of the show. All three were not liked coming out of the show, and parlayed fans disliking them, and at times hating them, into being significant drawing cards and being on top of major pay-per-view shows.

They had similar beginnings. Similar heydays. And similar endings, and all at roughly the same time.

Koscheck was one of the stars of the first and really the most important season of the show. He didn’t win the season, but came out of it as a star. Evans and Bisping were winners of seasons two and three, and along with Forrest Griffin, people who got their first start on the show and ended up being major stars and ultimately UFC champions.

The Ultimate Fighter is in many ways like an aging television show limping to the finish line; however, like the end of many fighters careers, it is impossible to overplay its importance in the history of the sport.

The economic reality of years 2001-2004 of the White/Fertitta era was that it was simply impossible to turn a profit on the UFC without television. And nobody in television wanted to touch the UFC with a ten-foot pole. Lorenzo Fertitta was ready to throw in the towel, and they even got word out that the company was for sale. As silly as this sounds in an era of multiple companies and multiple events on television almost every week, it wasn’t so long ago that television was scared to death of the sport.

Before TUF, there was only one nibble. Fox Sports Net dipped its toe in the water in 2002 with a UFC episode of its old Best Damn Sports Show Period. There were a number of ground rules. First, they wouldn’t air it live, for fear something bad would happen. Second, they didn’t want any of the “boring ground stuff,” so instead of putting a big name fight on, they put two sluggers out there: a 20-year-old Robbie Lawler against Steve Berger. The ratings were great, but the stigma against the sport was still greater. For more than two years, even with that track record, nobody in television would touch the UFC.

They managed to get Spike TV to air a reality show about the sport, but it was the UFC, not Spike, that paid for all production. It was at first, almost a time buy.

The first season of TUF aired in 2005, and the ratings were strong from the start for a show that aired at about 11:10 p.m., Monday night. It did luck into having a great lead-in, WWE’s Monday Night Raw.

Midway through the season, the show’s star and lead villain, Chris Leben got into a 3 a.m. alcohol-fueled confrontation with Bobby Southworth and Koscheck, two teammates from AKA in San Jose. The result was an old-school blood feud, with them announcing Leben vs. Koscheck and airing interviews where both men vowed to do the other in. The irony is that the actions of Koscheck and Southworth, particularly Southworth making fun of Leben growing up without a father, made he and Koscheck even more hated than Leben.

Over two million people watched the next episode of the show, largely to see Leben knock out Koscheck. But that didn’t happen. Koscheck, a former NCAA champion wrestler, used his wrestling to dominate the fight and was never hurt, winning a decision.

Seeing fighters in the reality show setting made viewers think they knew them as more than just gladiators, but as people. Koscheck they perceived was a cocky jerk, a label that followed him for the rest of his career. Whether he liked it or hated it personally, he understood it. While he never won a championship in UFC, he beat major stars like Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, Diego Sanchez and Matt Hughes. He also got two fights with the best welterweight of all-time, Georges St-Pierre, the second being a major PPV blockbuster.

And very suddenly, it was over. On May 5, 2012, Koscheck lost a split decision to Johny Hendricks, yet another fighter who retired last week. The fight, against a future champion, could have gone either way. On that day, Koscheck was at the level of any fighter in the division, with the exception of St-Pierre. He was strongly favored against Lawler in his next fight. He took a brutal beating, and suddenly, his chin was gone.

His next fight was against Tyron Woodley. While Woodley has power, Koscheck was put down by every punch that landed solid that night, and finished in the first round. He lost his last five fights, all by stoppage, four in the first round. He was a very different fighter against Woodley than he had been before, and that was nearly five years ago. Like with Evans, there was really nobody questioning whether he was making the right decision.

Evans showed up on season two. Like Koscheck, he was a high level college wrestler. He wasn’t an NCAA champion, but he started at Michigan State, went to the NCAA tournament. and was one of only three wrestlers to defeat Greg Jones, who was one of the greatest college wrestlers of that era.

He also quickly became a villain, when Matt Hughes, one of the coaches, didn’t like his showboating and naturally cocky personality. Evans was a small heavyweight. He wrestled in college at 174 pounds. But he won the tournament, and was main eventing shows immediately as a light heavyweight.

Evans was unbeaten and then, after throwing an incredible punch that would have knocked out a water buffalo, he put down Chuck Liddell. Liddell, at the time, was the most popular fighter in the company. Most saw Evans as a stepping stone for Liddell to beat en route to regaining his light heavyweight title. Instead, the win over Liddell put Evans on the road to the championship, and being disliked even more.

Like Koscheck, and even more Bisping, Evans in his prime would be heavily booed in every fight. His crime was first raising the ire of Hughes, whose hard working farmer-turned-powerhouse fighter narrative made him popular with the masses. Then Evans, in succession, knocked out the two most popular fighters in the company at the time in Liddell and Griffin, the latter winning him the light heavyweight title.

Evans title reign was short, as he was knocked out by Lyoto Machida in his first title defense.

But after his lone title run, he was one of the best at the art of building a fight. The fireworks off coaching the highest-rated season of TUF in its history, opposite Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, led to the main event of UFC 114. Evans’ decision win over Jackson was the most successful PPV in company history that wasn’t headlined by a championship fight, a record that stood until Conor McGregor came along.

Perhaps Evans’ most impressive performance was on the Jan. 28, 2012, FOX special, where he spent five rounds out-wrestling and out-striking former NCAA champion Phil Davis, to lead to a fight with Jon Jones.

Jones vs. Evans was noteworthy for its back story. Jones was a newcomer in the sport with clearly amazing potential when he was invited into the Greg Jackson camp, where Evans was not just the star fighter, but in the same weight class. The two at times trained together, and while somewhat embellished for storyline purposes, they were portrayed as being the established superstar who was grooming the next superstar.

Evans had earned a title shot at Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, and then blew out his knee. As the story went, with Evans’ blessing, Jones stepped in and became the youngest champion in UFC history by stopping Rua.

As teammates, both made it clear that they would never fight. Then Jones indicated he would consider it, Evans took it as an insult, and eventually left the camp and headed to Florida. Jones vs. Evans, at UFC 145, was a major fight that changed the public’s perception of both men.

While a lot of issues with Jones surfaced as the years went on, and insiders knew trouble was coming, Jones’ reputation was untarnished to the public. He was a popular fighter who, with the combination of his great wrestling and amazing reach, was largely expected to be one of the best fighters in history. Fans had jumped on his bandwagon before he won the title, and his popularity was growing with every dominant win. Evans, on the other hand, was never liked, stemming from his earlier wins over popular fighters and then even worse from the build to the Rampage Jackson fight.

But in the build to the match, it was Evans who hinted that Jones was not who people thought he was. Fans saw betrayal of a friend with the idea Jones would consider fighting Evans, and that it was Evans who had to leave his home camp after mentoring him and endorsing him when Jones took his own spot and won the championship.

Evans from that point on became a somewhat sympathetic figure, and Jones’ crowd reactions changed greatly. It didn’t matter in the cage, as Jones really was as good as his hype suggested. Even coming off Evans’ most impressive win, he, like everyone else, couldn’t solve the riddle of Jones’ reach and wrestling. Jones controlled the fight to a one-sided win.

Like Koscheck, Evans’ career ended with five straight losses. After ten years as a headline fighter, on June 9, Evans’ fight with Anthony Smith was not only a preliminary affair, it wasn’t even on FOX Sports 1, and instead aired on Fight Pass. Evans lost in 53 seconds.

Bisping was the fighting star of the third season of TUF, and also became an immediate villain to the crowd.

The Englishman was a big talker, and on the show, became the rival of Matt Hamill, a deaf fighter. The natural sympathy to Hamill’s overcoming his handicap would have made it almost impossible for his chief adversary to be anything but hated.

Then, in London, when Bisping vs. Hamill finally happened, Bisping was awarded a decision in one of the most-watched fights in MMA televised history. Most thought Hamill won. To Americans, this deaf overachiever went to England, fought the hometown star, beat him, and then was robbed of the decision. Any chance for Bisping to be liked in the U.S. went out the window. Still, he became the face of MMA in the U.K. for many years, and has to be considered the key figure in jump starting the popularity of the UFC brand.

As the years went on, Bisping understood his role and went with it. Like with Koscheck and Evans, he parlayed it into a career of big fights.

Bisping was the ultimate survivor, a fighter at first knocked for being overrated. But he spent years near the top of the light heavyweight, and then the middleweight division. He kept piling up wins and suddenly he was chasing the UFC record for most victories, a record he currently co-owns with St-Pierre and Donald Cerrone.

Time after time, he worked his way to where he was one fight away from a title shot. But he constantly lost when that opportunity was at stake.

Bisping often brought up his hatred for steroid users. While some called it excuse making, there is a reality in hindsight.

With the exception of Evans, every fighter who beat him from his 2004 debut until a 2014 loss to Tim Kennedy, either had drug testing issues or was using testosterone replacement therapy, which while legal, was a clear performance enhancer.

His career story had its happy ending. As a late replacement for Chris Weidman, and with little training, he was given a shot at middleweight champion Luke Rockhold. Rockhold had dominated him previously, and if anything, this was thought to be even more one-sided with the feeling age was catching up to him and he had no camp.

Bisping knocked out Rockhold in one of the biggest championship upsets in history. Bisping had a late career run of beating Anderson Silva, Rockhold and avenging his most famous loss to Dan Henderson, before St-Pierre beat him to take his championship.

While always controversial because of how brash he is, Bisping is likely to remain with the sport as a colorful broadcaster, probably as a legend, and as a surefire Hall of Famer. Evans, who beat both Griffin and Bisping, should probably be viewed as the best fighter ever to come out of The Ultimate Fighter. He’s done analyst work for the sport, and fared well. He’s not a surefire Hall of Famer, but his career is very worthy of discussion at that level.

Koscheck never won a championship, but his prime was in the St-Pierre era. Compared to the far-more-exciting Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar fight, which springboarded the success of the UFC, the importance of Koscheck vs. Leben, the first UFC fight that became mainstream water cooler talk, is largely forgotten. But all three were important as building blocks of the evolution of the sport.

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