Nine months after UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre literally broke his face, Josh Koscheck climbs back into the cage Saturday.
Koscheck (17-5) steps in for the injured Diego Sanchez against Hall of Famer Matt Hughes (46-8) in the co-main event of UFC 135 in Denver's Pepsi Center.
"I'm back," Koscheck told a media conference call Monday. "I've just got to go back out this Saturday night and prove that I'm back."
Koscheck needed surgery after GSP broke his orbital bone with a jab in the first round last December at UFC 124 in Montreal. St-Pierre went on to win a lopsided five-rounded decision, with 110 significant strikes compared to Koscheck's 16, according to FightMetric.
Koscheck, 33, is no stranger to pain.
The California-based fighter endured neck surgery as a collegiate wrestler — and hacked off his toe with a hatchet when he was four. But he says that pain didn't compare to the eye injury.
"I had a lot of nerve damage done in the face and the face is very sensitive," Koscheck said. "The nerve damage in the face magnifies the pain level in your body a lot more. It was a lot of pain. I got through it with pain pills and morphine that night.
"It was a fun experience needless to say that I don't want to go though ever again," he added dryly.
The damage was so severe that Koscheck had to drive from Montreal to Boston to have surgery after the fight, since doctors would not let him fly.
Koscheck took three months off to recover after the GSP loss — and "focus on some other areas outside of fighting" — but says he never doubted that he would fight again.
He says he went back to basics, with a special focus on head movement to cut down on the number of punches he absorbs.
A native of Fresno, he worked with American Kickboxing Academy teammates like Daniel Cormier, Muhammed (King Mo) Lawal, Luke Rockhold and Mike Pyle in San Jose as they prepared for a recent Strikeforce card.
For Koscheck, Saturday marks his 19th fight in the UFC. The sharp-tongued welterweight has kept busy since making his mark as one of the villains of Season 1 of "The Ultimate Fighter."
He volunteered to replace Sanchez and acknowledged he had considered moving up to middleweight earlier this year to stay busy since most of the top 170-pounders were booked up.
"Fighting Matt Hughes is a good comeback fight for me," said Koscheck. "I think the fans deserved this fight a long time ago. Now we're getting the opportunity to do it."
Hughes said he was originally told he would be fighting Jon Fitch in place of Sanchez, but then it was changed to Koscheck.
The 37-year-old Hughes will be making his 25th appearance in the UFC — and the first since B.J. Penn knocked him out in just 21 seconds at UFC 123 last November.
Hughes and Penn have since trained together.
"He's just got a lot to offer," Hughes said of Penn, a former lightweight and welterweight champion. "He's a very, very intelligent fighter, grappler."
The fighting farmer from Hillsboro, Ill., says competition is what keeps him involved in the sport these days.
"I consider myself a lucky man. I love going to the gym every day — twice a day," explained Hughes
"I love travelling with my buddies. All in all, it's a great lifestyle."
Saturday's fight is the last on Hughes' current contract but he says the outcome won't affect his fighting future.
"I'll talk to the UFC and we'll figure out what we want to do."