"In my eyes he (Lamas) is the next (top) contender, so I knock him down and put myself right back where I was last year." - Erik Koch
Erik Koch is still nicknamed “New Breed,” and he’s still in the top 15 when it comes to youngest fighters in the UFC, but it’s safe to say that after the 2012 he went through, the 24-year-old has aged a bit more than he normally would have.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” Koch chuckles. “Not physically, but mentally and emotionally it was a rollercoaster of a year.”
After a late-2011 injury scrapped him from a UFC 143 bout in February, things brightened considerably when he was selected to face featherweight champion Jose Aldo at UFC 149 in July, but that fight bit the dust when Aldo withdrew due to injury. Rescheduled for UFC 153 in Brazil last October, this time it was Koch pulling out after suffering a knee injury. Rollercoaster? Oh yeah.
“It was a very frustrating time for me. It was literally like bi-polar – super awesome one day, and then all this stuff happening and it was my lowest of my low. But I’ve got such a good backup support system: my coaches, my teammates at Roufusport, my people back home in Iowa; everybody helped support me and got me back to where I wanted to be, and now, I still want that title, but I just want to fight more than anything. I want to get in there and get fights going, and make people remember who “New Breed” is.”
Koch gets his chance on FOX this Saturday night in Chicago against fellow contender Ricardo Lamas. Sure, there’s no title on the line, as Aldo has moved on to face Frankie Edgar next week in the main event of UFC 156, and no official word of this even being a title eliminator. But to Koch, it’s still the biggest fight of his career, and one he’s intent on making a statement in.
“Everybody keeps talking about the title, and this is a good title contender fight, but I’m not looking at it like that,” he said. “Lamas is a really tough dude and I’m not looking past him. It’s a fight for me to show everybody that I’m back and I want to get going; I want to start the year off right. This is me just getting back on track.”
And despite the setbacks that have kept him out of action since his September 2011 win over Jonathan Brookins, Koch is not the kind of guy you should count out. Yeah, 2012 was rough, but he’s been through rougher times. How rough? How about being forced to make it on your own after deciding at 17 that you were going to leave high school and become a professional fighter? That’s rough.
“It did not go over with the parents well,” recalled Koch when asked his parents’ reaction to his decision to drop out of school to chase his prizefighting dream. “My parents have always told me and my brother that whatever makes us happy, do what you do. And I had a really good childhood, a really good family, but it was just one of those things. I was so obsessed with MMA that I couldn’t keep my mind on school and stuff like that. And it was a brash decision when I was young, my parents didn’t like it, I got kicked out for it, and I had to deal with some consequences. But through even being homeless and not having a place to live, making it on my own and making it work in this sport showed them how dedicated and how crazy about it I was. I think after that I had their support a hundred percent, and now they support me more than anybody else.”
To call Koch’s decision a gutsy one would be underselling it quite a bit. But fighters are a different breed, and when you find someone willing to give up everything in order to pursue life in the toughest of sports, that’s a real fighter. And Koch, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa native, was all in, willing to deal with tremendous hardships to make it.
“I lived all over the place,” said Koch of those early days. “Me and my friend Derek, he had problems at home too, and there literally were days, weeks, and months that I lived out of a car. What’s funny is it always seems like winter too. (Laughs) I don’t even know why, but it was always winter when it happened, and it sucked.”
When Koch wasn’t living out of a car, he was finding a place to sleep in local parks, but he never wavered.
“I said I’m gonna make it work, and I did. I kept going to practice, kept learning, kept getting better and started taking fights, and it all worked out. I wouldn’t take any of it back now because look where I’m at.”
Koch turned pro in 2007 at the age of 18, won his first nine fights before a decision loss to Chad Mendes in a 2010 WEC bout, and he hasn’t lost since. Needless to say, he has no regrets.
“I’m a stubborn guy, we’ve got a stubborn family, and I stuck it out, pushed through, and I honestly think that’s what built what I am today.”
What he is today is one of the best featherweights in the world, and a fighter that will only get better as time goes on. But as far as he’s concerned, the time to be at his best is now, and he’s ready to test that theory against Lamas, who emerged from the pack with his three straight wins over Matt Grice, Cub Swanson, and Hatsu Hioki.
“He’s a big featherweight, a strong featherweight, and he’s a grinder,” said Koch. “He’s never out of the fight; he sticks in there and he wins. He’s a hard dude to break, and I think how strong and how tough he is are his best attributes. He also beat Cub, and in my eyes he’s the next (top) contender, so I knock him down and put myself right back where I was last year.”
Where he was last year was on the verge of wearing championship gold. To get that close and see it go away stings, but what hurt Koch even more was not even getting the chance to put his gloves on and step into the Octagon. On Saturday, he’s back, and not a moment too soon.
“I love that feeling of competition, and there is no rush like having your hand raised,” he said. “That feeling of being in there and having all the eyes on you and getting to put all that hard work from a training camp together into the cage, that’s what I miss, and God, I’m so happy it’s almost here.”