Erik Koch (right) will make his Octagon debut at UFC 128 against Raphael Assuncao. | D. Mandel/Sherdog.com
Speaking with Erik Koch, it quickly becomes apparent that two things hold prominence in his life.
One, of course, is fighting. When the young man from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, talks about mixed martial arts, it is with an assured understanding of the sport and a particular reverence for its veterans. This comes as no surprise when one learns that Koch has spent roughly half of his 22-year existence watching, practicing, competing in or otherwise thinking of MMA. Four years and a dozen bouts into his professional career, he is one of MMA’s most promising and complete 145-pound prospects, poised to transition to the UFC after a 3-1 run in the blue confines of World Extreme Cagefighting.
The other thing is food. Erik Koch loves food.
“After my last fight, people don’t believe me, but I swear to God, I got up to 190 [pounds],” says Koch, whose personal Twitter account is filled largely with discussion and pictures of comestibles. “Everybody at the WEC made fun of me ’cause I went to [WEC 53] and I was, like, 190. Everybody’s like, ‘What the hell’s wrong with you? You don’t even look like the same person.’ There’s fat there, ’cause I definitely grub out, but I’m also just young and I’m growing. It seems like every time I make the cut, I get a little bit bigger.”
This is not to say that Koch is without discipline when it comes to his diet. As his March 19 promotional debut against Raphael Assuncao at UFC 128 draws nearer, the focus of the fighter’s tweets shifts to everything he cannot have. Cell phone photos of pizzas, hot dogs and country breakfasts appear. One afternoon, Koch makes a friend pick up cheeseburgers and French fries from McDonald’s just so he can smell them.
Fittingly, the only “real” job Koch has held down was at sandwich chain Jimmy John’s, where he worked briefly as a teenager while also training full-time. Though he is not looking to get behind the counter again, Koch would not be opposed to going into business with his former employer.
“They actually sponsor Brock Lesnar, and I’m trying to get them to sponsor me, man,” Koch says. “I used to work there and I eat there religiously when I’m not cutting weight. Like, I love that place.”
Koch even speaks in food metaphors when describing his exposure to a diverse array of martial arts at a young age.
“I was kind of lucky. I got a smorgasbord of stuff,” he says.
Inspired by Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to take up tae kwon do at age 4, Koch had a revelation at 10 after watching early UFCs with his older brother, fellow pro fighter Keoni Koch.
“I was a big fan of ‘Mortal Kombat’ -- more than anybody, I swear -- and it reminded me of ‘Mortal Kombat.’ I loved it, and I decided, even when I was a little kid, that’s what I wanted to do,” says Koch. “Especially coming from a tae kwon do background, having the conflicting styles fighting each other was awesome.”
At 12, Koch shed his dream of becoming an Olympian in tae kwon do and began training MMA in his brother’s basement. By 17, he had dropped out of high school, bolstered his striking skills with jiu-jitsu and wrestling and was fighting professionally, deceiving promoters about his age in order to compete and beating grown men when he did. It was then that he earned his nickname: “New Breed.”
Most of Koch’s earliest recorded fights came under the banner of Cedar Rapids-based promotion Mainstream MMA. There, in 2007, he made the passing acquaintance of Jeff “Duke” Roufus, a trainer and ex-kickboxing champion from Milwaukee who also served as a commentator for the promotion. Koch had no inkling at the time that Roufus would be instrumental in guiding his fighting career to its current heights.
In the summer of 2009, Koch was training for a Midwest Cage Championship title shot against experienced Iowan Chris Mickle when welterweight Jesse Lennox -- Koch’s then-teammate at Cedar Rapids’ Team Hard Drive -- invited Koch to accompany him to Milwaukee for training at Roufus’ gym, Roufusport.
“He was like, ‘Come get some good work in,’ so I did, and it was just on a whim,” Koch says. “I was like, ‘Whatever, I’m not doing anything. I’m just gonna do it.’”
It did not take long for Koch to bond with Roufus and his team, which included current UFC talent Anthony Pettis, Patrick Barry, Alan Belcher and Daniel Downes.
“I met Duke and, after one day, decided I like this guy, I think he’s a good coach. It’s crazy how much I got from him in one day,” says Koch.
The feeling was mutual, according to Roufus, who instantly saw promise in his young charge.
“I can’t do much in life, but I can teach people how to fight a little bit and I can spot talent,” Roufus says. “Guys like Erik and Pat, when they come to me, they’re great. I don’t tell ’em they’re great all the time. I can’t. But they’re already great fighters, with or without me. My job is -- I’m the rock that sharpens the sword.”
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