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Erik Koch knew he would end up among the best in the mixed martial arts world. He just didn't know when he would make it there.
The 21-year-old Cedar Rapids native has arrived and has earned a spot in the cage with the established fighters of World Extreme Cagefighting.
Koch will face Bendy Casmir as one of the undercard matches at WEC 49 event at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, on Sunday. The show will be televised on VERSUS at 8 p.m.
"I always thought this is where it would take me," Koch said. "It's always been my dream."
Koch has gone from taking on local fighters to challenge the world's finest fighters. Koch, who started MMA training as a 12-year-old, said he felt the move to an elite promotion was long overdue after being undefeated on smaller circuits. While training with a friend, UFC fighter Pat Barry, in Milwaukee, well-known trainer and competitor Duke Roufus approached Koch after around of sparring.
Roufus inquired about his experience, goals and managment team. He assured Koch that he could get him a WEC contract and delivered. Koch was surprised when Roufus called to inform him of his big break.
"I'll never forget the moment when I actually got the call," Koch said. "I remember getting off the phone and screaming at the top of my lungs. I couldn't believe it."
That dream started in a small basement in Southwest Cedar Rapids, where he trained with his brother, Keoni, near the Hy-Vee on Wilson Ave. Training began as an after-school activity exploded into a burning passion.
"It snowballed into the only thing I really wanted to do," Koch said. "It's crazy looking back on it. Now, I'm fighting the best fighters in the world and it came from training on a 12-by-12 mat in the basement."
Many athletes enter MMA after competing or training in specific disciplines, including muay thai, jiu-jitsu and wrestling. Koch went out for wrestling in high school for a very brief time, but has trained for MMA by studying all aspects of the sport. It has allowed him to be a versatile fighter.
"The way I look at it is from a true MMA standpoint. I want to be good in everything," said Koch, who said he prefers striking and devotes his time to work out three times a day. "I'm good everywhere. I don't have a plan where I want to take (a fight). Just wherever it goes, that's where I'm going to win."
Koch has made a habit of winning. He is 9-1, but will compete for the first time since suffering his first career loss - a unanimous three-round decision to Chad Mendes. He said Casmir has a lot of experience and has won and lost a lot of matches by submission.
He's fired up to make amends for the recent loss.
"Obviously, I'm hungry," said Koch. a 5-foot-9, 145-pound featherweight. "I want to beat the guy pretty bad."
Koch's complete focus on MMA helped put him in this position. He has elected to work without a contingency plan despite suggestions from his parents. Koch said he hasn't had any other job and has relied on fighting to make money.
Koch fights with added urgency knowing that his livelihood depends on beating his opponent.
"MMA has been my life for years," said Koch, who made $3,000 in his last fight. "The way I look at it is if you want to be the best in the world you've got to put your all into it. I feel if you have a plan to fall back on then you're not going to push hard to succeed on your first goal."
Even after his achievements in the sport, Koch remains connected to his roots. He still trains at Valhalla Combat Club in SE Cedar Rapids near where he lived when he attended Cedar Rapids Washington High School.
"I still do a majority of my training there," Koch said. "All those guys have helped me get here and I really don't want to neglect them."
Watch one of Koch's earlier fight. Here he scores a submission win over Will Shutt.
Appreciation for his local sparring and training partners pales only to that of his family. Koch describes his father, Doug, and brother, Keoni, who is a coach at Valhalla, as his heroes. He was quick to praise them for their contributions to his fighting career.
"Without (Keoni) I wouldn't know about this sport," Koch said. "My father, to this day, helps me more than any other person. You really don't make a lot of money. My dad has helped me so much financially. Without him I wouldn't be able to live my dream."
Doug Koch started following MMA, because of his sons involvement. He is one of Koch's biggest fans, traveling to places like Las Vegas and Columbus, Ohio, to see him fight. He said he is proud of his son's accomplishments.
"I keep track of what he's doing," Doug Koch said. "I try to support him as much as I can."
Koch studied Tae-Kwon-Do from age 4 to 10, and then became a training partner with his brother. Doug Koch said there was no looking back.
"He pretty much had his mind made up," Doug Koch said. "That's the direction he was going to go."
Doug Koch complimented his son on his work ethic and dedication to all aspects of training, including lifting, cross-training and diet.
"I think it's an inner drive," Doug Koch said. "It tells a tale of kind of person he is."
Koch's competitive nature feeds an unrelentless desire to win. It helps provide the drive needed to thrive in MMA. Koch wants to put his stamp on the sport by the time his fledgling career is over.
"It's a crazy feeling finally realizing you're going from fighting in local bars around Iowa to fighting guys that are training their (butt) off to beat the crap out of you," Koch said. "I want to leave a legacy in this sport. To be honest, I think it's the toughest sport you can possibly do."