Kicking off the main card on Saturday's UFC on Fox 6 extravaganza is a battle between talented, upper-echelon featherweights. Erik Koch vs. Ricardo Lamas will ignite the 4-fight feature on the Fox network at 8:00 p.m. after 6 scraps play out on the FX channel (5:00 p.m. ET); a single bout on Facebook will trail into the FX prelims. Main billing of the night goes to freshly crowned Demetrious Johnson in his virgin defense of the UFC flyweight title against John Dodson.
Once-beaten Roufusport juggernaut Erik Koch (13-1) is a good example of why injuries suck. When the WEC and its fighters were swallowed up by the UFC, Koch was 11-1, his only loss was to Chad Mendes, and he'd annihilated 9 of his 11 opponents, finishing 7 of those wins in the 1st round (7 by sub, 2 by TKO). First, he was scheduled to face Cub Swanson in March of 2010 but Cub pulled out with an injury. A few weeks later, Koch was repositioned against Manny Gamburyan, who was surging as a 145er at the time, but also ended up nixed via injury. Coming off a 1-2 stretch, Raphael Assuncao took his place and Koch, capitalizing on his half-foot height advantage, blasted him clear down to bantamweight with a 1st-round knockout.
The disappointing duo of injury/withdrawal struck again when Koch was realigned with Swanson (Cub pulled out; Koch notched a decision over Jonathan Brookins a few months later), then again for Koch's expected match with Dustin Poirier (Koch was replaced by Lamas, who was later replaced by Max Holloway), then again when Koch got a title shot against Jose Aldo in July of 2012 (Aldo was injured), then, for the last time, again for the re-booked championship bid in October of 2012 (Koch was injured this time).
I'm weary just from retracing the confusingly scattered blips of Koch's career trajectory, and -- the point is -- he was forced to traverse that tumultuous ride at a pivotal time: when he was on the cusp of being a viable, marketable, and exciting contender for Aldo. While the ideal standard for a sizzling young prospect in that position is studying miles of tape, hammering out a sensible game-plan, and forming a solid training camp around that blueprint, Koch faced a revolving door of opponents betwixt battles with the injury bug.
And his opponent, Ricardo Lamas (12-2), is a good example of how much momentum you can build once you find a foothold. Concurrently with that mess described above, "The Bully" descended to the featherweight class and took 3 well-spaced and methodical steps to the division's ceiling. Lamas nearly lopped off Matt Grice's head with a high kick and follow-up flurry for a 1st-round TKO in his UFC premiere, then cinched a 2nd-round side choke on the aforementioned Swanson (who's rattled off 3-straight TKOs since), which led to his commanding upset of longtime top-5er Hatsu Hioki and subsequent pole-vault up the featherweight rankings.
The suitably nicknamed Lamas will match his brash-but-technical diversity against Koch's potent, dual-pronged onslaught of rangy kickboxing and smooth submission grappling. Lamas has displayed prowess in those categories but also threatens with a feisty wrestling game as a former Division 3 All-American; a skill that's propelled him to a few fight-changing swings in momentum and could also be a pivotal advantage in this match up.
Koch, a southpaw, has tight boxing combinations and likes to unlatch in-place, surprise high and low kicks. He's religiously technical on the feet, stands more upright, looks to counter while circling out and will likely assume the finesse role with his artful tendencies. As expected, Lamas will play the brawler. Still adhering to pretty sound fundamentals, Lamas will press the action and dodge in with streaking heaters while mixing in level changes for takedowns.
Lamas' win ratio is balanced with 3 subs and TKOs apiece -- while they've all been top-side subs (an arm-triangle and 2 guillotines), the former hold tapped out a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt in Swanson, though it was a simple case of Lamas cleverly punishing him for a tiny mistake. Much like the way their striking stacks up, Koch seems to have the more polished and layered arsenal, and is more inclined to create opportunities with his fluid grappling, whereas Lamas prefers to pound away -- either on the feet, or from on top after hitting a takedown -- and use his knowledge of submissions and position to complement his striking assault.
Overall, I see this as a shorter and smaller (but stronger and meaner) 3-dimensional brawler against a taller and rangier technician with refined but voraciously effective striking and submission grappling.
As far as striking habits, Koch is exceptionally fluid and rock-solid across the board. He always keeps his guard high and almost glides into sharp pivots and counter-angles before slicing out crisp and straight 1-2's and uppercuts. He firmly establishes the perimeter with a quick-flung low kick that either wears down his opponent's lead leg or serves as a decoy for the follow-up high kick he likes to throw, which is eerily reminiscent to that of stable-mate Anthony Pettis, who also sees time on the main card.
Lamas is a little more direct and to the point, though it's important to note that his fiery aggression is much better harnessed than most brawlers. While he's not devoid of defensive flaws and his assertiveness makes him somewhat vulnerable, he's more inclined to dictate the action with his brawling and then pounce on any openings that appear while his opponent is reacting to his relentless pressure.
However, especially considering both of Lamas' losses are by TKO, Koch is quite well attuned to find the holes in his game. Unless Lamas intends to contest Koch entirely on the feet, which would be unwise at best, he'll have to devise a collection of unpredictable attack patterns in order to impose his wrestling. Koch's wrestling is the least formidable of his assets but he's far from inept in that category as, in his last 6 outings, he's only been taken down by wrestling powerhouse Chad Mendes, who hit 6 of 9 takedowns, and Brookins, who managed a single takedown in 20 attempts.
A straight-on double leg with no set-up will never work on Koch and he's sly enough not to fall for the basic fling-a-strike-and-duck-under takedown attempt, so Lamas' ability to cut basic angles on the way in while fusing his striking and wrestling will probably influence his chances more than any other aspect. He did nothing fancy or highly innovative in his pair of career-defining wins, but Lamas darted into the pocket to put Swanson and Hioki down with the simple combination of intelligence, timing and explosive athleticism.
I really have no idea if Koch is slick enough to sweep or submit him off his back, or whether Lamas has the submission chops to stifle those endeavors. Cases can be made either way and I'm writing it off as a big question mark.
Since Koch is a southie and Lamas stands conventional, a mini chess battle will ensue over front-foot position, as either fighter will look to keep their lead foot outside of their opponent's to sight in their rear crosses. Also, considering that Koch's left high kick is probably his best money shot, Lamas will have to keep his right hand glued to his chin and not fall into the trap of trying to catch Koch's busy low kicks, as he'll switch it up and sail one high.
As far as past level of opposition, I think Koch gets pass from the peanut gallery for having a respectable hiccup to Mendes, which is understandable, but Lamas, despite being finished by TKO in his pair of defeats, has definitely beaten a tougher group in Grice, Swanson and Hioki compared to Bendy Casimir, Francisco Rivera, Assuncao and Brookins for Koch.
I haven't felt strongly about my pick all week and the analysis makes Koch a little more appealing, but I'll stick with my original nod for Lamas. Koch has a decent shot at catching him on the way in but I like Lamas' chances to knife into range and swarm Koch with momentous punches and takedowns.
My Prediction: Ricardo Lamas by decision.