The UFC's machine-gun output continues with a feature event just days after Wednesday's UFC Fight Night 27, as UFC 164: Henderson vs. Pettis kicks off this Saturday from the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The main attraction is a rematch between UFC lightweight champion Ben Henderson vs. Anthony Pettis, while Frank Mir welcomes heavyweight Josh Barnett back to the Octagon after a over a decade-long hiatus. Opening up the pay-per-view card is a featherweight clash between near mirror images in Erik Koch vs. Dustin Poirier.
The similarities between Roufusport's Erik "New Breed" Koch (13-2) and Dustin "The Diamond" Poirier (13-3) go beyond their physical likeness. They're both amongst the tallest and lankiest featherweights in the division, their records are almost identical, both wield fight-finishing prowess with either striking or submissions, and they have been floating on the cusp of elite contender status for some time.
As Poirier gradually whittled himself down from welterweight to lightweight and then, after suffering his first career loss to Danny Castillo in the WEC, eventually to featherweight, he and Koch also share two defeats apiece at 145-pounds, all of which were dealt by apex contenders. Chad Mendes are Ricardo Lamas account for Koch's flaws while Chan Sung Jung and Cub Swanson recently slowed Poirier's momentum. They've both been finished a single time: Poirier cried uncle to a D'arce choke courtesy of "The Korean Zombie" and Koch was pounded out by Lamas in his last turn.
Finally, even their fighting styles are akin. Both are southpaws and capable wrestlers but best known for their fiery combination of striking and submission grappling, as reflected in their finishing ratios (7 subs and 3 TKOs for Koch, 6 subs and 5 TKOs for Poirier.)
Onto their differences -- Poirier is more of an in-your-face, high-pressure scrapper who overwhelms with volume at close range whereas Koch is a patient and methodical kickboxer who prefers to stay outside and line up the money shot. That's not to say Koch just throws single home-run blows. He's a judicious striker who gets maximum efficiency from sporadic and well-crafted salvos while Poirier stands toe-to-toe and lets 'em fly.
Koch, like his Roufusport teammate Anthony Pettis, has an atypical striking style due to his Taekwondo background. When his high kicks are uncorked, there is absolutely no telltale warnings in his stance or footwork -- just a flesh-colored blur followed by the uncouth sensation of someone's foot smashing into your mouth. His kicking regiment isn't as flashy as Pettis' (whose is though?) but his low and high roundhouses and straight front kicks are quickly unfurled, shockingly accurate and pack a serious wallop. At a closer distance, Koch complements his range kicks with sharp boxing. His head movement and defense are solid, and his punches are long, laser-straight and precise.
Koch will be in the role of the technician here, but Poirier isn't some wild and sloppy brawler. Rather than form intelligent medleys of strikes in spurts like Koch, Poirier maintains heavy pressure with busy handiwork in the pocket and is perfectly content to duel with his in-fighting arsenal of punching combos, knees and elbows, all of which are squeezed off with impressive speed. He's the type of fighter who takes a moment to pounce on his wounded opponent because he's already starting a follow-up burst before the initial one even connects.
Their divergent characteristics also apply to their ground games, which are just as imposing as their striking. Koch tends to coax his opponents into traps with his technical prowess and patience; Poirier is lighter on by-the-book fundamentals but makes up for it with a substantial amount of savage aggression. For example, Koch will grab wrist control from his guard and then play off his adversary's reactions to develop momentous counter-offense, much like a striker keys off the jab on the feet, and Poirier forces opportunities to open up with frenetically paced striking and guard passing, and he snatches up his submissions powerfully and deliberately more so than fluidly and artfully.
Neither are poor wrestlers, but also not on par with the division's best. Wrestling is probably the least utilized arrow in their quivers -- generally it's instituted defensively as a means to stay standing, but, then again, they usually have a glaring advantage over most opponents but the equality of this match-up leaves it as a potential X-factor. Wrestling success for either should be influenced the most by their timing and on-the-fly reactions, and either could benefit from surprising the other with a takedown -- either in open space or when clinched up -- to leave something tangible in the minds of the judges.
Also worth mentioning is the three-inch reach advantage that Poirier will enjoy despite being an inch shorter. While that's not drastic, it might be an interesting component considering that Koch is the rangier striker and Poirier's nonstop forward motion often results in a clinch-heavy or phone-booth style brawl.
While I've tried to convey their finite strengths and differences, it's important to clarify that neither fighter is limited to any one mold. Koch is more calculating and technical with his offense, but still laudably violent by design and unafraid to initiate short sequences of down-and-dirty head-hunting. Poirier, while more inclined to wade forward and trade at close range, also controls distance with cleaving low kicks and long, spearing front kicks, and is a fundamentally sound fighter overall -- but his technique makes his aggressive and high-paced gameness that much more formidable.
Another reason I've perhaps over-categorized these two is because of the way tiny differences often actualize in bigger proportions when fighters with unusually comparable styles, experience and physical attributes square off -- not entirely unlike how the evenness between two wrestlers will produce 15 minutes of unkempt kickboxing. Because the scales are so balanced between Koch and Poirier, the miniscule traits that set them apart will hold a greater presence in the match up.
That means, as time ticks on in the fight, Koch's systematic sniping has as much of a chance to take over as Poirier's relentless pace and exceptional toughness. This is also the type of fight in which we'll learn something new about one or both of the competitors: they'll either break out a new weapon that we've yet to behold and/or an unexpected weakness will come to light. The odds here favor the former more than the latter, as both have proven their well-rounded talents and, after being tested by many different fighters in many different aspects, areas of noticeable concern have been scarce or nonexistent.
My thoughts are directly in line with the betting odds for this one, which, at the time of writing, give Koch a slight push. Both are coming off losses -- Koch to Lamas and Poirier to Swanson -- and I really don't know if that will alter the characteristics they've consistently established. If so, Poirier is the more likely candidate as he's dropped two of his last three while Koch pieced together a 4-fight streak betwixt his only career defeats. The offensive potency, assertiveness and killer instinct at play on both sides of this affair make it a good candidate for "Fight of the Night" honors.
My Prediction: Erik Koch by decision.