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Once scheduled to fight Jose Aldo, UFC lightweight Erik Koch struggling to recapture winning form

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Following his TKO loss to Daron Cruickshank at UFC Fight Night in Cincinnati, Erik Koch has fallen even further from the top contender status he held a mere two years ago.

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Erik Koch came into the UFC as one of the bigger featherweight prospects in the sport. At the time of his knockout win over Raphael Assuncao back in April 2011, Koch sported a record of 12-1 and a 4-1 overall record in both the WEC and UFC. Soon after his decision win over Jonathan Brookins, he was chosen to face featherweight champion Jose Aldo for the title in 2012. In fact, the UFC twice booked him against Aldo - once at UFC 149 and then again at UFC 153 when Aldo withdrew from 149 due to injury.

Fast forward to present day and Koch, now a lightweight, is 1-3 in his last 4 following a shock TKO defeat to Daron Cruickshank at UFC Fight Night: Brown vs. Silva. It should be noted that he was the betting favorite in each of these defeats and hasn't been placed as an underdog since his loss to Chad Mendes in 2010. Not only has Koch struggled to win, but he's been knocked down and/or knocked out in all of his losses. It's an abrupt descent down the mountain for "New Breed", but what exactly caused it? I've pinpointed two reasons:

1. Injuries galore. This isn't a case of just injuries to Koch, but to his opponent as well. On two occasions he was scheduled to fight Cub Swanson in 2011, but neither bout materialized due to Swanson withdrawing because of injuries on both occasions. After beating Brookins, Koch was then slated to face Dustin Poirier at UFC 143, only for Koch to suffer an injury that forced him off the card. In a rather questionable decision, the UFC gave Koch a title shot anyway, but the aforementioned Aldo injury canceled the UFC 149 date and then Koch hurt his knee in preparation for the re-scheduled UFC 153 matchup. By his own account, Koch's knee injury was the same as the one that kept Dan Henderson out of UFC 151 vs. Jon Jones. If you're keeping score, Koch had 5 fights canceled from 2011-2012, and he ended 2012 without fighting once.

2. The level of opposition improved. Not to slight Koch, but in his absence, the featherweight division grew stronger, and his wins against Assuncao (who became a force at bantamweight) and Brookins (who was never a top featherweight and briefly retired after 2012) grew weaker and weaker when justifying his spot as one of the division's best. So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that he couldn't get past either Ricardo Lamas or Dustin Poirier en route to a winless 2013. Lamas' wrestling and punishing top game posed huge problems for Koch, and Poirier's power and relentless offensive attack nearly put him away in the opening round. I think it's perfectly reasonable to say that Koch was likely overrated and has been for some time, primarily dating back to being the product of a then-weak division. In fact, the only fighters he's beaten under the Zuffa banner that are still in the UFC are Assuncao and Francisco Rivera, who both dropped to bantamweight within a year of fighting him. Everyone else has since been cut, including lightweight Rafaello Oliveira, who was instantly bounced after Koch ran roughshod on him in February. Hard to see that as a hallmark of a top contender.

Koch isn't a lost cause by any means. He's still only 25 years old and 3 of his 4 losses (Mendes, Poirier, Lamas) have come against established top 10 fighters, with Cruickshank potentially climbing towards the top 15 come Monday. It is concerning though that he's taken some significant punishment in recent outings, and that his billing as a great striker has seen the likes of Poirier and Cruickshank outstrike him. These types of losses can shorten his career significantly if the damage keeps piling up.

I still believe Koch can rebound from this and slowly make his way towards the top 15 of lightweight, where he seems content on staying, but last night's loss put into perspective how quickly fortunes can change. This isn't as dramatic a fall from the top as Josh Grispi (another one of Aldo's scheduled-but-never-fought opponents), and it's certainly salvageable, but Koch is a long way from being a contender in any division right now.