Erik Koch (R) knocked out Raphael Assuncao (L) at UFC 128. (Photo by

UFC featherweight contender Erik Koch (12-1) seems to fight better with more pressure on him. Some guys get tentative and try to avoid making mistakes, but Koch goes out and delivers highlight reel knockouts.

At UFC 128 in Newark, N.J., against fringe top-ten featherweight Raphael Assuncao (16-4), Koch used his reach to stick and move on the outside until he caught Assuncao rushing in with a beautifully timed right hook that earned him “Knockout of the Night” honors 2:32 into round one.

Given Assuncao’s height disadvantage and stellar grappling, Koch expected him to try and close the distance early on, so he was surprised when Assuncao initially stayed on the outside.

“Yeah, I was real surprised,” Koch said of Assuncao’s game plan. “I thought just because of his Jiu Jitsu background, I know he’s got good striking, but on paper, coming from [Duke Roufus’s] camp and training with the people I do, I wasn’t expecting him to kind of play a counter-striking game. It threw me off for a second.”

Koch was surprised but adjusted quickly, working with strikes to the body and goading Assuncao into moving forward.

“I knew eventually he would get frustrated with my reach, and if I could blast him with a couple of hard kicks, I knew it would end up bringing him in,” Koch said. “And that’s really what did it. That last body shot right before he came in and I hit him with the right hook, I could see the look on his face…that’s what the game changer was.”

After going 3-1 in the WEC, Koch looked at home in his Octagon debut. The competition is still the same, but the crowds are bigger, and that’s how Koch likes it.

“It was bigger [than I expected],” he said. “It’s a bigger arena and Jersey fans are crazy; it was definitely a lot more intense. I love feeding off the crowd and feeding off of the energy.”

Koch also scored the KO of the night in his last fight in the WEC, a chance to build some momentum before the promotion officially merged with the UFC. You could say the stakes were even higher in his UFC debut against a highly respected opponent, but Koch didn’t exhibit any nervousness or jitters.

“I love it,” Koch said of the extra pressure. “It always brings the inner tiger out in me and I always perform a lot better. With the knockout of the night I got a little streak going, and I want to keep it going and get knockout of the night every time.”

With the bigger stage of the UFC comes bigger paychecks, and Koch earned a $70,000 bonus for the win. He hasn’t let the money go to waste, treating himself to a brand new Mitsubishi Eclipse.

“I’ve always kind of wanted one of the new Eclipses when they started came out,” he said. “Just the futuristic body style … I felt like I had to have it. I’m gonna get some rims from Mizati and put them on. It should look pretty cool.”

What’s next

Now 4-1 in Zuffa-owned promotions, Koch should have plenty of options for his next bout. But another fellow contender, Dustin Poirier (9-1), has already grabbed his attention.

When last interviewed Poirier following his win over Josh Grispi, he mentioned Koch as someone he’d be interested in facing, believing that the two would put on an exciting fight for the fans. However, from what Koch hears, Poirier has moved into trash-talk mode.

“I don’t know what his problem is, but apparently he doesn’t like my demeanor, whatever my demeanor is,” Koch said. “I don’t really think I look like a big ass after my fights and I’m always respectful. If anything I could say the same thing about him. If he gets past [Rani] Yahya and the UFC wants to set it up, I’m down to do it, man. He wants to talk up a fight, he’s picked a fight with the wrong person.”

He continued, “I do my job. I go in, I knock people out, I submit them; it won’t be any different with him.”

Nevertheless, Koch is focused on moving up the ranks and earning a title shot.

“The most important thing to me is the fastest way to that title. If I can get a match with a top five opponent, that’s what I want first.”

The landscape of the bantamweight and featherweight divisions could change soon, too, with season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter set to feature the 135 and 145 classes.

The UFC has impressive champions in Dominick Cruz (135) and Jose Aldo (145), as well as a growing list of contenders. That list could get considerably longer after TUF 14.

“It’ll be awesome,” Koch said of having the reality show focus on the lighter weight classes. “Especially at 35 and 45, it’ll be a great way to get some more new talent. I was at the tryouts and I saw some really good guys, some hungry guys. There should be some really good people on the show that will deepen the roster.”

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