Behind every athlete’s rise to prominence lies some form of a story. Although they all seek to master the same sport, their journeys took unique turns that featured a variety of different events and circumstances. Some athletes rebounded from professional defeat, others rose to the occasion despite personal tragedies and near losses and others went on to achieve success despite a number of variables that kept them away from action for an extended amount of time.

Undefeated “Evil Genius” Keoni Koch represents one instance of that latter category. The older brother of “New Breed” Erik Koch, Keoni scored his first three pro wins in 2007. For a deeper understanding of what led him to take time away from the sport on two different occasions, though, it helps to start from the beginning of Keoni’s journey, especially since those beginnings played their own role in his evolution into a mixed martial arts .

“It’s a long, crazy story,” Keoni prefaced to The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview, “but originally, I was a self-taught martial artist from a really young age. I was a fan of Bruce Lee. I bought into his theory of training multiple martial arts, becoming a well-rounded fighter. And I grew up watching martial arts like a lot of people did, and I kind of adopted that theory when I happened upon a VHS cassette in a Blockbuster Video that happened to be UFC 2. I thought it was different. I thought it was a movie, but I didn’t know it was a real event.”

Royce Gracie went on to defeat Patrick Smith in the finals of the UFC 2 tournament, the only UFC tournament to date that featured a 16-man roster. When Keoni found out that UFC 2 actually happened, and that the men in that event did things that an avid martial arts film aficionado would not get out of titles like The Game of Death, Enter The Dragon or The Big Boss, the sport of MMA struck his curiosity and instilled in him a fresh sense of excitement. Few could blame Keoni for that initial reaction, though, especially given the public perception of MMA at the time of UFC 2, when opponents of the sport found it barbaric and lacking in anything resembling an athletic competition. Still, it didn’t change Keoni’s perception of the sport, especially when he watched Gracie compete. As impressive as it will always look to watch one man defeat four opponents in one night, Keoni’s decision to stick with MMA stemmed from the manner in which Gracie went through those four men.

“At the time, the UFC was relatively unknown, not a whole lot of people knew about it. It was a sideshow or a spectacle-type event. I watched it, and I watched this little Brazilian guy, Royce Gracie, go and tear through the competition, and that was it, I was hooked,” Keoni recalled. “I knew I wanted to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and add it to my repertoire, and so that’s what I did. I started watching all the MMA fights that I could from every event. Started buying tape, DVDs, books and stuff like that to pick up techniques here and there.”

Keoni also sought out help from anyone he could find, but in Iowa, only a short supply of people would willingly say yes to getting twisted like a pretzel and having their limbs wrenched in well over a thousand ways by someone trying to learn a martial art. Luckily for Keoni, he found himself a number of wrestlers that would oblige him. Over time, he also found a number of consistent training partners, including his baby brother, Erik, who also got hooked onto “that UFC thing” after doing work in a martial art of his own choice.

“[Erik] kind of fell in love with it after getting a black belt in taekwondo and getting bored with taekwondo, and that was it,” Keoni explained. “It was just five guys in a basement a little over a decade ago, and we trained literally every day. There were times when I would train every single day for a month. It’s crazy when I look back at where we started, but it was basically five guys in a basement who loved martial arts and decided to start competing. We didn’t have any instruction; we just borrowed from each other’s strengths and talent, and that eventually gave birth to Hard Drive MMA.”

Because of Erik’s alignment to Duke Roufus and his Milwaukee-based Roufusport club, few forget that he and Keoni co-founded Hard Drive MMA. American Reality Combat Federation (ARCF) standout Dave Sherzer, a good friend of Keoni’s, actually came up with the name for the Koch brothers’ fight team.

“He was kind of surprised at how talented and how committed we were,” Keoni recalled. “And that’s when he said, ‘Hey, this town’s too small for us to have two teams. Let’s join forces and start training together.’ As a sign of respect for Dave, because he’s big into martial arts, he’s a little bit older than me, and he’s been into martial arts for years and years, I adopted that name. It didn’t really matter to me what name we adopted, as long as we had a strong team. So that’s how we got the name.”

The origins of Hard Drive MMA played a hand in the development of the Koch brothers, because not long after, the brothers would score their pro debuts for a promotion called Mainstream MMA. The brothers won their pro debuts when Mainstream MMA 4 came to the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids. More than just picking up the pro debut wins, though, that’s when they both met Roufus as well.

“[Mainstream MMA] was kind of the big and professionally run organization here at the time, and Duke was actually doing guest commentary for the show. So, he figured that we were skilled and committed athletes, and he felt Erik held a lot of talent long before Erik ever went up there,” Keoni explained. “We had some people in our camp—Jesse Lennox and Tom Grubb—that had gone up to Duke, to [Pat] Miletich, and they cross-trained. I had gone up there on one or two occasions with Lennox and Grubb to train with Duke, so we had kind of a core built already. I planned on going to Duke’s for some cross-training, and because of work, I was unable to, and I said [to Erik], ‘Hey bro, why don’t you take my spot, go up there and show Duke what you’re made of? I know you’re talented. He’s going to be able to see your talent, and he’s going to get you the shot that you’ve been waiting for.'”

Erik reluctantly took Keoni’s spot, made the trek to Roufusport and immediately got thrown into the fire against the UFC’s now-lightweight champion, Anthony Pettis. Up until that point, nobody dreamed of touching Pettis in the gym, as his unorthodox style proved itself as a puzzle that not even his own training partners could quite put together. Once Erik got in there with Pettis, though, Roufus saw the talent and helped Erik get his shot.

Erik stayed at Roufusport, but he still cross-trained with big brother Keoni and the boys at Hard Drive. Keoni reciprocated by going up to Roufusport to cross-train. In fact, the rapport between Hard Drive MMA and Roufusport remains strong to this day, so much so that Keoni recently did some of his cross-training in Milwaukee.

Hard Drive MMA’s relationship with Roufusport keeps Keoni’s competitive fires burning, but that fire did not always burn the way it does now. Keoni always wanted to represent the type of mixed martial artist that competes because he loves the sport and craves the opportunity to stand at its apex. Why, then, would he elect to take three years off from the sport after the three fights he won in 2007, especially after winning two fights under the Mainstream MMA banner?

“I hated competition,” Keoni confessed. “I wasn’t a competitor. I hated competition, not because I didn’t really enjoy the preparation and the commitment, but because I was a family man. I have two kids, I was married at the time, and MMA eventually ruined my marriage, or at least helped ruin it, and the commitment it took for me to fight was honestly miserable. For me, even with the talent that other people knew I had and the talent that I knew I had, I wasn’t interested in ignoring my kids. When I took a fight, I committed 100 percent to that fight, and I felt like I was neglecting my kids, just like I honestly do right now, and I hate it.”

Keoni’s “family man” mentality should not surprise anyone, as it does not represent a new mindset. Other prominent names in the sport express a deep sense of love for their families, and on more than one occasion, some athletes of the game even admitted to using the rigors of training away from them as motivation for the upcoming fights. What made this new version of Keoni different from the man who went 3-0 in 2007?

“The difference now is this is what I do. I left my job in May of 2013, last year, and I started training full-time,” he revealed. “I took a fight in April against a guy that ended up pulling out of the fight, and I had to fight somebody from his team in his place, but I was able to train like a professional fighter for the first time. I really feel like I’m hitting my peak, and I feel like I’d lived my life with a lot of regret if I didn’t see how far I could take myself and this accumulation of experience and skill. And so I committed and said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to go as hard as I can for the next three years, see if I can get onto the big shows, fight as hard as I possibly can, and give it my all.'”

Keoni’s track record thus far has left skeptics with very little room to criticize his desire to fight. Besides, every athlete in MMA needs that time off to regain the urge to fight again, which would explain why some athletes don’t take fights for lengthy amounts of time, even when a state athletic commission only mandates a post-fight suspension of 30 days or more without contact for precautionary reasons.  Of course, Keoni’s three-year hiatus came in a different instance, but it brought with it a few other added benefits.

“Now that I’m able to train full-time, it’s a lot more feasible for me to do. It’s a lot more comfortable for me to do, but it’s still just as difficult because I push myself just as hard,” Keoni admitted. “So, the time I took off was a response to my complete lack of motivation to train. At the time, you have to understand that I was still considered the head coach of this team locally. I was still helping people prepare for fights, and I was still put in charge of growing this gym that, at the time, was a relatively unknown gym that continues to gain notoriety, and that’s where my focus was. My focus was on my team, giving them a better training facility and a better opportunity to show the world what we do and what we believe in.

“After I finished building that space for the team and giving them that platform to step onto, that’s when I stepped back and said, ‘Hey, when you’re 60 years old and you’re looking back on your life, are you going to be satisfied with what you accomplished? Do you honestly look at yourself in the mirror and say you did everything with the skills that you could? Are you missing out on income opportunities that you could’ve taken advantage of?’

“I just wasn’t satisfied. I knew I was capable of bigger and better things, so I wanted to test myself and give it a hard, honest push. That’s why I took so much time off in between competition. The big benefit was that I was relatively unknown. I was really, really low on the radar, not a lot of people paid attention to me. I got a ton of experience in the gym, I’m very healthy, and now I’m poised to leave my mark on the MMA world.”

That mark continued to forge itself last year, when Keoni came off of another three-year sabbatical to compete in an April bout for the Iowa Challenge promotion. Keoni had originally prepared for an accomplished Nebraska wrestler in Kenny Jordan, but would instead compete against Anatol Grama.

“Grama was a tough dude and a completely different style change,” Keoni said. “I was getting prepared for a wrestler and Grama was more of a kickboxer. I ended up breaking my hand in the first round of that fight. I threw a big overhand left that just completely obliterated one of my metacarpals, but he still wasn’t able to dominate the fight. I was never in any trouble. I controlled the positioning on the ground and takedowns.”

Many in the MMA world likely remember that Keoni originally planned on seeing unbeaten Pedro Munhoz for the RFA bantamweight title last year. Some time before the fight, though, Keoni re-fractured that same left hand. Once he healed, he returned to his goal of getting some gold, but the decision to let the ink dry on a contract for a fight with undefeated Black House prospect Brian “T-City” Ortega, which takes place when RFA 12 comes to the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles this Friday night, didn’t come to fruition until recently, when Keoni rehabilitated his left hand, watched as Erik cut weight to make the 145-pound featherweight limit and reconsidered his own decision on whether or not to make a run towards the bantamweight belt.

“In that time, I decided, after watching my brother cut to 145—which I consider way too much for him to cut, and it really affected his performance—to ask RFA if 145 was a possibility, because I believe that’s where I will be most effective in terms of my weight. And they were gracious in allowing me to do that.”

Not only does Keoni get to fight at his most effective weight, but he also gets a game opponent in Ortega, who can make this bout interesting once it hits the ground. Still, whether or not this fight stays vertical, don’t think anything Ortega throws will rattle Keoni. Even if Ortega initiates the ground battle and if the bout makes its way into the championship rounds, Keoni will really look to test Ortega.

“Anyone fighting for a title, let alone in RFA, is not going to be a one-dimensional fighter,” Keoni said. “I know Ortega likes to be on the ground. He has a dangerous guard, and I can respect that. I’ll give it credit for what it’s worth, but I think I’m a little bit faster than him, even at my age. I’m more explosive, and I honestly feel like this is my fight to lose. I think I have to make a big mistake for him to catch me.

“My ground skills are really solid, and I don’t plan on engaging him in a jiu-jitsu battle. I plan on keeping it standing. If it goes to the ground, I’m not concerned. If he’s able to knock me out or catch me in a submission, more power to him. I just don’t see that happening. I’m sure wherever the fight goes, I can make it ugly, brutal and nasty, and end up taking the win. So, we’ll see what he has to offer, but in terms of stand-up, I feel like in this fight I want to stand in the pocket and move forward, move my feet and mix it up a little bit to keep him off-guard.

“I know we can both go five rounds, especially with the camps that we have. There’s no lack of push, especially at the professional level. If anybody gets in the cage with me and can’t go three to five rounds with me, they shouldn’t get in the cage, so I anticipate that he’s doing all the appropriate cardio, all the appropriate training. But it’s a fight. If you get hit in the face, socked in the chin or popped in the temple, things change, cardio wanes and your performance suffers. For me, what it’s really about is experience and the ability to get in there and dig deep and put a hurting on somebody, and that’s what I plan to do. And I don’t really give up a whole lot of respect to any opponent I have until I defeat them or they defeat me, and so far nobody’s been able to do it.

“I do give him the credit that he will be my toughest test to date, but I think with my experience, I’m able to leverage myself effectively in terms of a strategic battle. And when it comes down to it, I think I can throw harder, faster and better punches than he does. He will have to earn my respect, and until he does, I’m going to try and knock him out.”

In the RFA’s featherweight division, any man can emerge as the hunter or the hunted at any given time. With his brother and his team alongside him, Keoni will accept the challenge of anyone who believes they deserve to sit atop the peak point of the division, and with a win over Ortega, he will look to show the world why he defines himself as the man at the top of the division. Even when he returns to Iowa and begins another training session or class with his boys at Hard Drive MMA, Keoni wants to continue writing his own story of success inside of the MMA world’s history books before beginning another chapter in his life’s story.

“Regardless, I have a way to leave my mark on the MMA world. I’m always going to be coaching, I’m always going to be involved in MMA, but I’ve kind of said that in the next two to three years, I’m going to be as selfish as possible. I’m going to take it as one fight at a time, but I’m going to put everything I possibly can into showing how far I can go.”

Keoni would like to thank his sponsors, his team at Hard Drive MMA, Dave Sherzer, his family and, most importantly, his heroes, the people who stand up and defend liberty and freedom in this country or elsewhere. Follow Koch on Twitter: @HardDriveMMA

About The Author

Dale De Souza
Staff Writer

Dale De Souza is a 22-year-old kid straight out of Texas, who grew up around Professional Wrestling but embraced the beauty of Mixed Martial Arts and Combat Sports at a young age. Dale is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report MMA, a writer at The MMA Corner.