It has been a long road back to the Octagon for Erik Koch. When the 24-year-old steps into cage this Saturday night in Chicago, 16 months will have passed since the last time he mixed it up with an opponent on the sport's stage.
During that time, the Duke Roufus-trained fighter has suffered multiple injuries and watched title opportunities against featherweight champion Jose Aldo come and go on two occasions.
With Koch on the sidelines, the UFC tapped former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar to fill the No. 1 contender position opposite of Aldo. Rather than hang his head over opportunities lost, Koch used the experience to motivate his climb back to title contention.
On Saturday night at UFC on Fox 6, "New Breed" will square off with Ricardo Lamas. It will be a battle of surging contenders, with the winner likely to earn the next opportunity to compete for the 145-pound strap. The journey back has come with hardships and lessons, but Koch is looking forward to reclaiming his spot.
"This is so long overdue," Koch told Bleacher Report about his return. "A lot of people have asked how I felt when the title shot was taken away. Obviously, it sucked, but I'm to the point now where I'm just happy to be back fighting. I'm a fighter and I have been doing this all my life. I've never held a normal job and I've been competing since I was 10 years old. Fighting and competing is all I've done.
"To be out for a year, at a time when I had a roll going, was the most frustrating thing in the world. The featherweight title is very important and it is a goal I've wanted for a long time. But more than anything, I just want to fight.
"I'm in a good mood and have a great mindset. I honestly don't feel a lot of pressure coming into this fight. People talk about me being out for over a year and cage rust, but I'm ready to get out there and have fun. I'm ready to go."
On paper, the matchup between Koch and Lamas appears to be a classic "striking vs. grappling" affair. The Milwaukee-based fighter possesses nasty knockout power in his stand-up, and working behind an aggressive attack has paid dividends throughout his young career.
Lamas, on the other hand, is a wrestler through and through. "The Bully" likes to push the pace and has found success using his wrestling in transitions and scrambles. Koch is looking forward to the challenge and believes his skill set will prove too much for the Chicago native to handle.
"I think I match up great with Lamas," Koch said. "A lot of people think since I lost to Chad Mendes my wrestling is not good. I was a young kid and my wrestling wasn't even the problem—it was my striking. I was over-commiting on my punches. I was trying to knock him out and fighting like a young wild kid. I was being dumb. Now, I'm much more collected with my thought process and more methodical.
"I don't think Lamas is going to be able to take me down. I've always had good takedown defense; seven of my wins have come by submission. I'm no slouch on the ground. It is going to be a tough fight for him because he is going to realize wherever the fight goes—he doesn't have the advantage.
"I wanted this matchup with Lamas because it is going to be a good fight and it puts me right there for a title shot. It gives me a chance to reclaim the shot I had and I definitely feel there is unfinished business in that department. I spent nine months training for Aldo. I want that fight bad. But I'm not looking past Ricardo and all my focus is on him. It shouldn't be a sleeper fight by any means and I'm looking at it as the fight to become the No. 1 contender."
The race for contention in the featherweight division is heating up. With former lightweight champions and contenders dropping down, the competitiveness of the 145-pound weight class is only going to increase, and Koch understands the urgency of the moment.
"I'm definitely excited about these guys dropping down from 155 pounds," Koch said. "It adds more to the depth chart and brings more danger into the division. There is nothing better than being the champion of a bunch of bad-asses. I'm not here to fight in the weakest division. You give me a strong division and that's awesome because when I'm champion, then I will be the strongest champion around."
On Saturday night, Koch will have the unique opportunity to pick up exactly where he left off.
If he is able to solve the challenges Lamas brings to the table, there is a good chance Koch will once again become the No. 1 contender. He wants to make a loud statement against Lamas and leave no question as to who the next contender should be.
"I'm coming back and it is long overdue," Koch said. "I'm back in action and I'm looking to get the victory in impressive fashion. I don't want to go to the judges' cards. I want to knock Lamas out. I want to put a stamp on it and make it dominant. I let everyone know Erik Koch is here and there is a reason why I was the No. 1 contender. That is my goal and that is what I'm going to do."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.