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By Rich Hansen, MMA Torch Columnist
I recently had the chance to sit down with famed kickboxer and MMA trainer Duke Roufus at his academy in Milwaukee. Please note that this interview was conducted one day before word broke of Jose Aldo's injury, which will delay his UFC featherweight title fight from July to a yet unknown date. This interview was originally published on June 15, 2012.
Rich Hansen: A lot of the finishes that your fighters have had recently, you've told me after the fact that you saw them happen in your head during training. Do you have something specific that you see for Koch against Aldo?
Duke Roufus: Two or three weapons. For sure. I mean, Erik man, he's a diligent student. He's a loyal soldier to the cause. Today I pushed him even farther. His strength and conditioning, him and Anthony [Pettis] go to a place called NX Level, owned by Joel Przybilla (formerly) of the Bucks and Brad Arnett who used to be the head strength and conditioning coach at the University of Minnesota. They're putting guys in the NFL, NBA and major leagues constantly. Erik's strength and conditioning... I mean, I know I say Anthony hits really hard for a  pounder, but Erik is hitting me really hard for a guy who fights at 145 pounds. I'm going home sore from holding for him. He's a 23 year old beast, and he's scary.
Rich Hansen: He's being widely discounted and overlooked. A lot of people say he got the shot because he was in the right place at the right time. Is that starting to piss him off, or is just like water off a duck's back to him?
Duke Roufus: Oh, it's water off the back. Erik will fight whoever the UFC wants to put in front of him, ask most of my guys. They just want to fight. I like the fact that he's discounted. All the pressure is on Aldo. If it comes into the first round, you know everyone's told Aldo that this guy (Koch), he's whatever. He comes into the first round, second round, all of a sudden everything Aldo's done to everyone else isn't working. Well, what the hell? This skinny white boy is right in front of me. Wait a minute, what's going on here? He definitely is there to shut this guy down. That's the thing; I think psychologically you've got to get used to that mindset mentality. This is the right gym for Erik. Our guys are going to bang and trade with him.
Rich Hansen: How do you prepare Koch for the mental game, facing off against the best guy in the world? How do you get him to smash through any mental blocks and just say go for it?
Duke Roufus: That's one thing Erik is really good at. You should always have a fear before a fight, a healthy fear. But he's not scared of another man in the Octagon. I mean, he gave Chad Mendes the toughest fight of Mendes' career early in his career. Chad Mendes still says it was the toughest fight of his career other than Aldo. And that was very young in Erik's career. And then he moved here where he's really matured. I mean, that's the thing, this is what we do! Aldo's really good at kickboxing, but (laughs), that's what we're known for here. So I've got a bunch of guys who are doing the same thing that Aldo does. Obviously, no one is ever going to be as good as the current champion. But he's definitely prepared for that mindset. I'm drawing on all my old students and fighters, all my former muay thai K-1 fighters are all banding together. We're putting together a huge slew of sparring partners and training partners that are accomplished strikers who are going to come in here and spar with Erik for this one.
Rich Hansen: How is Sergio Pettis preparation going for his fight on June 16 in Indianapolis?
Duke Roufus: He's actually settling back in to 135. Last fight, he fought very well. I was really impressed with him. He did a lot of different tools that he's not known for. He used his wrestling and positional control, which is a big part of MMA. Guys have to learn how to play every position and it's good that he's learning that at an early age. You don't always have to knock a guy out to win. But I think he's settling back into 135.
Rich Hansen: Why?
Duke Roufus: He wasn't as strong. He didn't feel it at 125. I just like him at 135. His performance is better.
Rich Hansen: Was this his call or your call?
Duke Roufus: My call. These guys are loyal soldiers. If I told Eli (Garcia, a 19 year old amateur fighter, cousin to the Pettis brothers) over there to make 115 he would. I can just tell where a guy is comfortable. A lot of people were talking about Anthony Pettis moving down to 145. I think Anthony Pettis is a dynamic 155 pounder. He'd be a not dynamic 145 fighter.
Rich Hansen: So wait until something's broke before you fix it?
Duke Roufus: Absolutely! And Sergio's still growing, he only 18 years old, 19 in August. I just want him to fill out, he's strong. The other thing too, with our teammates, we've got two other really good 125ers on our team. That's the thing with our team. We don't want to have too many 125ers. I never want to get in a situation like at AKA. I don't want to take on a million 125ers or 135ers because it's hard for those guys. We've got a few 145ers like Erik and Rick Glenn. I don't want to get inner-gym conflicts. Opportunities are hard enough.
Rich Hansen: Is it hard for you to find higher weight class fighters? [Alan] Belcher's your biggest guy now that Pat Barry isn't here any more.
Duke Roufus: Yeah, it's just the makeup of our gym. Take a look out there right now; I've got a lot of 170 pound and down guys. It's just who walks through your (front door) sometimes. And I'm not going to lie. Our style of training is not exactly heavyweight friendly. It's very mobile, it's very... I mean, what made me okay in my sport in muay thai and kickboxing was that I wanted to be a Muhammad Ali type guy. Athletic, fast, I wanted to do road work. I always did road work with all the guys who fought at 160. My older brother (Rick Roufus) was a smaller fighter. My other brothers were smaller than me, so I had to keep up. I was sort of the goal keeper on the soccer team. Who cares if he's just the goalie, he's still got to run just as fast as the whole team. I just think that's one of the keys to success that Junior dos Santos and guys like Cain Velasquez bring to the UFC; that they are mobile heavyweights. They're strong, they're athletic, they're mobile, they're kind of like and NFL football player. We're just a small guy gym. I don't mind. And then there are heavyweight gyms too, like Deathclutch. They've got a lot of heavyweights there. And then Team Alpha is a super small guy gym. Hey man, whatever works, works.
Rich Hansen: When is Anthony Pettis going to fight next? Is it going to be September, or is that unrealistic?
Duke Roufus: Probably October or November. Anthony is the consummate [professional]. He was asking me this that and the other, I always have to send him videos to study. He wants to be back in there now. There is a reason he had this injury. He's got to heal this injury. He's got to get stronger. One of the reasons he got the shoulder surgery was that we want to put more weight on him. In the last two fights he hasn't gone to the sauna (to cut weight). The day of the weigh-ins he does a light workout in the morning and he makes weight. He's not struggling.
Rich Hansen: And that's why people are calling out 145.
Duke Roufus: We actually want to put more size on him and let him mature over time. And the shoulder injury was eliminating a lot of presses and a lot of other things he could do with strength and conditioning to deal with the strength of all these other great wrestlers who are in MMA. And it'll protect his body too. The more muscle, you have armor on your body. But needless to say, he was thinking 'Yeah, I'll be ready by September.' But I asked him, ‘But what did your surgeon say?' And the surgeon said that usually an NFL player would start training around October. Because it's the same type of injury, you start taking people down and get taken down and he's going to smash his shoulder. We don't want him to get hurt again. Time's on his side. A lot of guys are calling him out and want to fight him. There's always going to be a list of guys who want to fight Anthony right now.
Rich Hansen: How is Alan Belcher's hand, and when will he back in the cage?
Duke Roufus: He's healing up and he's kind of bummed. He's one of those guys who has bad luck with injuries. We may have seen him sneak into a Lombard fight or one of these other fights (that opened up due to injuries). But the nice thing too about Alan, time's on his side too. He's winning fights, and that's the biggest thing; don't be impetuous, be patient. Make sure you go into these fights with 101% health. I mean, you're going to fight injured, either you're hurt or you're injured. I should say you're going to fight hurt but not when you're injured. And that was an injury. He smashed his knuckle on Palhares' head. But you know, I'm ready to say Alan will fight anyone in the middleweight division. Put any guy in front of him and he'll fight him. The problem with Alan is a blessing and a problem. A lot of people don't know Alan because Alan is such a good family man; he spends so much time with his family. With his martial arts school. Being a mentor. He's training at home. He's focusing on his school. He's not they guy who is at every UFC event promoting himself. He's not out there like some of the other athletes who are pumping themselves up and rightfully so. He's the guy who is dedicated to the mat and his family. He's not the guy who's the highest on the promotions list. But the last I heard it's not a popularity contest it's still the best fighters in the world winning the world championship.
Rich Hansen: Do you know when we'll see him back in the cage?
Duke Roufus: Hoping by fall again. You know. The only big fight we have this summer is Erik Koch.
Rich Hansen: Kind of a big one.
Duke Roufus: Yeah. I mean, it is our first UFC (Championship) fight from our academy. I'm a little crazy, and when we train he's turned that corner and I'm like ‘Oh boy!' I won't tell Erik this, and hopefully he doesn't read it, but I'm starting to get a little cocky about this one. I mean, he's just getting so strong and he could walk through walls right now. This early in the camp, I shouldn't say early, but so far away from the fight, he's really strong. He's looking great, he's a workhorse. He just did eight rounds of really hard pads. He sparred and trained this morning, and he's going to roll another ten rounds of jiu-jitsu. That's the thing here; we train four days really hard. On Fridays we cool down and sometimes on the weekends it's a light pads session. But it's the worst four and a half days of your life. But that's what makes you tough. I remember what my boxing coach used to tell me, 'Don't be Tarzan in the gym but Jane in the game.'
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