They say mixed martial arts’ television demographics skew a bit older these days, but this is something all together different.
Steve Kozola turned heads in his last performance at Bellator 175. Making his main-card debut on one of Bellator’s tentpole events, Kozola knocked out Jake Roberts in just 28 seconds, giving him eight finishes in as many professional fights.
Back home in Illinois, that was news to the ears of the undefeated lightweight’s biggest fan: his 94-year-old grandmother, Doris Bailey.
“She’s my biggest fan,” Kozola said. “She doesn’t watch the fights live because it’s not good for her heart at that age, but once she knows I’m OK, she’ll watch the tape of the fight and she’ll watch it over and over. She asks good questions about the fights, too, she’s still sharp at her age.”
Grandma Bailey will have an opportunity to quiz her grandson again after Friday night’s Bellator 184, where Kozola will meet Carrington Banks in a battle of unbeaten prospects.
And she’ll see a fighter who’s undergone a change of scenery since we last heard from him. At the time of the Roberts fight, Kozola, who leaves in the north San Diego county town of Vista, was based with Temecula’s Team Quest.
Since then, however, Kozola has left the gym and gone on to divide his time between the Oceanside branch of Eddie Bravo’s 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu and Ultimate Training Center up the road in Huntington Beach, where he’s also serving as a coach.
Kozola says he enjoyed his time at Team Quest, but his current situation is a better fit at this point of his career. “Don’t get me wrong, Team Quest is a great gym,” Kozola said. “You learn so much there. Everywhere you turn, there’s someone who has done big things in the sport.
“But every time you go to the gym, there are just so many people there, there’s always so much going on. I feel like at this point in my career I’m better off being at a smaller place where I’m going to be the focal point.”
Which leads to his next fight, against the 6-0 Banks. Kozola says that his “0” is a lot different than the goose egg in Banks’ loss ledger.
“If you look at this on paper, sure, I understand why people think this is one of those evenly matched, future contender fights,” Kozola said. “But it’s not. He can wrestle, but I’m more well-rounded. I can take the fight anywhere it goes. I’ve got better training, better skills, I’m more confident, and I’m going to come out and show it.”
One thing Kozola won’t do is try to one-up himself. The fighter nicknamed “Thunderbeast” has put together a string of impressive finishes, and the high-profile win over Roberts brought him more attention than ever before. But Roberts says he doesn’t feel the need to live up to a burgeoning rep.
“I don’t try to force it and I don’t try to think about it,” Kozola said. “I just try to go out there and get in the flow and things happen. It’s nice to get the attention, but I’m keeping my feet on the ground because that’s not what I’m here for. I came here to compete and to make my name in this sport and provide for my family.”
Family which includes his biggest fans.
“At first, when I told my Mom and my grandma I wanted to become a fighter for a living, they were horrified,” Kozola said. “They didn’t know what the sport was. But know that they know the level of athleticism and skills that goes into this and much dedication it takes, they’ve come around on it more than I ever would have imagined.”