Steve Kozola didn’t expect the “Thunderbeast” nickname to stick.
The undefeated lightweight had just won his second professional fight, both of which came via finish. And the San Diego county resident was heading out with a carful of friends for a weekend of fun in Las Vegas.
Kozola’s buddies got on his case to come up with a nickname, figuring that every fighter has one, so he started Googling MMA nicknames on his phone.
“Thunderbeast came up, and it was so bad I laughed and said it out loud,” the Team Quest fighter said. “And of course all weekend long, my friends called me that. They just kept calling me ‘Thunderbeast.’ I figured I’d let them have their fun and it would die out.
Fast forward to Kozola’s next fight, and his nickname became official.
“The best man in my wedding went up to the DJ before I was announced and said he needed to call me ‘Thunderbeast,’” Kozola said. “Then I went out and won by knockout in under a minute, and I sort of knew right then and there that the name was going to stick.”
Nickname or no, Kozola’s won all seven of his pro fights via finish inside two rounds, the last six by knockout. After compiling a 3-0 record in Bellator and WSOF on one-fight contracts in his recent matchups, Kozola has committed to a long-term Bellator deal, and he’ll have the biggest spotlight of his burgeoning career on Friday at Bellator 175.
Kozola (7-0) will meet Jake Roberts (6-1) in a main card bout at Allstate Arena in suburban Chicago in the leadup to the Quinton “Rampage” Jackson-“King Mo” Lawal main event.
“I’m ready for this,” Kozola said. “I know it’s a big step up but I mean, at the end of the day, it’s just me and my opponent and a referee in a cage. Whether I’m on a local show or in a huge arena on national television, the basics are all that same so that’s how I break it down.”
Besides, the 27-year-old hasn’t been afraid to make bold moves in the past. Kozola, who was born and raised in Illinois, got in a car and moved to San Marcos, Calif., in 2013, looking for a fresh start after a relationship break up he termed “all my fault.”
“I came out to California with $300 in my pocket and nowhere to live,” Kozola said. “I ended up staying on a couch for awhile. I just knew I was determined to change and become a better person and make something of my life, and I had a feeling my opportunities would be better out there.”
A year or so later, Kozola made his next big step: He cold-called Team Quest down the road in Temecula, looking to hook up with a big-time gym.
What he found was a legend, Dan Henderson, who gave him a stranger who was just breaking in a fair chance.
“The thing I learned most from Dan, aside from what I’ve been taught in the gym, is his attitude toward people,” Kozola said. ”Everything he’s done in this sport, there’s no one who’s done more than he has, and I’ve never seen him act big-time around anyone. If it seems to fans like he’s a regular dude, he is. The atmosphere in a gym comes from the head down and he sets the tone for the whole team. It’s made me into the fighter I am today.”
Kozola’s opponent, Roberts (6-1), is a Missouri native who is also a finisher. He had two knockouts and four submissions in his first six pro fights before dropping a decision Carrington Banks in his most recent bout at Bellator 165.
While Kozola says he’s not necessarily going out there to live up to “Thunderbeast” mode, if it just happens that way, he’s fine with that, too.
“I’ve got nothing against Jake, he’s a good guy and he’s a pretty good fighter,” Kozola said. “I’m not taking him lightly. But what the fans on Spike are going to see is the difference between someone who is a good fighter who likes what he does and someone who has his eyes on greatness, on becoming a champion, and someone who says that guy who is ‘good’ as an obstacle in his path. I’m going to be a champion one day, I’m going to wear that Bellator title.”