When Brett Cooper last stepped into the cage, it was for a five-minute, five-round fight for a championship in the Lords of the Cage MMA promotion. Cooper had prepared to fight for 25 minutes, but things didn't go quite as planned: He knocked Keith Berry out in just 10 seconds (video above).
"He came in real quick and aggressive, I countered him with a punch and it was over," Cooper said. "It was a strange moment because it happened so fast. It was bittersweet. But that's why you train hard, so things come easy in the fight. But I wouldn't have been disappointed if the fight would have gone more minutes."
For the 23-year-old Cooper, who will fight Alexander Schlemenko Saturday at Bellator 44 on MTV2, trying to make it as a full-time fighter outside the UFC sometimes means not wanting to win a fight too quickly: The experience of getting more minutes in the cage can be good for a fighter's development, and Lords of the Cage isn't exactly handing out six-figure Knockout of the Night bonuses, like UFC fighters can earn.
"I've had some difficulties that I'll keep to myself, just to be professional, but you can imagine how difficult it is," Cooper said of life for a fighter outside the UFC. "It's been rough. I'm getting married this year so I'm trying to save up money as much as I can. It's tough because the promotions that aren't with Zuffa, it's difficult to compete with them. It's been difficult money-wise to survive as a full-time MMA fighter. But I'm doing my best to make ends meet, try to teach classes and stuff and make it happen."
Cooper has been competing in MMA since he was 17, and although he has worked security to pay the bills in the past, he says he's now focusing all his energy on making it in the sport he's passionate about, with some personal training and martial arts instruction supplementing his in-cage income.
"You can make it work -- nothing's impossible -- but it's not exactly an enjoyable situation if you know what I mean," Cooper said.
The UFC has not just the biggest paydays in MMA but also the biggest sponsorships. Cooper praised the athletic apparel company inknburn.com for being his only sponsor, and one of the few sponsors that makes a point of trying to work with up-and-coming young fighters.
"They made me shorts and a personal shirt, and they've been awesome," Cooper said. "They make great clothing that looks cool and is also great to wear for your performance. They like the fact that they don't have to pay a royalty fee to the UFC right off the bat, and being on MTV2 gets them some exposure. It's really tough to get sponsorships because most companies are only interested in sponsoring the guys in the UFC."
But Cooper is quick to make clear that he completely understands why all the opportunities are in the UFC -- and that he hopes to fight inside the Octagon some day.
"I think everybody that's in MMA that really wants to be the best eventually has the UFC in their sights," Cooper said. "My contract is for another year and a half with Bellator and then I plan on going to the UFC. I just have to keep racking up wins, keep getting better, exercise the rest of this contract with Bellator and get into the UFC."
Cooper said he's studied tape of Schlemenko and has even sparred with him a few times when they worked out in the same gym, so he's prepared for Saturday night's fight both physically and mentally.
"I watch a lot of tape for sure, see what I can do to exploit his weaknesses, or find things that I'm better at and exploit that," Cooper said. "I use as much as I can so that when I get in the ring or cage I know what I'm going to do. The more prepared I am, the better.
The fight with Schlemenko will be Cooper's 20th as a pro, but he doesn't think he's even close to the halfway point of his MMA career.
"I think I'll fight until I'm about 35," Cooper said. "I see myself having the UFC middleweight belt some day."
But for now he's content to fight his way up the ladder.