Heading into 2018, Ray Cooper III was a relative unknown for anybody outside of Hawaii. He was coming off a split decision loss against Handesson Ferreira in a Mid-Pacific Championships fight that virtually nobody in the continental U.S. paid attention to. But, as a tough Hawaiian kid on the verge of breaking out, he signed up with PFL as a kind of intrigue as an unknown, because the PFL season-to-playoffs structure is meant to unearth talent while providing a million-dollar dangling carrot to the veterans of the trade.
Well, through four fights in PFL, Cooper is no longer an intrigue — he is the man to beat.
“Bradda Boy” began his run with the promotion by taking out the former Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields this past July, a feat that opened some eyes right off the bat. To follow that up, he blew up Pavel Kusch in 18 seconds to set the PFL record for quickest finish. After earning the No. 1 seed in the welterweight playoffs, he drew none other than Jake Shields again this past weekend in the quarterfinals bracket. He would be asked to duplicate his feat.
So what did he do? Second verse, same as the first — only this time he finished Shields quicker, in the first round rather than the second.
“I knew how it was going to go down from the first fight,” Cooper told MMA Fighting. “I know my ground game is strong and I have good wrestling, but nobody really knows how I wrestle. I’ve been kind of putting guys away standing, so I just wanted to get to the ground to prove I can handle anybody on the ground, even the best guys. So it was kind of proof that I’m the top guy now.”
If that wasn’t proof enough, Cooper got a chance to avenge himself against Ferreira in the semifinals, held that same night in Washington D.C. This time he was able to punish Ferreira with his powerful right hand, and score a first-round TKO to punch his ticket to the welterweight finals, which takes place at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 31.
Two KOs in one night, and a perfect 4-0 record so far in 2018, with a chance to cap off the year with a million bucks? The 25-year old Cooper has arrived, just in time to be one of the Must Watch names in the PFL.
“I said I was going to do this,” Cooper said on Monday, already back home in Hawaii. “I said I was the underdog coming into this tournament, and nobody really knew who I was, but I knew my ability. I showed it that night, and now I’m in the finals. One step closer and I’m looking forward to the fight.”
Cooper’s opponent in the finals will be against Magomed Magomedkerimov (22-5), the Dagestan fighter who navigated his way through the field with victories over Kusch and former UFC fighter Bojan Velickovic. Like Cooper, Magomedkerimov showcased a bit of his power by finishing Velickovic in the semis in fairly emphatic fashion.
Not that it was all that impressive to Cooper, who is as laid back in these matters as island life will afford.
“He’s not really…eh, I don’t see him giving me anything,” Cooper says. “His wrestling is alright. I’m going to take it to him, just like I did in my last two fights. And I’m going to finish him too in the first round, so he’s going to be able to handle my pressure. There’s not much room to run, and sooner or later I’m going to catch him.”
In Cooper’s TKO of Shields, he landed a seemingly flush right hand off a break that hurt Shields and sent him reeling. From there it was the beginning of the end for the longtime fight game stalwart, who has fought in some of the most historic fights in MMA history. Cooper pounced, and moments later Shields was through.
“That right hand, I didn’t catch him really good — he was kind of falling when I caught him,” Cooper admits. “I caught him on the top of the head. But I could tell he was dazed from that because he covered up real quick, and he couldn’t move when I took his back. I was landing some clean shots.”
As for avenging his loss to Ferreira — the last man to beat him — Cooper’s voice doesn’t raise an octave when asked what it meant.
“Yeah, I was kind of happy to rematch him,” he says. “The first one, I wasn’t really training for that fight and I knew I could have beat him. I knew he was a tough guy, that his ground game was alright. But I knew I could do what I wanted with him, and I did. It was a good fight.”
Cooper came out of his two-fight, 4,750-mile voyage to the East Coast in near-mint condition. Shields never really landed anything clean on him, and Ferreira didn’t fare much better. Maybe beating the individual names that the PFL saddled him with doesn’t get an obvious rise out of him, but idea of fighting twice in one night does.
Cooper says he loved having multiple fights on the same night, because it brought back memories.
“I just got back into the wrestling mode of, when you wrestle in the quarterfinals, you win, you get to the semifinals, you win, you wrestle in the finals that same day,” he says. “So I was ready for everything.”
“It was awesome. I had so much fun doing it. I brought me back to my kid days when I used to wrestle. I got really excited to fight again, and my fire for fighting is burning even stronger to do it again next year. I think PFL is going to take over. Nobody does this, nobody fights twice in a night. Everybody’s getting hurt, or they can’t handle the asterisk of fighting twice in a night. They think it’s not good. But only really fighters know, back in the PRIDE days how they used to do. That’s the real art of fighting, knowing you can go however long, against whoever.”
Cooper and his father — Ray Cooper Jr., who fought and lost to Shields back in 2004 — have an MMA business back on the island. Should he topple Magomedkerimov to win the million dollars, he says he wants to pump the money into the family business and get right back on the horse.
“This is just one step closer to my goal,” he says. “I feel very happy with taking care of my family, and I’m so blessed to have my dad training me. He’s been putting in the work, and I get to take care of him now. I was supposed to go to college, and I choose not to fight five years ago. Now it’s happening, and I’m getting an opportunity to really take care of my family. I feel really blessed.”
Cooper affords himself a little chuckle when contemplating what he believes is still in store for him.
“I ain’t done,” he says. “I’m going to go after everybody, go after all the champions. My goal is to be the best in the world, and to be the best you’ve got to fight the heavier guys, not the lower guys. You’ve got to go after the 185ers, the 205ers, and eventually the heavyweights, and the heavyweights are the baddest men on the planet. That’s what I look forward to, fighting the strongest guys on the planet.”