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PFL’s ‘Cuddly Bear’ Josh Copeland is a lovely human, except when mauling other humans

Back when he was a boy in Mountain Home, Arkansas, somewhere around the time of sixth grade, Josh Copeland found himself in an escalating confrontation. It was a place he didn’t want to be, and when his tormentor punched him in the face, Copeland found himself afflicted by a temporary bout of paralysis. He was frozen, unable to even raise his arms to defend himself.

“I remember thinking, ‘Am I going to fight this kid?’” Copeland recalled. “Everything inside of me said, ‘Protect yourself! Fight back!’ But I was literally scared stiff. Fighting just wasn’t my natural instinct.”

All these years later, Copeland is not afraid to say things have not changed in that regard, at least when it comes to his personal life. To this day, if someone sneaks up on him to scare him or shake him, he’s more likely to shriek than take action.

So, you might ask yourself, how did a guy like this get into professional fisticuffs? He must have been a wrestler or done karate growing up, right? Nope. Neither was a thing in his hometown while he was growing up. And while he did play football in high school, there were no grand plans of becoming an athlete whatsoever. In fact, upon graduation, Copeland’s career ambition was to become a youth pastor. He spent two years at bible school Boyce College and then two more years at Dallas Baptist University, a Christian liberal arts school before moving to Georgia to follow his intended career path.

“There is a real joy in serving other people, in seeing lives changes and encouraging them,” he said. “I like trying to give people hope in a sometimes-hopeless world.”

Young and newly married, Copeland seemed to have everything he wanted. Before long, however, his marriage unraveled. Licking his wounds, Copeland returned back to Texas at the invitation of his friend, Justin Wren. Yes, that Justin Wren. The two had met a couple years earlier at a jiu-jitsu gym where Copeland had been randomly invited by a friend of his. Upon meeting, the two became fast friends, with Copeland cornering Wren in a fight just days after first meeting.

Somewhere around that time, it was Wren that planted the seed in Copeland’s head about fighting, when he asked Copeland if he had ever considered it. Up to that moment, Copeland never had. But once the thought entered Copeland’s head, it stayed trapped there.

Soon, Copeland moved in with Wren and started shadowing him in the gym. Within eight months, Wren won an invitation to join season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter, and upon returning home, told Copeland they were moving to Colorado, to the then-powerhouse camp, Grudge Training Center.

“He didn’t have to twist my arm,” Copeland said. “By that point I had decided to give it a whirl and get started with an amateur fight. I was all-in.”

Still, he had to shake his better nature. In his first amateur bout, he remembers walking into the cage and thinking, “Am I really going to hit this guy who’s done nothing to me?” Frozen again, he ended up getting cracked and finished in just 17 seconds.

Over time, the unlikely pro fighter has built a formidable career for himself. In 20 fights, he’s 16-4 with 10 stoppages. He’s competed in the UFC and the World Series of Fighting, and on June 7, he’ll help kick off the Professional Fighters League’s 2018 regular season facing fellow UFC veteran Jack May. The two became friendly at a PFL video shoot prior to the announcement of their pairing, and in typical fashion for a guy nicknamed “Cuddly Bear,” Copeland has nothing but good things to say about his opponent.

“He seems like a great guy,” he said. “He’s a new dad, and I’m sure he’s a good dad. Dang, I wish we didn’t end up getting to be friends. It would have been easier becoming his friend afterward, but I still want to give the fans what they want to see. Let’s throw down. Knock me out or let me knock you out.”

Both fighters are entered in the PFL’s $1 million heavyweight tournament, which occurs during the course of the year with the hopes of raising both stakes and interest.

For Copeland, it’s not just about the money, although he would love to use it to help others. He spends a lot of time speaking to youth—he did 17 events last year, reaching thousands of kids in states including Oklahoma, North Carolina and Arkansas, encouraging perseverance. He uses himself as an example. At 6-foot-1, he’s not the tallest, strongest or fastest heavyweight, yet he’s been successful. And a win would further illustrate the importance of chasing dreams.

That’s personally significant for him as well. One of his biggest career regrets is his inability to secure a victory in the UFC. He went 0-2 during his brief run, losing to Ruslan Magomedov and Jared Rosholt. In retrospect, neither of those defeats is particularly egregious; Magomedov ranked No. 12 in the division before testing positive for ostarine and serving a suspension, while Rosholt, a three-time All-American wrestler, went 6-2 in the UFC before parting ways with the organization.

“I went from turning pro in 2012 to being in the UFC in 2014,” he said. “There’s no cream puffs in the UFC. But sitting here now in 2018, with this much more experience under my belt, I definitely feel so much more well-rounded with a better understanding of the game. I’m in a much better position to show I can fight the top guys.”

In a departure from his everyday personality, something clicks with Copeland in the cage. He’ll stand and trade, and enjoys every minute of that kind of war of attrition. It’s not only his expectation for PFL 1, it’s his desire.

“I like to throw down,” he said. “I like to fight. It’s fun for me.”

He’s come a long way, and he says he’s not likely to change his approach because there is a different prize at stake. “Cuddly Bear” hopes to leave with a mauling and a hug, and preferably in that order.

“Every person wants to compete, to do something, to be the best at something,” he said. “I’ve found that fulfillment with fighting. It’s why I can go out and hit someone as hard as I can, take the shots back and give them a hug afterward. I don’t fight out of anger and emotion. I just want to be the best I can be.”

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