When the PFL was first conceived, Jake Shields looked as though he’d found the perfect organization to carry out the what was left of his MMA career. Not only was season structure suited to him psychologically in that it was essentially a tournament — something he said truly appealed to him — but the seven-figure dangling carrot at the end was visible from where he stood. The only thing he had to do was win some fights against lesser known opponents, using his grappling to minimize the damage he’d take through the journey.
If only MMA followed such straight lines. Shields stepped into the cage at PFL 3 in Washington DC to face 25-year-old Ray Cooper III, a name he was well acquainted with from the old days. That’s because Shields fought Ray Cooper Jr. —Ray’s father — back in Honolulu back in 2004. He beat him via a first-round submission, while Cooper III was just 11 years old. Shields was inadvertently giving somebody’s son a chance to avenge his father’s loss, the kind of thing that feels too Hollywood to be true.
And that’s exactly what Cooper III did on July 5 to kick off the PFL’s 2018 season. “Bradda Boy” unleashed a bit of hell on Shields, highlighted by a steady dose of his powerful left hand. Not in the least bit intimidated by Shields’ six-inch height advantage, Cooper played deliberately with Shields’ ground game, fearing nothing from the moment he pulled guard in the opening seconds. Playing with fire? No, he was playing with power. In fact, he opened up a cut on the very first left he threw, alerting the 39-year-old veteran that he meant business. From there he made thousands of eyes pop open at once, using powerful inside punches, short hooks, and uppercuts.
Midway through the second round, after a huge left hook and some massive follow-up shots, referee Mario Yamasaki called an end to it. Cooper left Shields on the canvas, bleeding over both eyes and wondering what hit him.
Talk about arriving on the scene in a hurry.
“I wanted to get him out in the first round, but it took a little bit longer than that,” Cooper recently told MMA Fighting. “It was a big thing for me because I had watched Jake when I was younger fighting for big organizations, and as everyone knows, he fought my dad. It was kind of a big deal for me, just an awesome feeling, having watched him since being a little kid. It was awesome, but it was just another fight. I’ve still got four more fights to go to the top.”
Cooper’s next fight will come against Pavel Kusch on Thursday, August 16 in Atlantic City, N.J., just a little over a month since winning the biggest fight of his career. Yet the Hawaiian hasn’t exactly been taking a victory lap after the upset victory. Instead he’s been clamped down in Oahu readying himself for the follow-up against Kusch, who defeated Abubakar Nurmagomedov via second-round rear-naked choke on that same PFL 3 card.
Given that PFL has only began to truly unveil itself in the last couple of months, Cooper says the media hasn’t been knocking down his door for interview requests since the win. In fact, he says he’s been essentially “isolated” in Pacific Palisades, where he lives in Hawaii. Still, there’s an uptick of recognition from MMA diehards given that his big moment arrived in the form of TKOing the former Strikeforce middleweight champion, Shields.
He says that though his father, the original “Bradda,” cautioned him against Shields’ unassuming strength, he learned pretty quickly in his fight that it wouldn’t be a factor 14 years later.
“My dad said he was a strong guy, that he was a real strong, lanky, stiff kind of guy, so I was prepared for that,” he said. “But when I grabbed onto him he didn’t feel all that strong to me. I could do what I wanted to him, I passed his guard, took him down. So, I feel like I got one of the best ground games — if not the best ground — inside the tournament, just because I did what I wanted to do against Jake Shields. I’m very confident in what I can do against everybody else. And I didn’t even show my stand up yet, so we’re going to see it in this next one.”
As poetic as it might seem to some for a son to avenge his father more than a decade later, Cooper says that ultimately he and his father — who doubles as his manager, his coach, and his cornerman — took the whole thing in stride.
“Yeah, for me and him it’s just another fight,” he said. “It’s a big fight, but in the whole picture it’s just another fight, and we knew we could beat him. [My father] knows how I fight and what I can do, so it was just another fight in that way.”
So what is the ceiling for a 5-foot-7 super-laid back Hawaiian who has knockout power in both hands, and a fearlessness to stand and trade with the best of them?
“I’m looking to win the title this year,” he said. “[The PFL] is kind of like college wrestling, where they have different champions each year — I want to be a multiple-time champion for years to come. I’m going to win this tournament at 170, I’m going to move up to 185 and I’m going to keep going up and winning it. That’s my goal.”
It was one hell of a coming out party, beating Shields, and it showed the promise of a young guy just coming into his own. But even if he ends up winning the season and taking home a million dollars, “Bradda Boy” says he won’t be leaving the organization that unearthed him. He likes his environs, and he wants to make himself the face of the organization.
“I want to stay in the PFL, I’m not going to leave them,” he says. “They’ve been awesome to me. Ray Sefo, it’s a blessing from God that he gave me the chance. I’m going to win this whole thing, stay with the PFL, then maybe up to 185. I’m going to go after everybody. I am going to go through everybody.”