Amanda Cooper was two fights into her pro career when she reached a goal that some martial artists strive their whole career for.
True, Cooper had paid her dues on the amateur scene, and her UFC debut came on the heels of a strong performance in The Ultimate Fighter 23 strawweight tournament where she defeated three opponents before running into Tatiana Suarez in the finals. It was Suarez who picked up the win to earn a UFC contract, but Cooper would be signed as well despite her official record (TUF bouts are counted as exhibitions) dropping to 1-2.
Cooper’s six-fight UFC run saw her go 2-4, with wins over veteran Angela Magana and Anna Elmose, and losses to Suarez, Cynthia Calvilla, Mackenzie Dern, and Ashley Yoder. The Yoder fight last November was the final one remaining on Cooper’s contract and she knew going into it that it was essentially a “win and you’re still in” affair. Thus, her 2019 ended in bittersweet fashion, with an engagement to fellow fighter Cody Brundage and the reality that she was no longer a member of the UFC roster.
In her time away from competition, Cooper and Brundage were married and Cooper took her time looking for the right opportunity to compete again, a luxury that wasn’t afforded to her at the UFC level. She’s set to fight Jamie Milanowski in a flyweight bout this Saturday at Lights Out Championship 5 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and though her goal is to return to the big show, she’s relishing having the chance to experience a level of development she was forced to abruptly skip three years ago.
“I would love to be in the UFC, for most people that’s the dream, that’s the goal is to get to the UFC,” Cooper recently told MMA Fighting. “But it was kind of a relief a little bit because I got in the UFC when I was 1-1 and I just kind of grew up fighting in the hardest organization in the world. I didn’t get to decide when my fights were, who they were against, I didn’t know when I’d fight again, so it was tough fighting the hardest fights of my life every single time when I had come to the UFC, I was just so new, 1-1 in the TUF house.
“Once I got released I was kind of upset, but I talked to my manager and my coaches and my husband and just thought it was great. Now I can see what promotions I want to fight for, pick my opponents, find my own timeline.”
The saying goes that there are no easy fights in the UFC, but that was particularly true for Cooper. Her first opponent, Suarez, is currently unbeaten and a top-5 contender at 115 pounds. Calvillo went on to win four of her next five fights, Magana had almost four times the experience of Cooper, and the Dern and Yoder fights both had their share of controversy.
Dern weighed in seven pounds over the strawweight limit for her bout with Cooper at UFC 224 in May 2015 and though Cooper received a healthy percentage of Dern’s earnings, she was also on the receiving end of a first-round submission loss. The Yoder fight did not have the pre-fight drama of the Dern matchup, rather it wasn’t until battling Yoder for 15 minutes that Cooper was left with a bitter taste in her mouth.
The official result was a split decision win for Yoder, though Cooper (and a significant segment of the media) felt that the call was wrong. Even though reviewing the fight has only made her more confident that the scores should have been in her favor, Cooper has accepted the result and is ready to move on.
“I think anyone’s career in the UFC is kind of out of their hands,” Cooper said. “That’s the tough thing about the sport. You get a fight, you don’t get to say yes or no, really, you have to say yes. You can’t ask for an opponent change or a different time frame, or this location doesn’t work out for me, you don’t get to decide what you’re doing, you just have to say yes. All my fights that I had, all my losses were tough people, I just felt like I was getting all the odds stacked against me.
“But I’m the one that agreed to the fight, that said yes to them, so no one to blame other than myself. Yes, I wish Makenzie Dern wasn’t as heavy; yes, I wish the decision went my way against Ashley Yoder, maybe I’d still be in the UFC. I don’t know, maybe I wouldn’t. I don’t really know. It’s been eight months and I’m happy looking back on it now that I’m kind of out of that pressure and out of that stress for a little bit and kind of relaxed and doing my own thing and going where I want to go.”
Control. Cooper has it, at least as far as being able to leverage her UFC success into her matchmaking now that she’s back on the regional scene (Cooper is also expected to compete for Invicta FC in the near future after signing with the promotion in July). Her next fight is a main event opportunity in her native Michigan. It’s at 125 pounds, a weight she’s considerably more comfortable with. And Cooper even made sure there to include clauses in her contract to protect herself should Milanowski slip up on the scale like Dern.
According to Cooper, Milanowski came in heavy for her last fight and if she does so again, there will be a stiffer purse penalty than the standard 20 percent. If Milanowski is three pounds over, the penalty will be 30 percent; four pounds, 40 percent, and then 10 percent more for every pound over. Cooper said she’ll think twice about accepting the fight if it gets to that point.
Being able to negotiate that kind of deal is one thing Cooper appreciates about her current situation, though she admitted that it will be hard to match the energy and atmosphere she’d become accustomed to during a UFC fight week. Other than that, this homecoming is as good as it gets.
“I am really excited for the opportunity,” Cooper said. “I think my opponent is perfect for me. I think the timeline’s perfect, I do like that I’m fighting in Michigan with my crowd there. Last time I did that was in Detroit, the Little Caesars Arena, against Angela. I had such an awesome time with the crowd and being able to fight in my hometown, so that’s truly what I’m really excited for.”