Ray Cooper III already has one PFL championship under his belt and he has an even bigger goal in his sights.
Certainly, another league title and another $1,000,000 tournament prize are enough motivation for Cooper III as he heads into his next regular season welterweight bout against Nikolay Aleksakhin at PFL 5 this Thursday in Atlantic City, N.J. But that’s been-there-done-that territory for Cooper now, who finished as a finalist in the PFL’s inaugural season before capturing the 2019 championship.
He took care of business in his 2021 PFL debut, needing less than 90 seconds to put away Jason Ponet via arm-triangle and he’s now in the catbird seat to make the playoffs for a third straight season.
A proud Hawaiian, Cooper, 28, has seen his state produce champions like B.J. Penn, Max Holloway, and Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, and one day when he’s done fighting, he wants to be known as the greatest fighter from the islands.
“I would like to go down as the best Hawaiian fighter that came out,” Cooper told MMA Fighting. “B.J. Penn, I look up to him plenty and I take a lot of things from him. I used to watch him when I was young. He was one of the pioneers of the sport and to be up there with him would be an honor.
“But I just want to leave a legacy that you can make it from a small island and you don’t need all these big gyms and all these managers to help you. You just need a good, strong core of people you trust. I have my family and I’m blessed that I can do this with my family. It would be awesome to go down as one of the best Hawaii fighters.”
Three years ago, the PFL presented a major opportunity for Cooper to be seen on a bigger stage. He emerged as one of the favorites to win it all after defeating former Strikeforce champion and one-time UFC title challenger Jake Shields in his first fight for the league, then ran through his next three fights (including a rematch with Shields) before falling to Magomed Magomedkerimov in the finals.
Cooper won it all the following year, which boosted his profile, and his win over Ponet took place on ESPN2. Now a veteran with a 21-7-1 record, he acknowledged that he’s become a well-known face in Hawaii and that he’s getting the recognition of an athlete of his caliber.
“Hawaii’s not a big place so everybody kind of knows each other,” Cooper said. “It’s a big step from where I was fighting before and being on ESPN that’s where all the top athletes are at. I consider myself one of the top athletes in MMA. My fame, I really don’t pay attention to the fame, I’m not really into that.”
That said, as a PFL mainstay, Cooper has led the charge for the league as it carves out a space for itself in the crowded MMA landscape. Asked if he feels he is one of the top representatives of the league, he didn’t shy away from the responsibility.
“It’s not important to me, but I am the face of the PFL,” Cooper said. “I’ve been there from when it first started. I’ve been in the finals twice, I won once. I come to fight and I come to put on exciting fights.
“These guys, they don’t put on exciting fights, mostly all of them. I come to finish fights, I don’t come to play around. I don’t talk too much either. I just say what I’m going to do and I go in there and I back it up. As far as me being the face, I think I am and with all these new guys coming in, I’m going to run them over sooner or later.”
That means getting past Aleksakhin (Cooper actually missed weight on Wednesday, resulting in a one-point deduction in the standings and he will not be eligible to earn points from the fight). And if the right cards are dealt, possibly meeting up with PFL rookie Rory MacDonald, or getting that much-anticipated rematch with Magomedkerimov in the playoffs. Otherwise, Cooper isn’t picky about who he fights as much as he looks forward to either of those challenges.
With the PFL playoff system rewarding fighters for finishing their opponents, Cooper has always been the perfect fit for the league. In 11 league appearances, Cooper has only gone to the scorecards once. When it comes to racking up points, he doesn’t think anyone has done it better.
“I don’t feel out fights, I go in there to try to clean somebody out,” Cooper said. “It’s no disrespect to any other fighters, it’s just that’s how I fight, many fighters don’t fight like that. They’re real passive the way they fight, real strategic in some cases. I feel like I’m the most exciting fighter in the PFL.”