You had to hear it to believe it, and even then it was shocking. Hundreds, maybe thousands of British fans were firing back at American Chris Cope with the “Woooo” yell that has become his trademark (via pro wrestling legend Ric Flair) as he walked to the Octagon to face home country favorite Che Mills at UFC 138 last November. It was one of those moments that only sports can provide, and The Ultimate Fighter 13’s Cope has an idea why fans from another continent were buying in to what he represented.
“Here’s the thing, and I’m not trying to sound cocky or arrogant, but I’m kinda like a Rudy, and how can you not like the underdog?” said Cope, referring to Rudy Ruettiger, the walk-on for the Notre Dame football team whose story was immortalized in the film “Rudy.” “Forrest Griffin is never gonna be known as a spectacular, crazy fighter, but that guy provides the average Joe with hope because he’s a guy who came from grass roots, he worked hard and trained hard and now he’s in the UFC and he’s one of the poster boys.”
Already 1-0 in the UFC with an impressive win over TUF13 castmate Chuck O’Neil in June of last year, Cope was in the process of building his own success story until a crushing knee sent him to the canvas and kicked off a sequence that saw him stopped in 40 seconds by Mills. Yet as he walked back out into the LG Arena to watch the rest of the event, once again he was stunned by what happened.
“I got laid out in that fight,” he said. “I got caught with a knee 40 seconds in, and I was embarrassed as hell. I knew I was going up against a really good fighter and I knew that things could happen even though I’ve never been caught like that before. It is what it is, and it happened. But I remember going back to the locker room and then coming back out to sit down, and they all wanted autographs. They all wanted pictures. I’m like ‘guys, I lost; I got caught in there, why do you want my autograph?’ They said ‘We don’t care. We love you, you’re great.’ That made me feel good because it made me really feel like it doesn’t matter whether I win or lose because these people have got my back. I call it the Woo Nation. I do it, they do it, and when I fight, I’m not just fighting by myself. They’re in there fighting with me.”
This Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, odds are that the Woo Nation will be out in force again to back their man when he faces Matt Brown in one of those fights that promises action.
“I think he’s a very tough guy, he comes out to fight very hard right off the bat, he’s got very good striking, underrated submissions off his back, and he’s a gamer,” said Cope of Brown. “He comes to fight, and he’s always very dangerous. I’m a fan of his and I’ve got nothing but respect for him.”
There’s also plenty on the line for both men. Cope, still relatively inexperienced with eight pro fights, is coming off the loss to Mills, which puts him at 1-1 in the Octagon. Brown is 1-4 in his last five, making a win imperative. But regardless of what’s at stake, Cope has never strayed from a path of work, work, work.
“I’m a grinder,” said Cope, who does paralegal work at a Southern California law firm in addition to his fighting career. “I wake up at six in the morning, I’m at work by seven. My lunch break is training, I train and then I go back to work, I leave at four. And then I basically go to pro practice from 4:15 to 5:30, then I work another hour with a trainer from 5:30 to 6:30, then either run or do strength and conditioning after that. I don’t know what it is about me, but if you’re gonna build a wall of success, you build it one brick at a time. And all those practices add up.”
For him, that’s the key, just being consistent and working harder than the next guy.
“People saw me on The Ultimate Fighter, and they didn’t think I was that good,” he said. “And you might be better than me, you might be faster than me, and you might be more athletically gifted than me, but when you’re missing sessions, I’m not. I’m in the gym, and come hell or high water, I’m getting those three goals.”
“I’ve got three goals in this thing, and once I do those, I’m done. One of them is to fight for the UFC, and I’ve done that. The second is to fight in Japan. The third one is to win a belt, and if I can do it in the UFC, that’s the number one dream come true. And once I get those three, I’m out.”
If Cope sounds like he’s got everything together at the age of 28, that would be an accurate assessment. But it wasn’t always that way for him.
“My dad used to be a narcotics cop, and when I was growing up, he always told me that he’d disown me if he ever caught me on drugs, and the whole time I was growing up, when kids were getting involved with weed and ecstasy, and after graduation, cocaine, I never messed around with it,” he said. “Alcohol was the one thing, and I’m like ‘it’s no big deal; it’s legal, I’m fine doing this.’ Well, lo and behold, in my opinion it’s one of the most destructive drugs out there. Almost every time there’s a murder, or an accident, or sometimes a fight, usually alcohol’s involved. It’s America’s drug.”
And Cope bought into it hook, line, and sinker, using alcohol as a means to fit in with the crowd his father warned him about.
“I thought I was the cool guy,” he said. “I graduated from UCSB (Cal-Santa Barbara) and Playboy rated it like the number two or three party school in the country. And the college parties I threw were out of a movie. I thought I was awesome and the coolest party guy ever.”
But after getting picked up by the police on three misdemeanors (vandalism, public intoxication, and resisting arrest), Cope began to see that he was headed in the wrong direction.
“For the first time in my life, I saw myself on the other end of the legal system, and I didn’t like that at all,” he said, “But I still kept drinking for a couple years.”
All the while, his pro MMA career was taking off, and when he got called to Las Vegas to be interviewed by producers for season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter in 2010, it was party time for the 4-1 Cope.
“I was faded, and that was 11 in the morning the next day,” he recalled. But when he got home to San Diego, he took a good, hard look at himself and didn’t like what he saw.
“I was embarrassed about myself,” he said. “I said enough’s enough. I’m done. I quit. And that was December 8th, 2010.”
More than 13 months later, he’s still sober.
“I used to call myself an alcoholic and I don’t call myself that anymore,” he said. “I just say that I’m a person that doesn’t really have a kill switch. It doesn’t define who I am, it’s just an aspect of my life, and I just keep going. It (alcohol) didn’t add anything to my life. It really alienated people from me, it caused me to blow a lot of my money, and I would guarantee that if I was drinking on that Ultimate Fighter show and got drunk on there, I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in now. Life couldn’t be better now and I’m glad I did it.”
If that’s not a reason to become a full-fledged member of Woo Nation, I don’t know what is. And if you’re looking to count someone out of a fight, Chris Cope is probably not that guy, because no matter what the final result is, he’s already won.
“You can play in small in life, or you can play big, but to play big, you’ve got to get on the field,” he said. “And when you get on the field, you might win or lose, but you still got on the field and played ball.”
Cope Bringing Woo Nation Back to Las Vegas
"You might be better than me, you might be faster than me, and you might be more athletically gifted than me, but when you’re missing sessions, I’m not." - Chris Cope