When asked point blank if his goal was to be UFC heavyweight champion, Josh “Cuddly Bear” Copeland answered honestly:
The conversation took place about three years ago and, seemingly, the question was a part of Grudge Training Center head trainer Trevor Wittman’s process to understand this young, amateur MMA fighter’s mindset. In terms of motivation, Copeland’s drive to put in the hard hours at the famed Colorado gym was not fame, fortune and a glittery gold belt.
Simply put, Copeland’s aim was to push himself as hard as he could to as far as that would take him.
“Basically, I told Trevor that I would be satisfied being the best Josh Copeland I could be,” Copeland remembers. “If that’s just a local guy, then cool. If that means to fight in the UFC and that’s it, then that’s cool. If that means a title shot, then cool - I’ll take it. As long as I know I gave it my all. I’m still going to train my butt off every day and be the best I can be.”
And since he turned pro in 2012, that “best” that Copeland “could be” is undefeated.
The 32-year-old is bringing a perfect 9-0 record into his Octagon debut at UFC Fight Night: Edgar vs. Swanson this Saturday. On top of his unblemished record, Copeland owns seven of his victories by stoppage including four KOs and three submissions. All of those finishes occurred in the first round, five of them within the first two minutes. More or less, he has been an unstoppable freight train thus far, riding on those tracks of trying to be the best Josh Copeland he could be.
“I would say it’s basically my job to get in there and finish them,” Copeland said. “I’m the type of person who would like to leave it all out there and finish them or get finished. That’s really what the fans want to see and that’s what I expect from myself. I’m not a cocky person. I’m not going into the UFC pretending I’m the biggest and the baddest. I’m going in there treating it as a sport and doing the best that I can do. That’s how I approach every fight. I just don’t want to live life with regret. There’s just so much more for me to learn in this sport and it’s just fun for me. I’m not satisfied yet.”
While he is clearly quite adept at combat sports, the beginnings of Copeland’s mixed martial arts journey came out of the blue. Growing up in Arkansas, Copeland played basketball, football and threw the shot put and discus. It wasn’t until 2005 when Copeland was in college at Dallas Baptist University that his life’s course changed with an unlikely invitation.
“I was throwing shot put in college and one of the kids in the class invited me to come up to Travis Lutter’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu,” Copeland said. “I had no clue what Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was. I told him I would come. I checked it out and I fell in love with it. I was basically just a grappler, straight Jiu-Jitsu, when I moved up here to Colorado.”
From there, his new athletic pursuit was ushered along by a series of Ultimate Fighter alums. Lutter, who won the fourth season, taught Copeland Jiu-Jitsu, and it was at Lutter’s gym where Copeland became friends with then-undefeated pro Justin Wren, who would eventually compete on the tenth season. While on the show, Wren would be coached by Wittman and former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, and was given an open-invite to work with them afterward. In the fall of 2009, Wren and Copeland moved to Colorado to train full-time at Grudge.
Fast forward to now, and Copeland is fresh off a dominant first-round TKO win in July and heading into his UFC debut this Saturday in Austin against Ruslan “Leopard” Magomedov. At 12-1, the Dagestani heavyweight earned a unanimous decision win in his first UFC contest against Viktor Pesta in May. Owning a third of his wins by KO, the 6’3” “Leopard” will most likely look to use his height and reach advantage inside the Octagon against the shorter Copeland, but that hasn’t worked out well for the Idaho native’s previous opponents.
“It’s not about paying attention to their hands or what they’re doing; it’s about getting the timing of their feet,” Copeland said. “Anyone can move their hands around and make you think something, but if you understand distance and you understand taller guys that are longer than you, it’s not always good for me to chase them and be the first one to hit them. A lot of times, I like to sit back and get the timing of their feet and start to understand them. Then when they try to hit me, they step forward, and when they step forward that’s when they close the distance for me and when they close the distance, then - boom - I can crack them.”
In preparation for the tough challenge, Copeland has recently made the move to Factory X Muay Thai in Englewood, Colorado. The new fight team boasts UFC veterans like Chris Camozzi and Dustin Jacoby. He also put in some valuable training with Team Takedown and fellow heavyweight Jared Rosholt. “I was very impressed with that place and their coaches,” Copeland said. “It was really cool, especially, with Jared fighting on the same card and working together and trying to be in the same place conditioning-wise to get ready for this.”
This Saturday, two heavyweights will collide as Copeland takes on Magomedov. “More than likely, I am going to knock him out with my hands or he’s going to knock me out with his nice little left kick,” Copeland, who fight fans can trust will be gunning for that exciting finish as best as he can, said. “The only pressure I put on myself is to go out there, do my best and leave it all out there.”