By Elias Cepeda
You may have never heard of Brett Cooper (18-7), but chances are you know a lot of the guys he’s beaten. The middleweight has scored victories against six veterans of the UFC, Strikeforce, and WEC over the course of his eight-year career.
Tonight at Bellator 92, Cooper fights another UFC veteran – TUF 7 castmember Dan Cramer – in the semifinals of Bellator’s Season 8 Middleweight tournament, airing on Spike. The 25-year-old Southern-California native’s journey towards respect and notoriety has been long and hard since he decided he wanted to become a mixed martial arts fighter.
His interest was as it is now, simple but hard to explain. “I was always an athlete as a kid, and in all the sports I did I always wanted to be the best,” Cooper tells CagePotato.
“When I started training martial arts, I figured the way to show you’re the best at that was to fight in MMA. So, when I first walked into a gym, I told the coaches, ‘I want to be a fighter,’” he laughs.
Cooper admits that people like that often get dismissed or laughed at in serious gyms. But the kid stuck with it and threw himself into the deep end, fighting early and often. Cooper was seventeen the first time he fought as a professional, though it wasn’t until a couple years later that he says he started thinking of himself as a pro.
“I didn’t start to take it as a professional thing until I was around twenty years old,” he says. “Around that time, I fought Rory Markham, I fought [Jason] Von Flue. I started to take it more seriously and train even better, to fight those guys.”
Cooper’s motivation in the sport is still to become the best in the world. He looks at this Bellator tournament, with its brutal competition schedule and cable network television stage, as a chance to take his next big step in that direction.
“The stage that Bellator is providing, especially now with being on Spike, is a big opportunity,” he says. It is even worth putting himself through fighting every three or four weeks, something previously unheard of in modern MMA. “I don’t think anyone would really want to do a tournament, because it is so challenging. But, with this opportunity, I’m all for it. If I were to win this tournament, it would mean I’m among the best in the world.”
Bellator Featherweight tournament semi-finalist Mike Richman (14-2) had a different path to MMA but has a similar goal as Cooper. Richman’s fight against Alexandre Bezerra tonight in Temecula, CA — also on the Bellator 92 main card — is a bit of a homecoming for the former Marine.
In between three tours of Iraq, Richman was stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton. He’s actually spending time there with old friends and amidst familiar surroundings while speaking with us during fight week.
Richman says that after high school, with all his friends going off to college, he instead joined the Marine Corps because he “wanted to get out there, travel, and actually do something.” While Richman loves the Marine Corps and says it has become a huge part of his identity and who he is, he got out of military service because of an intense desire to once more, “do something.” This time, it was to compete in MMA professionally.
“We watched a lot of fights, a lot of UFC, out there,” he says. “We also did a lot of grappling in training.”
Richman began to think that he, in fact, could also do what he saw pro fighters do on TV. “I told my superiors and friends and they thought I was crazy,” Richman says.
“They said, ‘Richman, you’re doing great as a Sergeant, you could make a career out of this.’ But I knew I wanted to try MMA.”
While he is still struggling to break through, no one thinks Richman is crazy anymore. He’s built one of the best records out of any American featherweight prospect and is two wins away from a title shot with a major organization.
“My old Sergeant told me recently, ‘I remember you telling me you wanted to fight years ago and now we see you fighting on TV – you’re really doing it.’ Hearing that meant the world to me,” the Minnesota native admits.
Like Cooper, Richman believes that that winning the Bellator tournament will put him in elite company. “Winning would mean less financial stress in my life. I do have two kids. Winning that amount of money in that amount of time would be really great,” he says.
But as with all true fighters, the fighting isn’t done for the money alone. Two days before stepping into the cage to fight another man, but also to try and make his dreams come true, Richman reveals his perhaps his truest motivation. “Winning also means breaking into the top ten in the world, and that doesn’t have a price tag,” he says.