Josh Copeland is a former ministry student whose nickname is “Cuddly Bear,” but do not let those facades fool you. He is quietly putting together an impressive resume as a professional mixed martial artist.
The 33-year-old Copeland will challenge Blagoy Ivanov for the World Series of Fighting heavyweight championship in the WSOF 31 main event on Friday at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut. The Idaho-born Copeland has a laid-back Midwestern manner about him and never truly planned on throwing his hat in the MMA ring.
Copeland was raised in Arkansas before moving to Fort Worth, Texas, to study youth ministry at Dallas Baptist College. It was there in 2005 that he first tried his hand at Brazilian jiu-jitsu after a college friend asked him to try a class.
“I really enjoyed BJJ,” Copeland told Sherdog.com. “It was a fun way to stay in shape and help keep the weight off.”
Copeland in that gym befriended Justin Wren, who was preparing for a fight. They started training together, and after some time, Wren told Copeland he thought his athletic ability and natural movement would make him a good fighter. Everything changed for both men in 2009, when Wren was cast on Season 10 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series. When the show ended, Wren moved to Denver to train full-time at the Grudge Training Center. He took Copeland with him.
“Wren came home after ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ and said, ‘Pack your bags. We’re going to Denver,” Copeland said.
Copeland has been a Grudge member ever since. It provided him with the opportunity to train under some of the top coaches and work alongside some of MMA’s best fighters. Copeland compiled a 4-1 record as an amateur and made his pro debut in 2012 at the age of 29, winning via guillotine choke submission in just 58 seconds. He won his first eight bouts, six of them finishes, and captured the Sparta Combat League heavyweight title in the process.
Top regional promotions took notice, and in 2014, Copeland signed with Resurrection Fighting Alliance. He fought Jan Jorgensen for the heavyweight championship at RFA 16, where he scored a technical knockout 4:49 into round one. He was 9-0, and his athletic style, quick footwork and propensity for finishes made him a person of interest in the heavyweight division.
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The Ultimate Fighting Championship called and paired Copeland with Ruslan Magomedov at UFC Fight Night “Edgar vs. Swanson” on Nov. 22, 2014. He lost a three-round unanimous decision. Copeland’s next assignment inside the Octagon came against friend and former training partner Jared Rosholt, a three-time NCAA All-American wrestler. Rosholt stopped Copeland on punches 3:12 into round three, and after two consecutive defeats, the “Cuddly Bear” was released by the UFC. Copeland sees value in the experience, even though it did not turn out as he had hoped.
“The UFC has always been a dream of mine,” Copeland said. “I have been watching it since high school.”
Copeland has gone 3-1 since being cut by the UFC, losing only to unbeaten former Bellator MMA champion Vitaly Minakov. He views himself as an unfinished product with room to improve.
“We all want to win and be successful at what we do,” he said. “We are all still learning and growing. I am becoming a better fighter every day.”
Copeland’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. He joined the World Series of Fighting in March, earning a unanimous decision over Mike Hayes at WSOF 29. When a slot opposite Ivanov came open, WSOF President Ray Sefo thought of Copeland and offered him a chance to fight for the championship.
“Ray called me up and told me the situation and asked if I wanted the title fight,” Copeland said. “I told him, ‘Heck, yeah. Let’s do it.’ You never know when you will get that opportunity again.”
Dethroning Ivanov will be no easy task. The 29-year-old Bulgarian submitted Smealinho Rama with a guillotine choke to win the WSOF heavyweight title in June 2015 and then successfully defended it by stopping Derrick Mehman with second-round punches four months later. Sefo nevertheless likes what Copeland brings to the table.
“Josh has a solid ground game but is also very comfortable in the pocket,” said Sefo, a 2000 K-1 World Grand Prix finalist. “I think he has all the potential in the world, especially if he pushes the pace and uses his hands. He is a very good counterpuncher.”
Copeland can join Grudge Training Center stablemate Justin Gaethje as a WSOF champion with an upset victory over Ivanov. However, his motivations go beyond the pursuit of a title.
“I just love competition and I love to encourage people,” Copeland said. “I am not a cocky or a loudmouth person. I just want to help people and compete at the level I am.”