Fans and experts have come to recognize a multitude of reasons for why mixed martial artists compete. Some enjoy the thrill of competition, while others desire the insatiable urge to handcraft some sort of legacy in the sport. Every once in a while, though, there’s a person who does it just to put a smile on the faces of the fans.

Sparta Combat League heavyweight champion Josh Copeland is one such fighter. Nicknamed “The Cuddly Bear,” the undefeated Copeland always enjoys the smiles of the crowd and strives to leave the fans satisfied every time he fights. The Grudge standout found himself a starting point once he first moved to Colorado.

“I wound up moving here four years ago from the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” Copeland told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “I was in college at Dallas Baptist University, and a friend of mine invited me to come train jiu-jitsu back in 2005. I never really watched the UFC or followed it very much, and I didn’t even know what jiu-jitsu was, so I went with him to Forth Worth and checked out Travis Lutter’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and then I wound up falling in love with it and I literally started training just as a hobby. And, from there, I met Justin Wren, who just got done wrestling at Iowa State. And he came back to start training some jiu-jitsu.

“He was dropping out of college to fight full-time, and at that point in time when I met him, he was a young 19-year-old kid—he might have even been 18—and he was 6-0 as a professional, and I told him, ‘Man, I don’t know much about fighting, but if you need a big white boy to help you get ready for anything, don’t hesitate to ask.’ Sure enough, we both hit it off and became best friends and main training partners. He wound up getting onto The Ultimate FIghter, did really well on there during season 10 of TUF, and that’s when Trevor Wittman and Rashad [Evans] invited Justin to come up and train full-time. We moved up here four years ago together.”

Wren’s influence would pay dividends towards Copeland’s decision to ultimately transition into the sport of MMA. When Copeland first started out in jiu-jitsu and MMA, he still viewed it as a hobby and not as a means of making a living. But Wren saw a young man who could garner long-term success in a rapidly rising sport. Copeland listened to Wren, and after some time, he began to train for a serious MMA career.

“As I started working with Justin, he basically asked me why I didn’t fight. He thought I should consider doing it because he thought I moved well for a big guy that was never really training to fight,” Copeland said.

Copeland got off to a rough start when he made his amateur debut in 2010, but he rebounded to put together a nice streak of wins. In fact, Copeland has never lost another fight. He even scored a successful pro debut against Vernon Earwood in June of 2012.

“When I fought Vernon, he was 1-1 or something like that, and his one loss was to an ex-UFC guy, so it was one of those things where I didn’t know much about Vernon and there was no tape on him,” Copeland explained. “It’s like, ‘Hey, you lost to an ex-UFC guy.’ If you fought in the UFC before, you’re definitely no chump, so you can’t really judge a guy with a loss to a decent fighter. So, going into that fight, I didn’t know what to expect at all. It’s one thing when you look at Vernon’s record now, when he’s got a few losses, but looking at it from what I knew about him with no video and just viewing who he fought, I was definitely worried about it.”

The fight with Earwood would not mark the only time that Copeland faced an opponent he knew very little about. After a successful debut for Sparta Combat League in November of 2012 to follow up on the strength of his win over Earwood, Copeland fought a then 1-0 prospect named Anjel Osiris. Osiris’ pro debut win came over Louis Lloyd, who generally cuts weight to make 265 pounds and fights out of Colorado Springs, Colo. After watching some video, Copeland knew something of what to expect from Osiris.

“Sure enough, boom, he comes out and shoots a double-leg on him,” Copeland said. “And you look at Anjel and your first impression’s like, ‘I’m not impressed.’ I started watching him fight, the way he took [Lloyd] down and submitted him so easy. That’s all I knew of Anjel, and I’m like, ‘Holy cow, he’s another Roy Nelson. He doesn’t look like he’s in shape, and he’s one of those farm boys who doesn’t look strong but is very strong.'”

Sometimes, the challenge of fighting someone that few know anything about does well enough to motivate a fighter. It keeps a fighter on his toes and anticipating pretty much everything, with little idea of what will come next. With Copeland, though, the fact that he didn’t know much about Osiris had its downside, because he approached the fight the same as if he were facing a polished UFC veteran.

“It kind of stinks, because when I fight these guys, there’s not much to know about them. So, of course, I’ve got the nerves,” Copeland said. “I don’t know if this guy’s literally the next Roy Nelson that does it all and doesn’t look like he should beat anyone, but he does, and then they wind up losing. You look at their record compared with me, and I’m just like, ‘Dang, when I fought him, they were so unknown.’ And I took those fights extremely serious because I’m a competitor. I don’t like to lose.”

Copeland needed less than two minutes to punch Osiris into submission in that December 2012 fight, but the two fought each other again in May 2013. Copeland’s original foe for the night, Jose Martinez, hurt his hand and pulled out four days before the fight, opening the door for the rematch. Copeland defeated Osiris again, this time submitting him with a keylock.

Copeland went on to earn a unanimous decision win over Richard Foster, bringing his overall mark to a perfect 6-0. Fast forward to this weekend. Copeland holds Sparta Combat League’s heavyweight crown, and now “The Cuddly Bear” gets a fellow 6-0 heavyweight in challenger Jesse “The Hulk” Hernandez, who will look to wrest the crown from him at Sparta Combat League’s “Monarchs of Sparta” in Denver.

“When I was looking at his record, every fight he finished in under two to three minutes of the first round. So, with six pro fights, plus two amateur fights, that’s eight fights finished in under two to three minutes, and the only way you’re going to do that is by coming out guns aʹ blazing and looking to finish,” Copeland said. “The tough part about fighting Jesse is I don’t know his style. I don’t know if he comes out throwing bombs, or if he comes across the cage looking to take you down. I don’t know if he comes out like an orthodox fighter or a southpaw. It’s tough because I don’t know what to expect, and that’s because there’s no video on him. One of my friends contacted King of the Cage to see if we could purchase some video, and they don’t allow that, so I have nothing to go off of besides ‘he’s aggressive.'”

From Copeland’s understanding of the situation, things don’t seem all bad. With Hernandez’s wins all coming in the form of first-round finishes, Copeland expects that Hernandez may experience difficulty adjusting to the high altitudes that normally come from fighting in Colorado. Judging by the record of his foe alone, Copeland anticipates that Hernandez will hunt for the finish from the outset of the bout. But while Copeland will aim for the same, he will take a different approach in achieving the goal.

“I want to be a smart fighter,” Copeland explained. “I want to be as smart as I can be to take as little damage as I can, be able to set up my shots, and be able to finish the fight as soon as I can. With him coming out aggressive, it’s definitely dangerous. I’m a big boy, and I’m blessed with a big head, so I know I can take a shot. But in the same respect, he’s a big boy and he hits hard. If I can stay in a good position, I’m always going to be able employ my offense, counter, have defense, use my footwork, angle out, circle away, and I like to stick and move.

“I’m a big boy, but I train with a lot of lightweight guys and a lot of heavyweight guys. I really don’t think I move like a normal heavyweight. Even my last opponent said, ‘I had a huge reach on you and I was wanting to stick and move on you. Right off the bat, I threw two jabs and you slipped both of them, and I knew you were a different fight, just from your head work and footwork, from any other guy I fought before.’ To me, what you can expect is me coming out, being smart. I’m not going to stand in front of him. I’m going to use my angles to capitalize on his mistakes, look to counter him, and be able to finish him early also.”

This bout marks more than just another enthralling fight in Copeland’s career. Win or lose, the contest is the final bout on Copeland’s contract with Sparta Combat League. So, after his battle with Hernandez, Copeland will enter free agency. What happens after that depends on which opportunity comes his way once he hits the market.

“If things go my way, I want to look for the best opportunities to set me up for wins if the UFC calls or whatever else may be. I just like to take one fight at a time and just be smart. To look past Jesse would be very foolish. I have a job to do this week, and if I don’t take care of it, I’ll be in a completely different position than I would be if I did take care of business. I’m definitely blessed with a great manager, a guy that truly does care about me and wants to help me get where I want to be in the UFC, so I listen to his guidance, and he makes the best decisions. So, hopefully, I will come out with a victory this weekend.”

Josh would like to thank his Grudge Training Center teammates and training partners, as well as his sponsors, manager Greg Bloom and his assistant Lisa Hudson.


About The Author

Dale De Souza
Staff Writer

Dale De Souza is a 22-year-old kid straight out of Texas, who grew up around Professional Wrestling but embraced the beauty of Mixed Martial Arts and Combat Sports at a young age. Dale is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report MMA, a writer at The MMA Corner.