A young man’s heart beats profusely as he strides out onto the field. The fresh cut grass is a certain shade of green that is never really the same from field to field. The chalk lines on the playing surface bear the outline of where the next 13 years of his professional sporting life will take place.

Since he was 21, the red V on his jersey has been a staple in his closet. He wore the red and white colors of his team with immense pride. Matt Cooper was a one-team man for the entirety of his career as a Rugby League player. The St. George Illawarra Dragons were his home. Even when competing on the biggest of stages in the sport, he thought about how it felt to have a dream come true, and now, after hanging up the boots for the very last time, new dreams await.

“I was pretty excited,” Cooper admitted to The MMA Corner. “Obviously, I’ve played footy my whole life, and that was a goal of mine as a little kid to play first grade football. When I got my first shot, that was pretty exciting. I was a bit nervous, but I was more excited that I’d finally made it. I trained so hard for that moment. When it finally came, it was a great feeling and something I’ll never forget.”

After retiring from football at the end of 2013, Cooper began to explore other sporting avenues. Competing is certainly in his blood, and continuing to do so at an elite level is something that the 35-year-old has not ruled out for the future.

“For me, personally, I wanna experience what it’s like to have a fight. I’ve done pretty much everything in Rugby League, from State of Origin, to playing for Australia and played in a grand final. I’ve experienced all that. I think it’s a different ball game when you step into the ring and you’re by yourself. I’ve always been a big fan of martial arts and boxing and Muay Thai for a long time now,” Cooper explained. “I enjoy it, and it’s a bit of challenge for me. I’m starting to train a bit more now, and now that I’ve got a bit of time up my sleeve, I’ll look at when I’m ready and when my coaches say I’m ready to fight and I’ll try and organize something and get in there.”

Cooper, who is no stranger to competing on the biggest stage in Rugby League, is eager to have his nerves tested with the very real possibility of competing in mixed martial arts. Although he has yet to set a date for his debut in the sport, it’s not so much a matter of if, as a matter of when. And when the time does come, he knows that being mentally prepared is just as important as being physically prepared.

“I remember my first State of Origin game was pretty daunting,” he recalled. “It was such a big game. It was game three, the decider, and it was in front of 80 000 people. I was playing alongside legends like Brad Fittler and Andrew Johns. It was pretty nerve-racking, and I expect it to be pretty much the same for a first fight. I guess the only difference is that when I step into the cage, it’s all me. With footy, we’ve got 12 other blokes out there covering my back. So that’s gonna be a bit different. Obviously, leading into the fight, I’m gonna have a great team and a great support base, so hopefully that’ll help me out getting through that tough period where I will be pretty nervous. I’ve gotta be mentally switched on.”

With many years of experience training in the various disciplines that make up mixed martial arts, Cooper saw the opportunity to create something special. His newly opened gym, Dragonfit, not only provides a high level of training for the former football star, but it also acts as an opportunity to continue doing what he loves to do.

“A few years back, I started thinking about what I’d do post-football, and obviously opening a gym or doing something in regards to fitness was at the top of my priority list,” Cooper revealed. “When the opportunity came about two years ago, when I found the site, we put a lot of planning in place and we took over the lease in January, but we finally got it all finished and had our grand opening last week. The gym has come up great, and I’m pretty excited about it. It was a lot of hard work, but it’s paid off in the end.

“I’ve always had interest in having my own gym. I’ve been passionate about training and training outside of Rugby League, and I’ve been going to different gyms my whole career. I just thought it’d be nice to have the one training center where you could come and do MMA, boxing, Muay Thai, and where you could come and do crossfit and your weights, all at the one center instead of going from one place to another. That was the idea that I had, and I’ve got two great business partners and great trainers, and the idea was to create an environment with the best trainers and to be able to provide top-quality training to the public, and for me, obviously a place I could train and do all my work as well.”

As far as his mixed martial arts aspirations go, Cooper isn’t getting too far ahead of himself. Although one day it would be a dream come true to grace the Octagon, he sees opportunities closer to home as a perfect opportunity to continue to develop the sport at a grass-roots level in Australia.

“I’d like to have a fight in Wollongong,” Cooper exclaimed. “A lot of people [in Australia] don’t really understand the sport and a lot of people are fully against it, but those people pretty much don’t understand the sport and they see it as a brutal sport. So, hopefully by me making people aware of the sport educates people a bit more, and hopefully we get those people that think it has a bad name and turn them and pick up some new fans, because it is an exciting sport and obviously it’s the fastest growing sport in the world. And I think it’s only a matter of time before Australia embraces it and it becomes a big sport here in Australia.

“There are a lot of great supporters of MMA in the Illawarra [region], and there’s a few gyms around. And hopefully by opening my gym and getting a little bit of exposure, it attracts people to come and experience MMA and want to learn and try it out. It’s a great sport, and I’ve been a big fan of MMA for a long time now. And hopefully people see through the coverage that I’m getting—it might inspire a young bloke, or a middle-aged bloke, or anyone really, to come and try it out and give it a go.”

With the name of his training facility paying homage to the football club where he spent his entire NRL career, Cooper sees Dragonfit not only as a martial arts and fitness gym, but also as a place where professional Rugby League players could go to get that extra training that could see them continue their development at an elite level.

“We’ve already got a couple of the boys that come there and do a bit of extra work with our trainers,” he revealed. “We have about five of the players already. I’d love to see more of them turn up, because it’s such great training. It helped me in my career. I did boxing training for the last seven years of my career, and it definitely helped me with my fitness and my strength. [MMA training] is something that you need in NRL these days. There’s a lot of wrestling and grappling involved, so it helped me in my career, and hopefully I can get a few more of the boys down here and help them.”

The bond that is shared between teammates on a sporting team is hard to replicate in other parts of life. There is no doubt that the relationships that Cooper has built over his 13-year career with the St. George Illawarra Dragons are amongst some of the most important ones in his life. Those kinds of relationships, which have been crucial in his success as an athlete, are something that he wants to share with others, and Dragonfit provides the perfect vessel for him to do so.

“It’s a big part of my gym. We’ve got a great team and there’s a great atmosphere there. That’s something, coming from a Rugby League background, it’s a big part of any team—what happens on the training fields and the sheds, that comradeship that you have with the players and staff—that’s something I’m trying to build to my gym. We’ve got some great trainers there. I’m pretty blessed to have the trainers that I do at the gym. The atmosphere that we have there is second to none, and I’m very happy with what we’re trying to build.”

Matt would like to thank Fairtex and Body Science for their support. Follow Cooper on Twitter: @mattcooper44

About The Author

Staff Writer, Australia

Located in Queanbeyan, New South Wales, Neil Rooke has been writing about the sport of MMA since 2011. In the past, Neil has written for Cage Junkies and has written for Fight! Magazine as well as Fist! Fight Magazine. Neil is also a regular contributor to Fight! Magazine Australia and Yahoo! Sports Singapore.