To say fighting is a big part of Ray Cooper III's life would be an understatement.
Like a lot of kids across the notoriously tough Hawaiian Islands, the Professional Fighters League (PFL) welterweight star often got into scraps in schoolyards, parking lots and wherever else disagreements were sparked.
"It's how we solved problems—and it worked," he told Bleacher Report. Yet Cooper's connection to fighting runs much deeper than that. For him, it's a family affair.
Cooper's father, Ray Cooper Jr., is a former professional fighter himself, having gone 14-9 in MMA between 1997 and 2008, with forays into wrestling and boxing as well. Cooper's Uncle was a fighter, too, and he was watching both men compete by the time he was seven.
"Down here, everybody's dad fought," Cooper said. "[My dad] wasn't a full-time fighter. It was just like a hobby to them—to him and my uncle. They wanted to still compete [after wrestling], and MMA was coming up at the time."
Given his surroundings, it should come as no surprise that Cooper ultimately began feeling the lure of MMA himself. And after completing an impressive high school wrestling run, briefly considering a professional boxing career and receiving a potent dose of inspiration from Hawaiian MMA legend B.J. Penn, he finally committed to the sport in earnest.
Cooper came up fighting for regional promotions in Hawai'i, with occasional bouts in California and on Guam. When he was 13-4, he was signed by the PFL. He made his promotional debut with a dominant defeat of former Strikeforce champ Jake Shields—who coincidentally also fought his father twice—and has since competed 13 more times under the league's banner.
The PFL presents MMA in a seasonal format, with playoffs and finals at the end of each year, and million-dollar prizes for the champion of each weight class. Cooper won the welterweight title—and a million-dollar check—in 2019, and he will have the opportunity to do so for a second time on October 27 when he battles Magomed Magomedkerimov.
Cooper and Magomedkerimov have met once before, back in 2018, with the PFL welterweight title and the customary million-dollar prize on the line. Magomedkerimov was triumphant in that first meeting, submitting Cooper with a second-round guillotine choke.
"Last time I was a young version of myself—a more immature version," Cooper said of the imminent rematch. "I've had plenty of experience fighting since then. I feel more confident. I'm better than him. I was beating him in that first fight until I made a mistake. I corrected those mistakes and now there's nothing he can do to stop me.
"He's nothing fancy, and he's nothing I haven't seen before," he added. "I feel like I have the better wrestling—and I can punch. That's one thing he can't do. He can strike, he can point-fight, but he's got no punching power."
If Cooper's confidence proves justified, he'll simultaneously avenge a tough loss, become a two-time PFL champion and achieve multimillionaire status. That reads like the recipe for a delectable night, but Cooper isn't overly concerned about having a squeaky-clean record, or a closet full of championship belts, or even a bursting bank account.
"I'm not really too keen on having belts and medals," he said. "I don't even know where my 2019 belt is."
For him, the real prize is the fighting itself. It's been part of his life since he was a kid, and from the sounds of it, it will be for a long time yet.
"I just love what I do," he said. "I love that I'm going to be able to keep doing what I'm doing by winning this next PFL belt. Not many people can train and fight for a living, and this is my job.
"I'm going to die fighting—or [fight] until the wheels fall off and my body doesn't allow me to do this anymore," he added. "I'm doing this until I physically can't, and that's going to be a hard day for me."