Arguably the greatest surprise at PFL 8 was the improved performance of former UFC heavyweight Josh Copeland, who upset the league’s top seed at heavyweight, and fought his way to the finale later this year in New York City.
The heavyweight finale for the 2018 Professional Fighters League season is set. And one of the biggest stories on the night was the clearly improved Josh Copeland. Copeland, a former UFC heavyweight who went 0-2 in that promotion, later moved to the WSOF, from which the PFL arose. And while Copeland would have a classic battle with then-WSOF champ Blagoy Ivanov, few expected his performance at PFL 8. Make that performances.
Copeland (18-5) has now won three straight, and six of his last seven. Coming into the PFL playoffs, he was far from a lock to make the post-season. Yet his number came up, thanks to a few heavyweight scraps going the distance, and he took the eighth and final seed in the heavyweight playoffs.
On Friday night in New Orleans, Louisiana, that pitted him against the top seed of the tournament, Francimar Barroso. Barroso, a former UFC star himself, joined the PFL upon his exit from that promotion earlier this year. Two first round stoppages punched his ticket to the playoffs, and he was sitting pretty at the top of the rankings.
Enter a new and improved ‘Cuddly Bear’ in Copeland, one of the more laid back fighters you’ll find. Copeland looked impressive right out of the gate at PFL 8. Stating prior to the fight that he’d hired a nutritionist, Copeland looked leaner than in the past, and came out with his stance lower, providing less of a target for Barroso. Copeland’s striking was on point as well, and his attacks were simply too much for the man expected to coast into the finale. After two rounds, the judges ruled the bout a draw (Copeland dominated the first, Barosso narrowly claimed the second). Under the PFL rules, however, the two-round quarterfinal bout was then decided by a tiebreaker: the winner of the first round. That being Copeland, he moved forward to the semifinals.
There, he met Alex Nicholson, another ex-UFC talent whose career had been rejuvenated after his exit from that promotion. Nicholson had found new life as a heavyweight who could launch flying knees and hit hard. And he did that at PFL 8 in his semifinal bout with Josh Copeland. Landing a spinning back fist, he then fired off a flying knee, and charged forward. Copeland was a wounded animal, with a nasty gash over one eye. Yet he planted his feet, pivoted, and fired a crushing right hand that turned the lights out on Nicholson.
The win was a little bit of revenge for Copeland. Earlier in the evening, Nicholson had finished Copeland’s good buddy Jack May.
Copeland, who had to sneak his way into the playoffs, had defeated two of the best heavyweights in the promotion, in one night. And just like that, the newly evolved ‘Cuddly Bear’ earned his chance to fight for a million dollars at the season finale in New York this December. “Let’s go. I’m so excited,” Copeland said post-fight. “I love for people to come forward. Move my head and throw. Caught him perfect,” he said of his semifinal finish.
If he can do that at the finale on New Year’s Eve, against fellow finalist Philipe Lins, Copeland will be able to become MMA’s next millionaire. In the meantime, the ‘Cuddly Bear’ has become more of a Grizzly.