PFL 11: Josh Copeland Credits Justin Wren for Helping Him Grow as a Fighter, Slams UFC Pay

Josh Copeland has an opportunity to win a million dollars at the PFL Championship on New Year’s Eve. For Copeland, however, it’s not all about the money.

New York, NY — Heavyweight Josh Copeland did not have an easy path to the championship round of the Professional Fighters League’s inaugural season this year. Jack May, Shawn Jordan, Francimar Barroso, Alex Nicholson. As much of a murderer’s row as any PFL athlete has faced this season. In a way it’s par for the course: Copeland has fought some of the top names available since leaving the UFC, and lost only to undefeated former Bellator champ Vitaly Minakov, Blagoy Ivanov, the former WSOF champ now plying his trade in the UFC, and May, an ex-UFC and Bellator heavyweight. Yet here he is, heading into PFL 11 with a lot of money, and a world title, on the line.

It’s not all about the reward for ‘Cuddly Bear,’ however, as Copeland explained over the weekend. “Money is one thing, but I’m smart enough to realize life’s not about money, it’s not about toys. Nothing makes you happy, at least nothing makes me happy like trying to make a difference.” Copeland pointed to good friend Justin Wren, who has launched an impressive charity effort to get clean drinking water for the Pygmy people, as an inspiration.

He also credits Wren with helping him grow as a fighter. Copeland, growing up, didn’t have a lot of options when it came to training. “Growing up in Arkansas, small town Arkansas too you know, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities for real athletics,” he explained. “You basically hear of a guy that’s teaching Taekwondo, you go in there, small town, you don’t know anything. Then you come to find out later ‘oh jeez, that guy didn’t even know what he was talking about’ when you get up to see what real mixed martial arts or sports are. Real fighting. Man, I’ve had to grow and evolve for sure.”

Enter Justin Wren. Copeland started doing jiu-jitsu in 2005 with Wren, and “we just continue to grow. He’s worked with me so much through the years and just taken me along with him on his path. We were main training partners and best friends, doing all that.” When Wren moved camps, Copeland went with him. “After he got off the show, The Ultimate Fighter,” Copeland recalled, “he took me up to Colorado with him, same thing, roommates.” It’s because of Wren that “Trevor Wittman and those guys at Grudge allowed me on the pro team. I didn’t have to start out just doing all the small amateur classes. It really forced me to grow. Just to be able to work out, train with studs at Grudge back in the day.”

Copeland sees even more growth over the past two years, where he has really worked to shore up his wrestling game. A lot has changed in that time. Just as a lot has changed in the sport overall. Copeland now has an opportunity to make a comfortable living from MMA, even if he’s not a money-first guy. What a step up from his previous big promotion, the UFC.

“To me, especially with the UFC, what a joke they’ve become,” said Copeland. “Anyone who knows me, I never want to be disrespectful. I’m thankful and blessed for the opportunity that they gave me back in the day. But to sit back and watch my buddy Curtis Blaydes, number nine in the world fight number five Mark Hunt, and they’re paying him 26 and 26 [$26,000/$26,000]. I just sit there and I laugh.”

The way Copeland sees it, UFC fighters, even top ones, are grossly under-compensated. “You’re a top ten fighter in the world fighting another top ten fighter in the world and you’re only guaranteed twenty-six grand?” Copeland questioned, incredulously. “And that doesn’t count thirty percent out to coaches and management. That doesn’t count the taxes. Then you divide that by a three month training camp. A top ten fighter in the world making three, four grand a month. How do you afford to keep up with your body? How do you afford food, nutrition, chiropractors, everything? It’s a slap in the face, to me.”

In comparison, “then being able to be part of this, where it’s not about your name, it’s not about your record, it’s not about anything.” Night and day, it sounds like. Copeland explained that “it’s ‘hey, if you’re the better fighter, you win, you move on. If you don’t, better luck next year.’ I don’t have to have the biggest name out there to go out and make some real money.”

Of course, with a win, Copeland’s name could be at an all-time high. “Hopefully with a knockout” is how he’s looking to finish. “At the end of the day, we’re entertainers.”

Josh Copeland faces Philipe Lins at PFL 11 on December 31. The fight goes down at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City, airing live on NBC SN and Facebook Water internationally.