15 months after capturing the Professional Fighters League’s welterweight championship, Hawaii’s Ray Cooper III will return to the cage to start his defense of the crown on April 29 in the PFL’s start to the 2021 season.
Cooper, will be in the co-main event slot facing France’s Jason Ponet who will enter the bout with 20 career victories while owning a three fight winning streak.
According to 2018 PFL light heavyweight champion and current PFL play-by-play announcer Sean O’Connell, the matchup has an interesting full circle feel with Cooper’s experiencing a role reversal.
“He’s the equivalent this year of what Ray was in season one. Where he’s the dangerous guy but nobody really knows him. That’s a risky thing because now Ray is the name and this other guy can come in and try and make his name off of Ray so it’s an awesome first matchup,” O’Connell told KHON2 Sports Director Rob DeMello. “I was just out there in Pearl City about three weeks, maybe a month ago talking to (Cooper) about what it’s been like. He had two more kids, he had twin boys in the meantime, he’s been training, his brothers have been training but there’s no completion. So, they’re just chomping at the bit. Ray is always down for a fight but he’s so eager to get back in there and I think really finally prove to people if there are still doubters out there that he is an elite welterweight not only in the PFL but in the world.”
Cooper is certainly one of the faces of the organization as the owner of countless highlight-reel knock-outs over his first two PFL campaigns which led to back-to-back PFL championship round appearances. Since 2018, the Pearl City graduate has competed 10-times having secured seven victories in that time. Although not planned, the pandemic forced time away from competition creates intrigue to see the growth Cooper has made.
“One of the big things and Ray will never talk about this which is why I am going to, but I think we get to see Ray Cooper finally 100-percent healthy, because that style, a true fighter always grinding and always training, the bumps and bruises accumulate. Even though you couldn’t tell by the way he performed I know he was dealing with some built up pain and some hitches in his gitty-up and all that stuff. So, he’s had some time to work through those things or rest through those things and so I’m excited to see how explosive he is now that his body is now all the way right.”
Certainly, to see Cooper’s name in the co-main event slot as the defending champion for the division’s return is surprising as the PFL has instead made the debut of former UFC title contender and Bellator champion Rory Macdonald as the headliner as ‘The Red King’ will face 2019 runner-up David Michaud.
“It’s funny because in the PFL when you’re talking to matchmakers on how they set up these cards, they’re always trying to deemphasize that this is the main event, and this is just a feature fight, but we know as fighters, you know that they arrange that thing with the big ticket guy at the top,” said O’Connell. “Ray knows that. Everybody else on the card knows that and Rory Macdonald knows that. So, the target that that puts on Rory is an interesting thing for him and to your point that the chip that builds on not only Ray’s shoulder but everyone else’s. I like what it does, I like how it motivates people but I’m glad I don’t have to answer those questions as a matchmaker.”
The 2021 PFL Season will begin April 23 with the featherweight and lightweight divisions on ESPN 2, ESPN Deportes and ESPN+ in primetime.
The remaining Regular Season events will take place on April 29, May 6, June 10, June 17, and June 25.
Venues for the PFL 2021 events have yet to be revealed.
PFL 2 – WELTERWEIGHTS & LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHTS
ESPN 2 Card
Rory MacDonald vs. David Michaud
Ray Cooper III vs. Jason Ponet
Jordan Johnson vs. Tom Lawlor
Emiliano Sordi vs. Chris Camozzi
Magomed Magomedkerimov vs. Joao Zeferino
Smealinho Rama vs. Jordan Young
Cezar Ferreira vs. Nick Roehrick
Gleison Tibau vs. Aleksei Kunchenko
Sadibou Sy vs. Nikolai Aleksakhin
Dan Spohn vs. Marthin Hamlet