The opening bout of the pay-per-view card features the return of former Two-Time PFL Welterweight World Champion Ray Cooper III. Cooper III won the 2019 Welterweight World Title by going through Sadibou Sy, Chris Curtis and David Michaud in that year’s playoffs. He won in 2021 through victories over Jason Ponet, Nikolay Aleksakhin, Rory MacDonald and Magomed Magomedkerimov. Cooper III failed to qualify for the postseason in 2022, however, dropping a decision to Carlos Leal but earning a first-round TKO of Brett Cooper. Overall, Cooper III, who was also a welterweight finalist in 2018, holds a 12-3-1 PFL record and currently holds the PFL record for most finishes (10) and KOs (8).
MMA veteran Derek Brunson makes his PFL debut tonight, standing across the SmartCage from Cooper III. Originally a highly-successful wrestler going back to his days at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Brunson has competed in some of the most well-known MMA promotions. He’s competed against some of MMA’s most well-known middleweights, including Israel Adesanya, Anderson Silva, Robert Whittaker, Jared Cannonier, Darren Till, Chris Leben, Kevin Holland, and Edmen Shabazyan. Brunson most recently fought in March, losing to Dricus du Plessis.
Will Cooper III III find success in his PFL return? Or will it be a successful promotional debut for Brunson?
Brunson with a spinning kick to start things out before locking up Cooper III and backing him up to the SmartCage. Cooper III tries to break free, but Brunson remains in control. Cooper III is able to get out and get the fight back to the center. High kick attempt for Brunson doesn’t work. Cooper III blocks another kick. Brunson with a jab. Left kick to the body by Brunson. Front kick by Brunson. Cooper III misses a power combination. Low kick by Brunson. Right hand by Cooper III, but Brunson locks up Cooper III once again. Brunson gets Cooper III’s back. Brunson lands a few left hands to the head.
Cooper III, with Brunson holding one of his legs up, clips Brunson and knocks him down with a powerful left. Brunson tries to lock up but Cooper III lands another powerful shot. Cooper III looks to keep going, but Brunson trips him and gets the takedown! Brunson’s on top and rains down blows. Brunson gets into full mount! Brunson with the ground-and-pound! Brunson trying to not tire himself up; Cooper III trying to cover. Brunson throws hammerfists but they don’t look as effective. Brunson changes his posture; Cooper III isn’t doing much to improve his own position it seems. By some miracle, Cooper III is able to survive the first round after that dangerous positioning.
The two trade in the center. High kick from Brunson is blocked. Low kick by Brunson. Brunson grabs the leg and scores the takedown, hopping right onto Cooper III’s back. Brunson looking for a choke it seems as he lands a few left hands to the head. A couple of right hands. A couple of lefts from Brunson. Brunson continues to chip away at Cooper III’s defenses with punches.
Cooper III tries to wriggle free but Brunson’s got a good pin down on him from his back. Cooper III finally frees himself from Brunson’s hooks with about 1:45 left. A few right hands from Brunson. Brunson with a left hand. Cooper III doesn’t seem to be doing much in terms of successful defense. Cooper III turns to his side in the closing seconds of the round, as Brunson turns up the volume and rains down a few more shots before the bell.
Brunson misses a kick. Brunson misses a front kick. A one-two from Cooper III coming forward. Cooper III lands a combination, which causes Brunson to change levels — only to get stuffed by Cooper III, who ends up on top. Brunson locks up his guard and appears to be looking for a submission. He can’t get it, and Cooper III tries to change position up top. The referee warns the two to get busy. Brunson is able to reverse the position and get on top, with Cooper III pressed up against the fence. Brunson getting back to work with his striking and Cooper III just covering up.
Brunson works his left hand, changing between body and head as target. Brunson lands on the outside. Cooper III tries to get himself up, but Brunson keeps him down. A couple of hammerfists with the left hand by Brunson. A little more ground-and-pound from Brunson. Cooper III tries to get an armlock, but Brunson postures up to avoid it. Brunson rides out the remaining seconds of the third round on top, cruising to an easy win.
Derek Brunson def. Ray Cooper III via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-25, 30-25)