Chris Cope is a fighter, and he also plays one on TV. He's the guy this season on the Spike TV reality series The Ultimate Fighter who walks around the house shouting, WOOOOOO!
At a May 18 viewing party at The Bullpen in Kearny Mesa, Cope passed out black-and-white bumper stickers bearing the catchphrase. Every shout on the show got a laugh from the crowd.
“I'm a big Tony Robbins guy,” he says on screen. Later, he jokes that Ric Flair might sue him.
Flair is an icon of theatrical professional wrestling, known for his sequined robes, blond mane, karate chop and the phrase, Woo! Robbins is the self-help author and speaker whose books include Unlimited Power and Awaken the Giant Within, and whose “Unleash the Power Within” seminar invited participants to walk barefoot on burning coals.
What Cope likes about Robbins is his belief in blueprints and simplifying for success. The shout is for positive thinking, kind of like an Om, but it's also calculated to annoy the hell out of whichever roommate he happens to be fighting. On Episode 8, Cope wins his quarterfinal match against Shamar Bailey, who's shown earlier with a sleep mask on his forehead taking offense at Cope's morning shout routine as Cope smiles and makes a sandwich.
Eight hundred dudes were whittled down to just 14 through grappling matches and interviews during which “they tried to break you,” Cope says. The finalists were stripped of cell phones and wallets, given a Bible, a Koran and a notebook and thrown into a house. They were then divided into two teams coached by accomplished veterans and pitted against each other, tournament-style, for a professional contract.
To Cope, it was a “vision quest.” For the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) promotion company that was on the verge of folding prior to the success of the show's first season's title fight, it was an experiment in reality TV that ended up saving the sport.
UFC wasn't always seen as a sport—an outraged U.S. Sen. John McCain once referred to it as “human cockfighting.” And, initially, the UFC was intended, in part, as a showcase for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, created by brothers Helió and Carlos Gracie in the 1930s. Adapted from Japanese kodokan judo, Gracie jiu-jitsu is all about teaching the weak how to fight off the strong. The first UFC in 1993 featured eight fighters of different styles—like Street Fighter 2 or Mortal Kombat brought to life—facing off with almost no rules in a cage called The Octagon. Gracie student John Milius, writer and director of Conan the Barbarian and the inspiration for the character Walter (“Shut the fuck up, Donny”) on The Big Lebowski, was the creative director. And Royce Gracie, Helió's son—all of 6 feet and 175 pounds— took home the title.
The Gracies knew what they had. Before immigrating to California, they'd produced and hosted a Rio television show called Heróis do Ringue featuring vale tudo fights. Vale tudo means “anything goes” or “no rules” and comes from sideshows at early Brazilian circuses where they'd hold fights between mismatched pairs.
You can read an article online from a 1928 issue of Time by a correspondent at a Sao Paulo circus, where “as a final and most brilliant attraction, a wrestling match was arranged between a gigantic nameless Bahian Negro and a small, engaging Jap, name unknown.” This is still how we prefer to see our boxers, wrestlers and fighters—as strange, curious beasts. And, of course, the UFC has always exploited this curiosity to promote its product, even intensifying it with a lack of rules and a promise of violence.
But the sport's matured, while the Gracies and vale tudo have faded into the background. The fighters are divided into weight classes, the fights into time-limited rounds. And there's The Ultimate Fighter, providing an introduction to the athletes and their struggles.
“Plenty of guys are good fighters, but they're not on the show because they have no personalities,” Cope says. “For me, this is more like an extreme hobby. I want to be the first cage-fighting attorney.”
Cope grew up in Monterey, Calif., playing baseball and basketball, delving into martial arts on the weekends—karate, tae kwon do and kickboxing. It wasn't until a trip to the Paradise Warrior Retreat that he began to take MMA seriously.
He's tried out for The Ultimate Fighter four times. He made a cut for Season 9, but when he heard the news, he was in Thailand, and there was a coup, and he got stuck. Being in the house this year was different: He didn't hear about the revolt in Egypt until taping was over.
One thing you can't avoid hearing when you're around people who know Cope is talk of his work ethic and how it compensates for any lack of talent or ability.
“He's one of those guys you want to see win because of his hard work and effort,” says Jeff Clark, Cope's manager and one of his coaches, along with Tim Speight, at local MMA gym The Arena, where he trains six days a week.
“If there's something I need work in, I'll search somebody out who can beat me in it,” Cope says. “The more I lose, the better I get.”
Lucas Stone, owner of The Arena, thinks San Diego is the most competitive city in the world for MMA, and he says his goal is to have one of the top teams in the country. He doesn't want to simply train good individual fighters; he wants to build a tight-knit team.
“This may sound weird,” Cope says, “but after you fight a guy, you almost become better friends with him.”
Right now, Cope works at a law firm Downtown, helping out with collections. He hopes to start studying for the LSAT “when all this is over.”
“Lawyers are just like fighters,” he says, “they're competitive and kind of crooked.”
As for the ending of the show—is Cope training for the title match that airs live on the season finale June 4?
The $5-million confidentiality agreement he signed says that on that question, he'll stay silent.