Defending PFL welterweight champion Ray Cooper III is used to reclaiming the spotlight

Ray Cooper III is hoping to get another shot against Magomed Magomedkerimov in the 2021 PFL welterweight finals. Ryan Loco/PFL

The first time Ray Cooper III stepped inside the PFL cage, it was for a 2018 main event. But he was not the headliner. That role clearly had been reserved for Jake Shields, the former Strikeforce middleweight champion and UFC welterweight title challenger.

As the big-name 170-pounder brought in to draw attention to the opening of the promotion's first season, Shields got the headlines. Cooper got to stand across the cage from him.

"Everyone thought Jake was gonna win," Cooper recalled, "and then I stomped him -- twice."

Yes, twice. Cooper won that season opener by second-round TKO, then faced Shields three months later in a playoff quarterfinal and knocked Shields out again -- this time in the first round. It was part of an explosive run of four straight KOs that propelled Cooper into the season final.

Cooper fell short in that $1 million welterweight finale, but the following year he made it to the final again, and on New Year's Eve 2019 - he took home the big check.

But not the big name.

Sixteen months later, as the PFL begins its 2021 regular season after having its 2020 competition canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, Cooper enters as a defending champion no one is talking about.

The welterweights get under way on Thursday at Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey (9 p.m. ET on ESPN2, prelims at 5:30 on ESPN+), and Cooper is not the evening's headliner. That role has been reserved for Rory MacDonald, the former Bellator champion and UFC title challenger, brought in to draw attention to the PFL's third season. And perhaps to give Cooper a deja vu experience?

"Yeah, it's kind of the same thing," said Cooper, who faces Jason Ponet in the co-main event, with MacDonald taking on fellow Bellator/UFC alum Curtis Millender in the headline bout. "I'm being overlooked again. But I understand. Rory MacDonald has been in the game a long time, a protege of Georges St-Pierre. He's a big name they can sell. It doesn't really bother me, because when we meet this season, I'm going to crush him and there'll be nothing left to sell."

Cooper is not alone in noticing the lack of attention being directed his way. When Millender met with reporters earlier this week and was asked whether he views Thursday's fight against MacDonald as a matchup with the season's No. 1 seed, he said, "Absolutely not. The disrespect that they're giving Ray Cooper right now is crazy. He's the champ. He should be the No. 1 seed."

If nothing else, Cooper's experience of excelling in two PFL seasons should have earned him some measure of respect. The focus tends to be on the big payday at the end of the year, but what about the grind that the season-and-playoff format requires of fighters to cash in? Five fights in eight months is a heavy schedule. MacDonald, for one, has never had five fights in a calendar year during a pro career that goes back to 2005.

"Let's see how his body holds up," Cooper said. "Let's see how mentally tough all of these new fighters are." Six of the 10 welterweights competing this season are new to the PFL.

For Cooper, the 10 fights he had over two PFL seasons matured him as an athlete. His 2018 season was a whirlwind of knockout victories that suddenly fizzled with a submission defeat to Magomed Magomedkerimov in the final. "I just made a little mistake," Cooper said. "It came down to experience. I came out strong that night, pushing the pace with a mindset that I was gonna take him out just like I had taken out everybody else that season. I learned that you have to be more tactical."

The 2019 season was a different type of learning experience for the 28-year-old Hawaiian. Cooper lost his second regular-season fight, knocked out for just the second time in his career when a John Howard left hook caught him during an exchange in the first round. Cooper had won his opening fight of the season by second-round finish, though, so he had accumulated enough points to make the playoffs. But in his quarterfinal against Sadibou Sy, Cooper fought to a majority draw, advancing to the semifinals only because of a judges' tiebreaker.

Cooper's semifinal bout later that same night represented a shot at redemption. His scheduled opponent: Magomedkerimov, who had choked him out in the 2018 final. But just as Cooper, battered from his rugged back-and-forth with Sy, was about to walk out for the fight, he learned that Magomedkerimov was injured and could not go. "It was frustrating," Cooper said. "I really wanted that rematch."

He took his frustration out on replacement opponent Chris Curtis, knocking him out in the second round. Six weeks later, on New Year's Eve at Hulu Theatre inside Madison Square Garden in New York, Cooper knocked out David Michaud to win $1 million. It was a hard-earned payday.

"I had to go through a lot of adversity," Cooper said. "I had a bad loss, the tiebreaker, a last-minute change of opponents. It was a lot to go through, but I think that's what makes champions. They don't lay down for nobody, no matter what obstacles are in front of them."

To remain a champion in 2021, Cooper (20-7-1) knows he will have to clear several obstacles, beginning with Ponet (20-12-1, 1 NC), a 32-year-old PFL newcomer from France who has won his last three fights, although all have been at lightweight. Looking at the big picture, though, Cooper sees one obstacle looming bigger than all others. It is not Rory MacDonald.

"The guy I want the most is Magomed," Cooper said. "He's the most well-rounded guy in this division, aside from me." He also owns that 2018 finals win.

Magomedkerimov was scheduled to fight on Thursday, but visa issues caused his bout to be canceled, as was Aleksei Kunchenko's fight. Their original opponents, Gleison Tibau and Joao Zeferino, were matched up against each other on this card, and Magomedkerimov and Kunchenko were rescheduled to meet one another at PFL 3, on May 6.

Cooper will be watching, even if the rest of the MMA world is focusing its attention on MacDonald.

"People overlooking me and Magomed are making a mistake," Cooper said. "You have two champions -- I'm the champion from 2019 and Magomed was champion in 2018 -- and I think we're gonna meet again in the final. We've gone through these seasons. I've done it twice - that's 10 fights in two years. That's brought me clarity and made me ready for anything. Let's see how tough these new guys are."