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More than just $1 million prize on the line as Professional Fighters League nears end of inaugural season

Josh Copeland, left, hits Shawn Johnson during a

Josh Copeland, left, hits Shawn Johnson during a heavyweight mixed martial arts bout PFL 4 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale on July 19, 2018. Josh Copeland defeated Shawn Jordan by unanimous decision. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

That one with the six zeroes and those two very important commas get all the headlines, double-takes and eye-openings.

But it’s another fruit of the Professional Fighters League final round that really catches the attention of Josh Copeland: the PFL heavyweight championship belt.

“I’ve never been driven by money. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have,” Copeland said. “But for me, the thing that really drives me is just winning that title. I’ve already seen pictures of the belt. It’s beautiful.”

He’s one fight away from claiming both. Copeland will face Philipe Lins in the PFL heavyweight championship round on New Year’s Eve at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. At stake for Copeland and fighters in five other divisions is one of those giant, oversized checks for $1 million.

“Everyone thinks a fight is out of anger and emotion,” Copeland said. “I try to explain to them, I literally fight for the competition. I fight to test myself. We as men, whatever we do, we want to be the best at it. For me, part of winning that title would be the pride aspect, knowing that I was able to step up to that test and pass.”

Copeland, as with the other fighters already in line for a $1 million payday, had to fight twice in the same night as part of the PFL’s playoff format in order to reach the finals. Eight middleweights and eight welterweights will do the same thing on Saturday in Washington D.C. to qualify for the championship round.

The other three divisions already have their finalists:
-- Featherweight: Steven Siler vs. Lance Palmer
-- Lightweight: Natan Schulte vs. Rashid Magomedov
-- Light heavyweight: Vinny Magalhaes vs. Sean O’Connell

“I think it’s a key feature of what we’ve got,” PFL president Carlos Silva said of fighting twice in the same night in the playoffs. “I think we’ve constructed it very tactical. I think it shows what you have to do in your training, in your fitness and your tactics and fighting smart.”

Kayla Harrison, a two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist in judo, also will fight on the PFL card New Year’s Eve. It will be her third MMA and serve as a showcase fight as the PFL plans to add a women’s lightweight division in its second season. Harrison is 2-0 in the PFL and will face an opponent to be determined. Silva also said it’s possible there could be an undercard with a few other bouts.

Tickets for the event go on sale Thursday, a strategic move by the PFL to help leverage its championship event with this Saturday’s broadcast on both Facebook Watch and NBC Sports Network.

Another strategic move was bringing the PFL back to the site of its first event as a bookend to its inaugural season.

“We just thought it was a great storyline to both kick off the new season on June 7 at the Garden and then come back at the end of the year with the six championship fights,” Silva said. “It just ended up being a nice beginning and ending to the story.”

Copeland’s beginning wasn’t so nice. He lost on June 7 at the Garden by first-round TKO to Jack May. But he made up for it since, with a win over Shawn Jordan a month later at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, then advancing on a draw in the quarterfinals before winning the semifinal by first-round knockout.

“He’s a kind soul. His nickname is the ‘Cuddly Bear,’” Silva said of Copeland. “Yet when he gets into the cage, he throws right hands that we’ve seen time and time again stop people cold. Certainly Alex Nicholson found that out the hard way.”

So would Copeland rather be considered a champion or a millionaire, should he ring in the new year with a victory?

“There’s pros and cons to both,” he said. “I’m just glad it comes two-for-one.”

New York Sports