Interview with Neil Cooke
February 14, 2009
With only three matches and less than two minutes of total fight time under his belt, the career of Neil “Chaos” Cooke is just getting under way, but there’s already a wealth of knowledge and wisdom behind it. At six-foot-four and 260 pounds, the man they call “Chaos” is a towering powerhouse even in his own 265 pound neighborhood. And although lesser fighters might rely on those physical attributes to get by and power their way to victory, Cooke knows better.
He continues to compete in Jiu-Jitsu tournaments. He’ll travel to spar and roll with fresh faces, but he believes in sticking with his original trainers. He relishes the challenge of pushing himself to the limit, if only to see where it is. Because he thinks he can push it a bit farther.
In this interview, we sparred over the benefits of training under a healthy lifestyle, the role of being part of an MMA team, and the relief of life outside of the fast lane.
VB: Let’s start out with the basics and discuss your background. Where did you grow up?
NC: Generally, I lived in Mission Villejo, which is a real upscale area. Kinda yuppity-yup. My parents split, and I kinda stayed there, but I really wasn’t finding the right path. Just kinda rebellious and stuff. I bounced between my two parents, in and out of trouble.
That’s what made me shoot over to Santa Ana, which is like a major inner city right now. That was like a big change. You [go from seeing] people that have everything to people that are striving with nothing. It’s a big shocker, but it kinda gave me equal sides. I ended up graduating out of Santa Ana.
VB: When you say Santa Ana, it doesn’t have that ring of Compton or something.
NC: I wouldn’t say it’s like a Compton, but it was pretty rough. We had metal detectors on campus. We had cops on campus. The year I went, there were two homicides on campus, a couple of stabbings. But that’s just the lifestyle there. A lot of gang population. There’s like five different street gangs in a one-block radius.
It’s too bad. You grow up and you see things different. It’s kind of a wasted life. There’s a lot of good people and a lot of different ways. But it’s just real weird what gang life will do to some people. The value of life is very little, you know?
VB: Tell me about your background getting into MMA.
NC: Santa Ana had a real good wrestling team, so all my friends – all they did was wrestle, fight, and mess around with each other. I just did it because I enjoyed it, but I really didn’t train in it or anything like that.
Some of my old buddies were training. Like my buddy, Jake LaRoche, my best friend from high school, he was around Rob McCullough and a lot of those guys from HB Ultimate Training Center. . . John Lober, one of the old guys from MMA, and a lot of other people. I used to see them all the time and they’d always say “come in,” because they always thought “hey, this guy could be pretty good,” but I never really focused on it. I was always really athletic, but I was too busy partying, man. Hanging out with guys that thought they were tough guys, you know what I mean?
And then, later on, I moved out into Corona, which is right near Norco. I had a son and just wanted to stay away from the environment and stuff I used to be around. And that’s when I met up with John Munoz [with Pinnacle Jiu-Jitsu]. I started training there, and I actually started getting serious into it.
VB: Is it what you envisioned four years ago? Where your career is now, and / or what the training was like?
NC: I don’t know. The training is pretty rigorous. I’m a pretty humble guy, but I always knew I was pretty tough. And I always knew I was pretty strong for my size. But I didn’t know how far it would take me until John started pushing it on me. And I didn’t know how much it would really take, because I started winning jiu-jitsu tournaments at intermediate, with less than a year’s experience. I’d never wrestled a day in my life, and I was like 42-3 before I blinked.
I didn’t really train that hard, and then when I started to lose. . . I’m one of those people who hate to lose. So that’s when I said “dude, you can actually do this. You need to shape up. You’re looking like a sack of shit out here. You could actually push yourself to do something better.” Pretty much quit drinking. Cut it down to where it’s very, very rare when I drink. And now the training is a lot harder, and it’s a lot more of a mental game to keep the body going, as far as being sore and tired. As opposed to being hung over and being exhausted from partying and trying to go to work.
VB: The sore and tired is typically a little bit easier than hungover and having a headache.
NC: For sure, because you don’t wake up and say “what happened?” You don’t wake up and have to figure out who’d you get in a fight with, or what girl were you with. It’s a lot more of a stable way of living, which you can actually relate to a normal human, instead of being like a zombie that’s just like drunk all the time.
VB: Do you still compete in jiu-jitsu tournaments or are you straight MMA now?
NC: I’ll compete in any tournament I can. I think competition’s the way of life. Win or lose, I think to remain steady and tough, you should compete. I think a lot of these guys that are winning MMA fights; they’re like “I’m a badass MMA fighter now. I’m not gonna compete.” But I think differently. I think constantly competing just gives you that edge. You’ve got your Monsons, your BJ Penns. These guys are winning Mundials.
VB: That actually leads into another question I had about your approach or philosophy behind training. It sounds like part of it is to always stay on point, test your skills, and to push yourself.
NC: Totally. For me, I’ve been blessed by God or something. Because in four years, two years of real hard training, I’m actually doing pretty good for right now. I’ve been to numerous camps; I’ve trained with the best guys in the world, and am constantly trying to stay the best I can be.
A lot of people don’t push the limits, and if you’re not pushing or striving to do something that other people aren’t doing, you’re just going to end up happy where you’re at.
I think a lot of the people that say “I can’t do that” or “I couldn’t do this” – honestly, I think it’s their fear of losing. You really can’t have fear. You can have anxiousness. Get your God or something, but you can’t really think like that. You have to think “hey, I’m going to do my thing. And whatever happens happens. I’m putting it on the line.” You’ve got my respect just for putting it on the line in general now. Win or lose. I hate to lose, but I’m down to put it on the line.
VB: What’s the toughest part of fighting for you?
NC: That’s a tough question. For me, it’s mental. It’s just saying “hey, let’s do it.” I think I possess some things that have gotten me pretty far. Because out in the street, you fight, boom, it’s on. But in [the cage], it’s the game plan, it’s the thinking, it’s the control and the nerves. You’ve prepared for this and you know what’s going to happen and it’s inevitable, but you have to stay hungry. You gotta stay focused, you know what I mean? The training is way harder than the fight.
VB: It seems like the mental challenge is that you want to peak at that moment in the cage, as opposed to days before that or hours before your match.
NC: Exactly. And I leave that in the hands of my trainer. I trust him. I see a lot of people who think they’re getting stagnant. They think “oh man, I’m not doing as well as this” or “I’m not getting money like this guy, and he’s with this guy” or “my hands aren’t getting as good.” They jump around and get lost, instead of staying with one camp and focusing.
You gotta find where you’re weak at and you gotta talk to your trainer / manager. Once in awhile, get out of the box. Meet other bodies. That’s what tournaments are for. You got to other gyms; that’s what sparring is for. But a lot of people jump around and forget who’s taking care of them, and who’s preparing them to get them on that schedule. And when they jump around, they get lost. And I think that’s why they lose, or they try to go too fast too far. And they get caught, and they get beat up real bad or they’re not ready for what they’re going into, or they’re getting knocked out.
VB: It really makes you realize in what way this is such a team sport and how important it is to have a support network for you.
NC: Totally. The loyalty to everything – to the organization you’re fighting for, to the team, to your manager, to your friends. Everybody loves you when you’re on top. But somebody knocks you out, where are all your friends at?
VB: And sometimes it’s hard to stick with that – when you’ve taken a knock and you’re on your way down, it’s gotta be hard to give that trust. To remember who really does care about you and who’s in it for the long term.
NC: That’s for damn sure, and I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be that clown, just saying “I’m knocking your head off. I’m gonna kill you, this and that.” And then I’m on the highlight reel with that guy knocking me out. Anybody can have their day, you know?
VB: Now in December, you were supposed to fight Tim Williams, but his wife went into labor the night before. Are you getting a rematch?
NC: I asked for a rematch, but I think he went and fought somewhere else. I don’t know what exactly happened with that. The fallout from there, I just know something happened with his wife, which is understandable. But if he wants a rematch, no problem, man.
VB: Switching gears for a moment, as a fan of MMA, who are some of your favorite fighters, or favorite matches to watch?
NC: Guys that really impress me are guys that put it out on the line every time. Somebody comes to fight and you know “man, this is gonna be a bad fight” [not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good], that’s somebody you want to watch. Wanderlei Silva. The guy keeps his style. He gets knocked out, and he does the same thing. BJ Penn’s a phenom. St-Pierre’s an incredible athlete. Rampage is cool to watch. Fedor. He can be getting beat, and then he throws just one bomb, and that fight just changed.
VB: Who would you like to fight in the future?
NC: I guess that’s up to the organization that I fight for, and John [Munoz]. I just love the sport. Whoever the fans want to see me fight [laughs]. Whoever has the belt in my weight class.
VB: Right now it’s Tony Lopez. Have you watched him much?
NC: Yeah, I’ve trained with him. Yeah, I’ll fight Tony, no problem. Let him know that [laughs]. . . Actually, right now, the answer to that question is the guy I’m fighting on the 26th. One fight at a time, man [laughs]. I’ve got a long way to go. I want to fight the guy in front of me next. After that, whatever they want me to do, I’ll do. I feel that my skills are gonna do the talking and hopefully I’ll get to where I need to be, as opposed to another way.
VB: How far away would you say you are from being ready for a title shot?
NC: Well, I’m a fighter, you know? Personally, if you ask me, I think I can win the title right now in the first round. But the question is “do I think I’m ready right now?” I’d like to get some more fights under my belt. But am I down to fight? Hell yeah, you know what I mean?
It’s kinda like a catch-22, because you ask a fighter that, and a lot of them are going to say this, say that. But then again, when you’re the champion, you got that bull’s-eye on your chest, you know what I mean? So it all changes. And I give Tony a lot of respect. He fights with a lot of heart. He’s been in some wars. I haven’t had that chance. But as far as my ability and my mind? I could fight right now for the title.
VB: That’s a self-aware answer. I think you need to have that kind of mentality, to feel like you could do it anytime and every time. And then you have your coaches and trainers to guide you with a more realistic voice.
NC: People come and go, but I’m pretty tight with the guys and I keep cool with everybody. I try to be positive. Try to be there for them. . . You’re never too big for an organization, or for the people you’re around. Your team, or the people who help you. I think the guys who are the best have proven that. Georges, BJ, Fedor. They stay tight to their guys, man.
VB: What’s your downtime like? What do you like to do to unwind?
NC: I spend time with my son and hang out with my buddies. Just cruising. I go down to the beach a lot with my buddy. I’m a pretty simple person. I’m not around the violence and the partying anymore. I really like the mellowness. You forget about that stuff, when you’re living fast. You forget how it is to just to chill and cruise, you know?
VB: What about your sponsors? Who should the fans know about and why?
NC: I got Iron Fist Manufacturing. My buddy Mako Mike’s from there. He does a lot of board shorts for fighters. I got Shameless Ink Clothing, with Vic Morris, out of Riverside. They’re coming up in some big stores, and make some cool stuff. And my buddy Dave is with a company called Hotskins, who are out of Riverside as well. They do jerseys, and life-size posters and banners. Rick from Nutrishop Corona sets me up with all my supplements monthly. That guy’s been a blessing. He’s also with Big Game Hunters, who are a group of cops who put together a clothing line of shirts, hats, jackets, and beanies.
A lot of these guys I got a hold of are because they heard of me through word of mouth through guys around. Or there are some of them at the gym I train, or just from hanging out one day. I kinda got blessed.
VB: It seems that you place a lot of value on making sure there’s integrity among the team and support network you have contributing to your fight career.
NC: I think that’s how everybody should live. I’m real big on karma and loyalty. This is a game where talking trash is cool, and don’t get me wrong, you wanna start it, I’ll finish it. But a lot of our talk is gonna happen when that bell rings. And there’s no reason to be too cocky, no reason to think you’re a superhero and no reason to do people wrong. I mean, it’s all gonna come out in the wash, man.
Neil Cooke challenges Chance “King of the Streets” Williams for the King of the Cage Super Heavyweight title at King of the Cage: Immortal, on February 26th, at the San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino in Highlands, CA.