Another Copperas Cove fighter looking to earn UFC roster spot
By TJ MAXWELL
The phrase “big things come in small packages” couldn’t be truer for the small mixed martial arts (MMA) training facility in Copperas Cove, StrKings, that has helped lunch the careers of Muay Thai World Champion Angela Whitley, no. 10 Welterweight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Geoff “Handz of Steel” Neal and the latest prospect in 2008 Copperas Cove graduate, Jhonoven Pati, who will get his chance to join Neal in the UFC with his fight in Dana White’s Contender Series set for August 25 on ESPN+ against Jamie Pickett.
Pati found out about his opportunity to possibly earn a spot in the UFC months ago but had to keep it quiet. That delay lasted even longer due to the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the Contender Series to be pushed back from May to August.
“I got the call around April, but I wasn’t allowed to say it until the UFC released the news themselves,” he said. “With the pandemic going on, it got pushed back. The Contender Series was supposed to start in May.
“The UFC team got in contact with a coach that I’m intertwined with in Dallas and he contacted me.”
After concluding his college career at Howard Payne University and realizing that a future in the NFL was improbable, Pati changed his focus thanks to his longtime friend and mentor Geoff Neal, who will be fighting four days later in a UFC event scheduled for Aug. 29.
“I got in touch with one of my good friends from high school, Geoff Neal,” Pati said in an interview at Strkings. “Geoff and Le’Ville Simpson were both doing MMA in a gym in Killeen. Geoff and I were really close throughout high school, and we used to play box in the locker rooms for fun all the time. I would hold my own and Geoff remembered that so when I got back to town, he invited me to come to the gym to try out some MMA.”
After putting on some extra weight in his final semester of college after football season had ended, Pati found his way to the Killeen after the invite from Neal in June of 2012 weighing nearly 300 pounds. Pati then made his fighting debut in September of that same year in the 185-pound classification.
“I started training around the beginning of June and I had my first fight in September,” said Pati. “It was a quick turnaround. I was around 278 lbs. when I started training then I fought my first fight in September at 185 pounds. I lost all that weight between June and September.”
Pati’s career began with seven-consecutive victories as an amateur before making the leap to pro where he debuted against the no. 1 fighter in Texas at the time and now UFC no. 14 ranked Light Heavyweight Ryan Spann where he suffered his first loss.
“It wasn’t a good turnout for me, said Pati. “It was too big of a jump. After that, I cut my manager loose, but I stayed with my coaches Chadrick Turner and Kru Kasib. They’ve been with me through my entire MMA career. It’s truly a blessing to have both of them.”
Kasib is head coach at StrKings in Copperas Cove and Turner is assistant head coach. The duo, along with Salvador Guerrero and newest coach Robert Reyes, have built a winning program and Pati knows he would not be getting this opportunity without their mentorship.
“It’s really hard to get two string coaches great together,” said Pati. “Usually, guys have one head coach. I have three guys that can collaborate. The knowledge all three guys bring to the table and the fact they can still work together is what blows me away every day. All three of my coaches are headstrong, but they all deal well with each other. To me that is amazing.”
Turner coached Whitley to a Muay Thai World Title last year and Kasib helped Neal get the foundation that he took with him to Fortis MMA in Dallas where he trains now.
That leadership is what helped Pati realize his dream to get a chance to join the UFC roster.
“Geoff is going to be a UFC champion,” said Pati. Seeing a guy like that and knowing this is a coach that helped build his foundation is cool.
“A lot of time, people just look at the branches, the leaves and the fruit of a tree, but they forget to look at the roots. Kasib is tied to Geoff’s roots. They built that foundation together. To know that Kasib is that kind of coach that can be a champion on the world’s stage, I’m humbled that he would even take time to use me as one of his athletes.”
Having a fighter like Geoff to emulate is also a motivating factor for Pati, but not just his successes but failures as well.
“I think the biggest thing about Geoff’s story is obviously that it’s a successful story that is still being written,” he said. “That’s always motivating but, when it relates to Geoff, I think the thing that motivated me the most was his failures. Geoff has losses on his record, and I was involved with Geoff heavily when he took both of those losses.
“The night that he lost to Kevin Holland, we both fought on the same night. Geoff was fighting on XKO out in Dallas and I was fighting Adam Sugar in Austin. To see Geoff go through those transitions and rise up from those things that could have ruined him is what motivated me.”
Pati will face Contender Series returnee Jamie Pickett in the headline fight to be aired on ESPN+ on Aug. 25.
“I know that he’s been on the show twice and he lost to a guy that beat me Punahele Soriano,” said Pati. He lost to a guy I train with at Fortis MMA in Dallas, so I know enough to know what I need to do to overcome this guy. He’s a ranked guy and someone they believe in because this is his third time on the show. They also may think that I’m a guy that can beat him and that’s why they gave me him. It’s just the way you want to look at it.
“I know enough about Jamie to know what I have to do to beat him.”
Pati’s confident that his hand will be raised at the end of the night of that Tuesday night and he’ll be leaving with a contract.
“I already see past this,” he said. “It’s not that I’m not appreciating the opportunity at hand and I’m not looking at the fight itself, because I am. Jamie is a fighter and a guy that has been there as he’s definitely a threat, but I don’t see anything that Jamie has that I can’t overcome.
“I definitely see myself leaving that night with the contract. There’s nothing blocking that from my vision. I see success after this fight.”
Pati is also proud to represent his hometown and keep Copperas Cove on the map that has been brought into the spotlight by so many successful athletes like Charles “Peanut” Tillman, Robert Griffin III, Sherika Wright, and Geoff Neal.
“I think it’s’ super humbling to come out of a town like Copperas Cove,” he said. “We are a little town. It’s definitely something I don’t take lightly because this is my home.
“It’s humbling to know that people in your city are paying attention and that they appreciate you kind of letting people know about our little city. That great things can come from little packages. If you look at our gym, we’re not a super gym, but we have everything we need in here. Our little space breeds success.”
StrKings owner and Killeen residents Serena Taylor and husband Kru opened the Copperas Cove gym in 2017 after Kasib had been training fighters out of his garage.
Since then they have helped Neal and Whitley and countless other fighters blossom in their careers.
“We have a lot of skill here and we’ve got a lot of great mentors,” said Taylor. “We owe it all to the coaches. We have four good coaches here and they mentor these guys, they make them work hard every day. We have a youth program, a Jiu Jitsu program and it gets our guys prepared for the cage, the ring or whatever they’re interested in.”
Taylor is also excited about the opportunity for Pati.
“Jhonoven is a really unique person,” she said. “He’s very loyal, very hardworking and this is an opportunity of a lifetime that he’s be striving for. He’s in here every day with the guys and he supports everyone to the best of his ability. For him to get the call from the UFC is a really big dream for him and we’re super proud of him and excited for him to get in the cage and show off his skills and all the hard work.”
She also noted that MMA training is not just for people that want who want a fighting career.
“It’s a really good outlet for our youth,” said Taylor. “It’s something they can really get involved in. It’s very hands on. It’s a way to kind of release your stresses and just get in here and be part of the family. The camaraderie of our group is really close. We support each other. We like to support our youth to come out and try it. It helps build confidence and that’s one of the things we pride ourselves on. To help our youth build confidence in themselves, in their skills and to have something to work hard for.”