Domestic Violence, Meth & BJJ: The Troubled Life Of Bill 'The Grill' Cooper

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In this excerpt from his book, "Motivation: Stories on Life and Success from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belts," author Chuck Rylant shares an intimate conversation on motivation and redemption with Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Bill Cooper. Follow Rylant on Twitter.

Bill Cooper was watching the Lakers versus Bulls game, while his father and sister were arguing in front of the television. Bill was used to the yelling, so he ignored them until a Slurpee flew across the living room at his dad. When the icy red drink exploded all over the wall, his father clenched his fists and started charging after Bill's sister.

Bill jumped up and rushed toward his father. They started brawling on the floor until Bill ended up on his back, with his dad towering above.

"He grabbed my neck," Bill said. "So I spun my hips and sunk in an arm bar."

Bill cinched the lock tight and yelled for his sister to call the police.

"Let me go," his dad hollered, but Bill held onto his arm for the three minutes it took for the police to arrive.

When Bill and his sister were young, their father was a violent disciplinarian.  

"I did some suicide missions before, but this one was different," Bill said. "This was the first time I stood up to him and won."

At 16 years old, Bill was at a turning point in his life. Four years later, Bill Cooper became a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt.

Bill's list of tournament victories is long, with 27 Grapplers Quest championships and several world championship medals at various belts and weight classes. Bill has always been a crowd favorite, partly because 32 of his 45 jiu-jitsu victories ended by submission. At 20 years old, Bill also began fighting in MMA and has racked up a 5-1 record.

But as his accomplishments piled up, Bill faced a series of new obstacles and old wounds from his past that threatened to derail his success -- a brutal knee injury, a violent personal relationship, and a career-sapping addiction.

A New Sport, A New State of Mind

nullBefore jiu-jitsu, Bill was a bit of a nerdy kid who played the role of the class clown for attention. He did not have many friends and was occasionally bullied, so he became a "little stoner kid," gravitating toward other rebellious students.

Bill's dream was to become a professional skater, but that changed when he ran into Jeff Glover. When Bill was 13 years old, Glover invited him to his first jiu-jitsu class with instructor Ricardo "Franjinha" Miller.

Bill was intrigued watching that class, but after wrestling with other students, he was hooked. Bill had dabbled in other sports, but jiu-jitsu was different.

"It was a fucking eye-opener," he said.

Before jiu-jitsu, Bill avoided situations where men could exert power over him. He is not sure why, but Franjinha was the first man Bill trusted to bark at him like a drill sergeant.

"I didn't feel comfortable going to friends' houses when their fathers were home," Bill said. "I was very intimidated."

Bill has fond memories of his father but explained that his childhood was not easy.

"I always hoped my dad would pull out the belt," Bill said. "Because sometimes he'd just ball up his fist and hit you, man. It was scary."

There were times the police came to their house when Bill was young.

"I remember crying a couple of times, because they'd have my parents in handcuffs," Bill said.

Bill was 16 years old the day he stood up to his father in the living room, but his transformation began earlier. After his first jiu-jitsu class at 13, Bill eventually dedicated the majority of his time to the sport.

"I started cleaning up my act around high school. If I wasn't at the academy, I was home, watching jiu-jitsu videos," Bill said. "I was too tired to get into trouble."

With His Chin Held High

Shortly into his freshman year, Bill was hospitalized with a ruptured appendix.

Bill said it turned out to be a blessing, because he never returned to high school and instead earned his diploma through independent study. He did a couple of hours of study in the mornings and then spent the rest of his days at the gym.

He attended the morning jiu-jitsu class, taught the afternoon kids' classes and then returned for the advanced class at night. During the breaks, he cleaned the mats and taught private lessons to earn some spending money. Jiu-jitsu essentially became his full-time job while earning his diploma.

Bill competed as often as he could, suggesting that the lessons learned in one tournament were equal to two months of classes. Bill's confidence began to blossom when he started winning blue belt tournaments at the age of 16.

"Grown-ass men gave me respect," Bill said. "They wanted to take my picture and come train with me. That was cool. I started walking with my chin up, for sure."

The kids Bill grew up with began changing their attitudes too.

"They used to treat me like s**t, but when I tapped fools out, they started giving me respect," he said.

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Photo: Chase Smith

As Bill became more outgoing, he expressed that confidence on the mat with flashy techniques.

"Break dancing helped me a lot," Bill said as he described his earlier passion. "Doing flares, windmills, and all this acrobatic s**t. … It's like a doing a flying triangle -- it's flashy -- but you can finish a match in seconds."

In the middle of matches, Bill has been known to pull off a flare or other break-dancing move when the referee separates them.

"Sometimes it would intimidate them," Bill said of his opponents. "And sometimes they laughed."

Bill has picked up other mind games too.

"I have to thank Glover for this trick." Bill said. "The first time he did it to me, we were rolling and I almost got a lapel choke, but instead of tapping, Jeff told me, 'You're close, son.'"

"It pissed me off, and I started wasting energy," Bill explained. "He was getting in my head. I liked that and started doing it myself."


Confusing Love And Violence

Bill's tournament success led to many new opportunities, including teaching seminars all over the world. When he was a purple belt, he got offers to take over gyms, and by the time he was a black belt at 20, he had his own academy.

"That's when I kind of got thrown off track," Bill said. "I didn't know where to go. Should I do MMA, do jiu-jitsu, or run a school?"

Bill explained that it is impossible to excel as a practitioner, competitor, fighter, and teacher. You have to dedicate yourself to one of them to do it right.

It was at Bill's school where he met the future mother of his children. When he returned from teaching a seminar in Turkey, she was at the academy, and their whirlwind romance began. Within a couple of months, she was pregnant with their first child.

"She was a feisty one," Bill said. "I liked it, man. I was attracted to that."

He admits they both had jealousy issues, and things often got loud between them. There were times when one or the other got violent, and the police had to separate them. 

There was one incident that significantly impacted Bill's fighting career. After reuniting from a break up, he and his girlfriend began arguing over text messages on his phone.

"I grabbed the phone, and she bit me on my chest," Bill said. He told her to leave, and she said, "Make me."

Bill grabbed her by the ankles and started dragging, but when they got to the front door, she braced herself against the door frame. She was only 110 pounds, but he could not get her through the doorway. He planted his foot against the door frame and started pushing for leverage.

"Wham! My knee buckled," Bill said. "My knee went the wrong way. We're talking almost a 90-degree wrong angle."

Bill gritted through the excruciating pain and popped his knee back into place.

"See? That's what you get, asshole!" she said.

That was the beginning of a six-year struggle of pain and frustration. In hindsight, Bill should have had ACL surgery immediately, but instead he nursed it for nine months before returning to the gym.

"I couldn't get good training sessions in, because my knee kept popping out," Bill said. "Tournaments were painful, so I couldn't compete as much, and I started getting depressed."

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Photo by Leon Sandoval 

Walking On Shaky Ground

Bill had an undefeated amateur MMA record and two professional wins, but then he suffered his first MMA loss. That really brought him down. The knee problem affected him off the mats too.

"I was carrying my daughter in the park," Bill said. "My knee was slightly bent, just at a weird angle, and it dislocated right there."

"I started sweating, man. I was …" Bill paused and shook his head while remembering the discomfort of the story.

"I was trying to be real cool and not panic," he said. "I'm like, 'Holy shit, my knee's out!' She's 2 1/2 and just starting to run. I can't chase her down."

As Bill's fighting career struggled, sponsorship contracts began drying up, compounding problems by adding financial pressures.

"I was always promising my fiancée that things would get better, but they never did," Bill said. "My leg was always fucked up."

"I was depressed," Bill said. "I didn't want to do jiu-jitsu anymore. That's how depressed I was."

As Bill was going through this, he was out late one night having a drink in Los Angeles and crossed paths with a friend also going through hard times.

"Hey, you want to try something that will help?" the friend asked Bill.

"That started the whole fucking cycle," Bill said. "You get a little lick or two of courage, and it opens a whole new door."


Reaching The Breaking Point

For about a year and a half, Bill was smoking methamphetamine and heroin.

"It was a big problem," he said. "I wasn't getting any sleep. I was disorganized. I wasn't competitive. I wouldn't show up for my classes, and I was missing fights too. I was neglecting everything."

Bill was in denial. He could see the symptoms in other drug users but not in himself. "You think you're up on your shit," Bill said. "But you're absolutely not. I was an addict. I was doing it every day. I had to. I needed it."

I asked Bill how it all ended.

"I was chasing her with a fucking samurai sword, and 15 cops came," he said.

He had been awake for over 20 straight days on a drug binge when his kid's mother came late to pick up their son. Their son started crying, because he wanted to stay with Bill. But she ripped the child from Bill's arms.

Bill was furious and walked back in the house and slammed the door, catching his dad's attention. When Bill went into his room, he saw his samurai sword and decided he could slash her car tires to keep her from leaving with their son.

When Bill stormed out of his room with the sword, his dad called the police.

"As I walked out onto the sidewalk, I'm like, 'Oh, shit. What's up?'" Bill explained when he saw the police officers outside his home.

Bill went to county jail, which led to drug and alcohol court and learning to get sober. Bill went through a six-month program. He had a couple of relapses, but when I spoke with him, he had been sober for nine months.

"That gave me some time to heal. So far so good, man," Bill said.

Repairing The Damage

Bill decided it was finally time to get his knee fixed. He was tired of people asking about his comeback and was done attempting professional MMA fights on a completely torn ACL.

Seven months before our interview, doctors put a cadaver ligament in Bill's knee, and now he is beginning to rehabilitate.

"I can't wait till I get back in that cage, man," Bill said. "MMA is where my heart is right now."

Bill said it is intimidating being out of action for a year, but he has a new game plan. He walked me through his plan to strengthen his knee and resume hard training and hopefully get a contract to fight by the end of the year for his comeback.

I kept in touch with Bill for several months after our interview, and he was still training hard in the gym.

Bill was invited to the EBI in July where -- even after being out of the tournament scene for a long time -- he fought his way through the tournament bracket, won three matches, and made it to the finals.

Bill did not stop there. Bill convincingly won two superfights at Fight To Win Pro, and next up he'll compete in the Five Super League. 

Bill is back.

This article was first published in "Motivation: Stories on Life and Success from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belts" by Chuck Rylant, available for purchase on Amazon.

Watch Bill Cooper in action Dec 3. in the Five Super League, live on FloGrappling. 

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