Charlie Brenneman is training for a fight without rules.
Ever since he was cut by the UFC in September, the former Division 1 wrestler has done what he always does. He wakes up every morning, goes to the gym, works the bag, does his roadwork. In his mind, this road ends with him on top of the UFC, even if he has no way of knowing how long it’ll take to get back to the promotion, or if he ever will.
It wasn’t that long ago that Charlie “The Spaniard” Brenneman was something of a MMA folk hero, the lynchpin of what UFC President Dana White called one of the “best cards we’ve ever done” -- UFC on Versus 4 in June 2011. If any single fight could be said to have launched a career, it was Charlie Brenneman's fight with Rick Story that night in Pittsburgh. The irony is that if he hadn’t won, he might not have been in the position to get cut a year later.
Brenneman’s journey to the main card of UFC on Versus 4 was a lattice of misfortune, sickness, and coincidence impossible to keep straight without a scorecard. On the one side, Nate Marquardt was supposed to make his welterweight debut against Anthony Johnson, but Johnson got hurt and Rick Story stepped in. Then Marquardt failed his medical clearance, the UFC dropped him, and Story was left without an opponent. Meanwhile, TJ Grant was scheduled to fight Matthew Riddle until Riddle got injured, at which point Brenneman was tapped as his replacement. Then Grant fell ill, and 15 minutes before he stepped onto the scale to weigh in, Brenneman was told that he’d facing Story, a fighter who’d just cracked the top 25 of the USA Today/SB Nation rankings after winning six fights in a row. Brenneman was viewed as a sacrificial lamb, another step on Story’s ladder to a contender’s spot. Then fight night came and the improbable happened: A butterfly flapped its wings in Cambodia and 9,000 miles away Rick Story had his face rubbed into the canvas for three rounds by a one-time high school Spanish teacher with an Afro.
Until that night, Brenneman was known as a solid worker with a low-key persona plugging away in the middle of the welterweight division with a 2-1 record, if he was known at all. His only brush with notoriety had been winning the first season of the Pros vs. Joes reality show while still teaching high school. But after Brenneman’s hand was raised that night, he was known everywhere. Fan sites began calling him a real-life Rocky. The UFC started scheduling bigger fights for him. Meanwhile, Mike Costantino, Brenneman’s trainer and manager, publicly worried that the Spaniard was being pushed too high too fast.
Four fights and three first-round stoppages later, Brenneman was released from his contract.
It would be easy to understand if Brenneman were upset about the UFC’s sometimes-mysterious relegation criteria. Some guys can lose five in a row before they’re cut; others are done the second the tap out of their first fight. Brenneman's last UFC opponent, Kyle Noke, was on his own losing streak when the two men met, but Noke is still with the promotion.
“There are some guys in the system, you look at them and wonder why they’re still there,” Brenneman says. “But it is what it is.”
Brenneman says he didn’t waste time worrying about what might have been or wondering if he would still be in the UFC if he hadn't been brought along so fast.
“The bottom line is any time you get cut you need to find a way to get back,” he says. “I wish I could gripe about it, but I made my own bed: I lost. Now I have to deal with that. Nobody should feel bad for me. ... We took a day or two to swallow the pill and then we started planning. It’s a business. There are ups and downs. Sometimes there’s no real system to this game. It’s all something we chose and we love it. That’s all there is to it.”
The road back to the UFC for Charlie Brenneman starts January 19 in Altoona, Pennsylvania, when he makes his return to the West Virginia-based Valley Fight League against unheralded lightweight Eric Irvin. Suggest he’s been relegated to the bottom of the mountain, however, and Brenneman bristles: “I’ve got five years in this sport.” Yet it’s hard to deny that he’s a long way from the top when that life-changing fight against Story took place in front of a television audience of 744,000, and his return match will go down at a rented Shriners’ auditorium with a potentate by the name of H. Foster Snively Jr. and a calendar of events that lists an amateur production of the "Nutcracker Suite" and a bridal expo among its biggest draws.
The best thing for Brenneman to do is make a strong first impression.
“I want to get in and out as quickly as possible,” he says
The catch is that there’s no way to tell whether anyone will care. Brenneman could take a dozen men apart in the first round and never get a call from UFC matchmaker Joe Silva. Or he could beat Irvin by decision and have an invitation back to the UFC waiting for him the next morning. All he can do is keep fighting and hope someone is paying attention.