“For the longest time – for the first 20 fights in my career – I had the mindset, `If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” admits Charlie Brenneman. “Eventually it got broken, so I had to fix it, and that’s exactly what I did.”
Following his impressive upset win over Rick Story in June 2011, the now 32-year-old Brenneman hit a rough patch. He lost three of his next four, including consecutive first-round setbacks against Erick Silva and Kyle Noke. After starting his UFC career with a 3-1 mark, the results reversed, leaving him with a .500 record, a return trip to the regional circuit, and a difficult career decision to make.
“The analogy I use is a gas tank,” he begins. “When I got cut from the UFC, I knew that I still had a lot of gas in the tank – next to a full tank – and I wasn’t ready to give up on my career just yet. At the same time, I had to be aware of the fact that I have a family, need to make a living, and have as much of a steady income as possible.
“Based on those factors, where I sat financially, and that I still had such passion and drive, it was an easy decision to continue fighting and put in the work.”
He took the advice he was given when he received the news of his release, making the move down to lightweight, and then set off on his way back to the big leagues.
Four months after his loss to Noke, he notched his first win as a 155-pound fighter. Another win followed three months later, and another two months after that. Near the end of October, Brenneman picked up his fourth win of 2013, winning the Cage Fighting Fury Championships lightweight title by collecting his third submission finish of the year.
“I knew the game plan and the layout,” he says of a potential return to the UFC, “but there were never any guarantees, so it was about putting in the hard work and hoping it would pay off. But being a realist at the same time and knowing there are no guarantees that I’m going to get back.
“I set a time frame where if I wouldn’t have made it back in another six or eight months, I would have had to reevaluate again.”
But he did make it back.
On the second day of the New Year, the UFC announced that Brenneman would step up to fill in for Jason High opposite organizational newcomer Beneil Dariush, kicking off the UFC Fight Night event in Duluth, Georgia less than two weeks later.
Due to the short notice nature of the bout, the UFC originally suggested the fight take place in the welterweight division. After briefly liking the idea, Brenneman is now excited that the fight will indeed occur in the 155-pound ranks, so that UFC fans (and his fellow competitors) don’t have to wait to see the new and improved version of “The Spaniard” six months down the road.
“For a second when I was initially told that the fight would be at 170, I thought, `I don’t have to cut weight; that will be cool.’ But once I thought about it, cutting weight and this whole process makes the work and the victory that much sweeter, knowing that you worked that much harder and sacrificed that much more.
“I’m glad it’s at 155 and I get to show the new me – we don’t have to wait around a couple months until I get a fight at 155. I get to show the new me, the fighter that left the UFC a year-and-a-half ago and is back at a different weight class.”
This isn’t just an “excited to be back” situation for Brenneman either. While returning to the premier organization in mixed martial arts was high up on his professional “Things to Do” list, there are other goals that remain incomplete, and he won’t be satisfied until they’re crossed off as well.
“I’m not in the UFC for the first time, so I’m not just going to be happy to be there. In this stage of my career, I made the commitment to go down to lightweight because I want to win the UFC belt – that’s my goal and that’s my dream.
“Even at 170 that was my goal, but in the back of my head, I always had the fact that these guys are so big. At 155, there is nothing but a clear, fighting conscious – step-by-step, fight-by-fight to get to the belt.”
While this will be the AMA Fight Club representative’s ninth appearance in the Octagon, Wednesday’s contest does mark the first time Dariush will set foot in the UFC cage. It’s an experience that impacts every fighter in a different way, but Brenneman isn’t banking on his opponent suffering from a case of “Octagon jitters” in order to secure a win in his return.
Instead, he’s taking a page from his good friend and training partner Jim Miller’s playbook.
“I can’t say that it’s going to play a negative role,” Brenneman says of Wednesday’s fight being his opponent’s UFC debut. “Maybe he’ll get there and shine under the lights. That’s an uncontrollable on my end.
“What I can control and what I plan to do is whenever that door shuts and whenever we grab a hold of each other, he’s going to know that he’s in a fight and I mean business. You can’t prepare for that. Unless he’s fought Charlie Brenneman the lightweight before, he has no idea what it’s going to feel like and what is going to go through his head.
“I’m aware of his credentials and his fighting style based on his most recent fights, and I take that all into consideration, but before almost every fight and every interview I mention Jim Miller and his mentality. He doesn’t care who he’s fighting and what that guy does – Jim goes and does what Jim does, and I like that mentality.
“I want to own him, to be honest – I want to own him physically, mentally, in every aspect of the game.”
When he steps into the cage on Wednesday night, Brenneman will look like the same fighter that exited the Octagon 16 months ago, including his hair.
“I actually have to get it trimmed because it’s quite out of control,” he says with a laugh, confirming that he hasn’t done anything crazy like shave off his mop of curls. “I’ve been trying to get a haircut for the last six weeks, but it’s evidently a busy time of year to get a haircut in a salon.”
But he isn’t the same fighter.
Gone is the welterweight that fixated on getting the fight to the ground as quickly as possible, worried about the power his opponents possessed.
In his place stands a new lightweight version – a fighter confident in every facet of his game, and eager to kick off his second stint in the UFC in impressive fashion.
“My biggest goal for myself – and obviously it helps me career-wise and helps me climbing the ladder – but my biggest goal is just to perform. I know that I can go in there at lightweight, 100-percent – I don’t care if I’m on my feet or on the ground. Before, I had so much pressure to get it down to the ground because guys had so much power.
I want to go in, I want to perform, and I want to finish this fight. I don’t care if I do it with my fists, my elbows, my knees, submission – my mindset is to finish this fight. I’m going to spend the entire 15 minutes trying, and if I don’t accomplish that goal, I’m going to make sure that he knows he was in a fight.
“I want to own him physically, mentally, in every aspect of the game. That’s my goal and that’s what I plan to do.”
Charlie Brenneman: The Spaniard 2.0
"I want to own him physically, mentally, in every aspect of the game. That’s my goal and that’s what I plan to do." - Charlie Brenneman