For as long as I can remember, my life has been comprised of wrestling, training, fighting (professionally only), admiring big trucks, listening to hunting stories, shooting guns for fun, and taking occasional camping trips with family and friends. On the outside, I fit the bill of a professional fighter.
On the inside, though, I’m a sensitive, caring and compassionate human being. I carry my heart on my sleeve, and I don’t hide my emotions.
I hear some people reflect on never having seen their fathers cry. I’ve seen my dad cry 5 times…in the past year. It’s a trait I understand. And, I’m not ashamed of it. It helps show people that you are real. I get choked up at random videos and small bits of inspiration because I am so stinking passionate about standing up for the little guy.
Though I fit the bill of your standard alpha male, I grew up on the “outside.” I was so focused on achieving my goals (winning a high school state title in wrestling) that I stuck out from the bunch. I had (have) a tremendous group of high school friends that had as much fun and as many stories as the next group, but there were plenty of instances that left me wondering why I was different.
As a 35-year-old father, I don’t have many tactical skills, but I’ve spent enough time carrying shingles, plywood and pounding nails to know my way around the job site. I’ve spent enough time at camp to know how to make mountain pies and shoot cans, pumpkins, trees and tailgates. I don’t have all the skills, but I know people who do. And heck, to my daughter, I’m the coolest and funniest guy in the world, and that’s truly all that matters.
“A lifetime of striving for excellence on the mat and in the classroom eventually led me to an unlikely career in professional mixed martial arts.”— Charlie "The Spaniard" Brenneman
In 2004, I completed my collegiate wrestling career and was ready to enter the “real world.” I was done with the hard work and rigidity that had guided my life for the past two decades. But soon after leaving my previous lifestyle behind, I grew restless.
I was accustomed to a workman-like life of setting and pursuing goals, but suddenly, that life was all gone. I found myself with no inner drive or purpose. I was going through the motions and needed to recapture that feeling of challenging every ounce of my inner being—enter mixed martial arts.
In 2007, I left the security of my hometown and full time job to pursue a career in professional fighting. I recently published my autobiography, Driven: My Unlikely Journey from Classroom to Cage, that chronicles the last decade of living life as a professional fighter; a life that saw me succeed, and “fail”, at the highest level of the sport, the UFC.
For the sake of time and efficiency (my daughter is soon to wake up, and I’m sure you have your to-do’s as well), I’ve boiled the last decade of life in the cage into 5 valuable life lessons that can serve any man in his journey of self-actualization.
Learn from my experience and Carpe Diem!
Big, bad and scary isn’t so big, bad and scary
Physically, I’m an average guy; 5’10”, 175 pounds of lean muscle. I’m not imposing. I’m relatively unnoticeable now that I’ve cut my hair (I used to have a big, curly mop on top of my head). Yet, I’ve fought some of the biggest, scariest guys on the planet— Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, Johny Hendricks, and Rick “The Horror” Story to name a few.
And you know what? It’s not so bad. Fear is what you make of it. It’s an abstract “thing.” If you squash it at the source, it becomes non-sustainable; it goes away. My family and friends probably feared for my safety, but I was good with it.
“There are more things that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”— Seneca
Fatigue kills plans of action
I’ve trained my whole life to be a perfectly-conditioned athlete. I’ve spent months and years preparing for optimal performance at the perfect time. Though I don’t have a perfect record of optimal performance at key moments in my athletic career, I’d say I’ve done pretty well.
And, one thing I’ve learned (from both ends of the spectrum) is that fatigue utterly and completely destroys any pre-determined plan of action. Fatigue takes the baddest dude on the planet and puts him in the palm of your hands. Being mentally and physically well-conditioned is an ace in the hole. It took me close to two decades of competition to fully appreciate the power of fatigue, and thankfully, it was my ace in the hole inside the cage.
In physically grueling situations, stay present and focus on mechanics
I’ve been there and done that in regard to pushing my physical limits. I’ve run a marathon, fought professionally 27 times, wrestled hundreds and hundreds of matches and trained on a consistent basis for close to three decades. I’ve vomited from exhaustion, and I’ve vomited from pain (fractured orbital socket suffered form a round kick to the eye).
I’ve realized that it’s vitally important to stay present and focused on the mechanics of any task when fatigue and uncomfort set in. When I work with young people 1 on 1, I’m always emphasizing, “Mechanics! Focus on mechanics! Don’t worry about your chest burning or the burning you feel in your legs. Stay focused!” As soon as you allow your mind to wander from the present moment, you are welcoming additional, unnecessary information that takes away from the task at hand.
Imagine your physical and mental capacities as a team working toward a goal—Sorry, “bad stuff”, you’re not welcome here! Two’s company, three’s a crowd.
Keep a bird’s eye view on your surroundings
My system of living enables me to be ready and willing to accept challenges and obstacles as they come. Whether it’s an impromptu assignment, a physical task or confrontation or simply dealing with the everyday responsibilities of being a father and husband, I am consistently assessing my surroundings.
My trainager (trainer/manager) used to be an Executive Protection Specialist, a fancy way of saying bodyguard. He taught me the importance of being present and aware at all times; this can go as far as locating all sources of exit in a building or room. I’m not an extremist by any means, but during my professional fighting career, I discovered the importance of consistently assessing everything around me—my team, sponsors, finances, training, etc.
It’s extremely important to make sure everything in your life is operating at an optimal level.
Stand by your values and speak up when necessary
The most meaningful comments I’ve ever received in my career come from my coaches and teammates, and they have nothing to do with any of my biggest accomplishments inside the cage.
My friend and jiu-jitsu coach, Brian McLaughlin, wrote this for my book, “Charlie is someone who always lead by example. The first through the doors and the last to leave, all the while giving every ounce of himself in the pursuit of his goals. While I was teaching him about jiu-jitsu, he gave me a lesson in discipline, honesty, and integrity.” It brought me to tears; that is everything I’ve worked my entire life to achieve. I’m not sure there is anything more fulfilling than being appreciated for simply giving 100% of yourself in the pursuit of your goals. At the base of my being is a set of unwavering values. They serve as a guide in the way I live my life. Identify your values and stand by them, even at the risk of standing alone.
The last decade of professional fighting has left me with a unique life perspective and a burning desire to keep fighting life’s obstacles outside the cage. I never feared an opponent (which is amazing if you look at some of them!), and I found a comfort in being myself. I’m OK with winning and losing on my own accord. I have nothing to hide.
Besides, the true measuring stick of a man, for me anyway, is that my daughter continues to think I am the coolest and funniest guy in the world…at least until she’s 15 and realizes I’m actually kind of a dork!
Charlie “The Spaniard” Brenneman is a professional mixed martial arts fighter, speaker, mentor and author. Following a successful high school wrestling career, Charlie took his talents to Lock Haven University where he achieved a top 12 finish at Division I Nationals and 1st Team All-Academic. After teaching Spanish for three years and winning Spike TV’s Pros vs. Joes, Charlie decided to leave his job to pursue a master’s degree and begin his professional fighting career—“The Spaniard” was born. In 2011, he was ranked as high as #7 in the world, and in 2015, he published his autobiography, Driven: My Unlikely Journey from Classroom to Cage. Charlie currently lives in PA with his wife and daughter. For more information on his programs and to subscribe to his blog, please visit: https://charliespaniard.com/.