When the room went dark, Charlie Brenneman thought his career was over.
During a routine sparring session with UFC veteran Chris Liguori, Brenneman took a high kick to the face. The blow shattered his orbital bone, temporarily blinding him. Brenneman dropped to his knees, shaken to his foundation as disastrous thoughts and possibilities raced through his head.
“Instantly, my eye went black,” says the Hollidaysburg, Pa., native, recalling the May 2008 incident. “In that instant, my whole plan, my whole future, everything I worked for, was over. Suddenly, it was about everything I couldn’t do.”
Brenneman underwent surgery to repair the damage at nearby Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center on the Rutgers University campus. During a procedure lasting several hours, vertical and lateral plates were inserted into his face, as doctors put the pieces back together. Recovery was slow, almost maddening.
“Even right after the surgery, it wasn’t fixed,” Brenneman says. “I lost vision in my left eye. I couldn’t train. I couldn’t fight.”
Gradually, his sight improved. Undefeated at the time, he was back in the cage four months later, perhaps too soon for his own good. Brenneman was greeted rudely upon his return, as he suffered a unanimous decision loss to John Howard in one of the featured bouts at Ring of Combat 21 in Atlantic City, N.J. He joined the AMA Fight Club full-time in wake of the defeat, which taught him a hard but valuable lesson.
“I learned how important it was to be part of a team,” he says. “Up to that point, I was self-trained. Right after the loss, I joined up with AMA. My game is tenfold better now.”
Howard used the victory as his springboard into the UFC, where he has since beaten Chris Wilson and Tamdan McCrory. Though he has yet to escape the regional fight scene, Brenneman finds solace in the fact that Howard has performed well after earning entry to the famed Octagon.
“I’m happy for John,” Brenneman says. “It only makes me look better.”
Training alongside top competitors like the world-ranked Frankie Edgar and former International Fight League middleweight champion Dan Miller, Brenneman has not lost since. He has rattled off five consecutive victories, four of them finishes. At 27 and entering his prime, he remains one of the top welterweight prospects in the country. In regular contact with Strikeforce, the UFC and Bellator Fighting Championships, his break could come soon.
“It’s just a matter of time,” says Mike Constantino, head trainer at the AMA Fight Club. “He’s got the skill. He’s got all the tools. Charlie can definitely compete at that level.”
Brenneman seems content to wait his turn.
“There’s no system for making it to the big show,” Brenneman says. “I try not to center too much on that. I try to train daily and get better, so when that opportunity does come, I’ll be ready for it. All the gears are turning. I’m just hoping and waiting for an opportunity to pop up.”
While he has yet to break through on the national MMA stage, Brenneman has enjoyed a taste of the spotlight. Alongside his older brother, Ben, he competed and won Season 1 of the Spike TV reality series “Pros vs. Joes.” The experience left him with lasting memories -- and wanting more.
“It was awesome,” Brenneman says. “It was unbelievably surreal. The pros were super generous, super gracious. The competition was intense, and it was definitely real.”
A decorated collegian, Brenneman has long possessed the base he needs to succeed in mixed martial arts. Wrestling since grade school, he attended Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, where he nearly achieved All-American status and capped his career in 2004 with a top 12 finish in nationals. He believes the demands of his former sport bleed naturally into MMA.
“You can’t understand unless you’ve been a wrestler,” Brenneman says. “The day-in, day-out grind is unlike anything else. The mental toughness you had to have, the sacrifices you had to make, carry right over to fighting.”
Still, he took an odd route to professional MMA. Brenneman holds a Master’s degree in sports management and an undergraduate degree in Spanish. He taught high school and junior high school Spanish for three years, hence the nickname “The Spaniard,” but gave up teaching to pursue a full-time career in full-contact fighting.
“When I was teaching, each day was very similar,” he says. “What I love about fighting are the ups and downs, the good days and the bad days, the victories and the defeats.”
Constantino has no doubt he chose the right path.
“He’s like a sponge,” he says. “He absorbs everything. You show him something on Wednesday night, and he’s doing it on Thursday in practice. No matter how hard you press it, he’s always willing to try and learn something. Charlie has tremendous heart.”
Brenneman, the reigning Valley Fight League welterweight champion, still holds court as a substitute teacher a few days each week. His students have slowly uncovered his secret.
“It’s obviously not something I just come out and say,” Brenneman says. “Little by little, through articles and through Googling my name, they caught on to it. The kids see me in a different light. They’re like, ‘Wait a minute, this guy’s a fighter? He’s my teacher.’”
The youngest of Charles and Marie Brenneman’s four children, he was raised in a traditional American home, where opportunities were as plentiful as the expectations were steep. He blossomed inside their nurturing bubble.
“It was kind of like ‘Pleasantville,’” Brenneman says. “My parents have been married for 31, 32 years. There were no sibling rivalries. Every one of us has a degree in higher learning. I was always very fortunate.”
Needless to say, his parents were caught off guard by his career choice. They always envisioned him in front of the classroom shaping young minds, not bashing his fellow man in the head with punches, kicks, knees and elbows.
“Obviously, they didn’t think much about it at first,” Brenneman says. “They’d prefer I stay in my hometown and teach high school, but they understand in order for me to be happy this is what I need to be doing. It’s the life I want.”