Outside the Cage

Cameron Conaway fights envy when his friend Charlie Brenneman finds victory in the UFC.

Excerpt from Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet.

 There were clear blue skies and the sticky humidity was rising when I pulled into Bojangles’ Coliseum wearing Charlie Brenneman’s t-shirt. Does Charlie know the history of this place? I wondered. What does it mean to him? Does it mean as much to him as it means to me? Does that matter? Why was he drinking a Pepsi during his interview a few days ago? Does he know how bad soda is for the athlete’s body? I felt guilty bringing all these thoughts and possibly their bad karma into the arena. Why am I such an envious asshole? These feelings. They are what I came here for, right?

I shook hands with top fighters in the sport like Dan Hardy, Spencer Fisher and Kurt Pellegrino. I saw Eddie Bravo and Renzo Gracie—two athletes I’d worked with and studied. Lights of all colors streamed across the fans, onto the cage and into my eyes and they moved with the beat as rap and heavy metal pounded into my ears. I’m not sure if I was moving because of the music or because envy wanted to burst the hell out from inside of me.

I approached the security guard: “Excuse me sir. Excuse me.”


“This stadium is nearly empty, and I drove five hours just to see this one undercard fight. He’s from my hometown, we’re friends. Is there anyway I could sit in the front row here just for this fight?”

“I don’t see why not.”

So it was. Nobody had a closer seat to see Charlie Brenneman’s debut UFC fight against Jason “The Kansas City Bandit” High. Heavy rock music came on. The lights dimmed. The huge television screen above the fighter’s entrance read, “Charlie Brenneman, Altoona, Pennsylvania.” I began a stadium-wide chant of “Span-iard, Span-iard.” Charlie must have had sixty fans who had made the drive from Altoona spread throughout the crowd, all wearing his t-shirt. I tried to take pictures as he bounced in the cage to keep himself warm and focused. But I couldn’t. I froze. Nerves made me forget how to take a picture or send a text message from my phone. My entire being was focused on Charlie’s safety, on hoping he did well, on living vicariously through him. I could barely breathe. I sat down to catch my breath. Charlie looked over and pointed to me and I felt my envy evaporate. Every decision I’d made in my life suddenly felt validated.

At several moments throughout Charlie’s fight I nearly shit myself. I felt out of my body, in his. I instinctively slipped jabs that came his way, finished the takedowns he scored by driving my hips forward. They were subtle movements, but movements intense enough and apparently frequent enough to make me feel sore the following day. Charlie controlled the fight. He secured several beautiful takedowns where he landed immediately in side control—a dominant position that the judges score favorably. He smothered Jason High with wrestling skills. He landed three solid right crosses, the same punch he’d been floored by years ago at the Altoona Boxing Club. The fight went to a decision. All three judges scored the fight in Charlie’s favor. He had just defeated a very game opponent. The referee raised Charlie’s hand in victory and Charlie closed his eyes. He had just won his UFC debut.

The envy of seeing a local guy make it first, a local guy with even the master’s degree/teacher niche carved out, the thought that it could be me backstage parting the curtains and taking the same steps Ken Shamrock did, it all disappeared. My wanting to fight again, the deep itch I couldn’t reach by burying my shins into Thai pads, practicing double-leg takedowns, or deadlifting three times my bodyweight was scratched and relieved. The discontent that ruined sleep and made me feel like a worthless bum too scared to reach his potential during the day, disappeared. I no longer felt the arrogance that crept into my blood when it came to my MMA potential. I was content to watch. Content to follow. Content to cheer. Content to know I could choose a different path that, like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, has its own positive principles of leverage. As Helio Gracie once riffed on Archimedes, “Give me the right leverage and I can lift the world.”

I knew then that I’d spend my life going toe-to-toe with ignorance.


An hour after the fight, Charlie came down into the front row and we spoke for a few minutes. My eyes welled up from the joy of his success and from my own epiphany that I could get on with my life without feeling like a pile of shit. I didn’t want to bawl in front of him.

“I’m so proud of you, Charlie,” I said slapping his back. “You deserve it, brother.”

“Thanks, Cameron, are you still living in Arizona doing your writing thing?”

Just then a swarm of ninety newly minted fans approached hollering, “Spaniard, can you sign my shirt?” and “Hey, Charlie, can I get a picture?”

Charlie tried to continue the conversation with me, but I felt the buzz of energy from all the fans closing in. I grabbed Charlie’s shoulder, leaned into his ear and said, “Now is your time, man. Soak it up. Enjoy it.”

“I’ll try,” he said through a smile spanning the breadth of his face.

I walked back to my seat. I looked down at my Charlie Brenneman t-shirt, looked over at him and watched as he instantly became a celebrity, looked into my camera at the pictures I’d taken of the arena prior to his entrance. At first I held the camera upside down and it hit me. I’d been looking at the whole damn situation upside down. Instead of focusing on the positive outcomes of my choices, I only thought of the what-ifs or of the positive experiences of others. Our eyes take pictures of the world upside down, I thought to myself. Then our brain turns the picture the right way up and shows us what we’re seeing in a way that makes sense. Is this not the point of writing? To see things differently? To turn established, easy untruths and turn them right side up? I’ve been living in the envious eyes. On the surface. I watched the fights for the first time in my life as an informed spectator. No more, no less. And I still feel a joy I can’t reach the bottom of. When I shook hands with Charlie after his fight, I felt my cravings for the whole sport stay in his hand. The years of voices telling me I wasn’t good enough faded. I literally tasted smoke. I’d learned days prior how the smoke from forest fires contain a family of chemicals that make plants hypersensitive to lower, altered light levels, how this triggers them to grow thicker, sturdier stems than they otherwise would have.

What I left in Charlie’s hands were my aspirations to fight again in MMA.

What he gave back was a new desire.

Read more in Cameron Conaway’s series, “What’s Your Fight?” on The Good Life.

Image credit: Wikipedia

About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.


  1. Awesome article! I went through the same thing a few years ago. I do still get the itch to fight occasionally, but unlike before there’s no self-judgment behind it. Just a desire to compete and feel the adrenaline rush of stepping in the ring or cage again…with an acceptance of the fact that my life is very different now than it was at 25. Thanks.

    • Cameron Conaway says:


      Thanks so much for the response man! That itch is in me a well and, like you, that part of my life has passed me by, especially since the sport has evolved at unbelievable speeds. I’d love to hear more about your training/fighting days.


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