Years back, when Charlie Brenneman was just a struggling substitute Spanish teacher out to make a name for himself in the fight game, he often drove past a dim, unremarkable studio on his way to class. This was before the victorious stint on Pros vs. Joes that changed his life, before "The Spaniard" was a known commodity. Back then he was just Mr. Brenneman, and one day Mr. Brenneman decided to follow a whim and give the studio a call.
Don Messing was the man who picked up the phone. Cut from the rare cloth of people whose enthusiasm is as bulletproof as it contagious, Messing was a chiseled strength and lifestyle coach by trade. And when Brenneman introduced himself with an admittedly bleak offer -- "I'm this kid trying to get to the UFC, I don't really have any money, would you train me?" -- Messing didn't even blink.
"From that point he didn't ever care about money," Brenneman remembered with a smile on The MMA Hour.
"We worked together up to four or five times a week. He was just always in my corner."
As the years went on, the pair's list of accomplishments grew more extraordinary. From fulfilling a UFC dream against the odds, to a stunning 24-hours-notice upset of Rick Story, Coach Messing was there for it all.
"Don was a strength and conditioning coach by definition," Brenneman said. "But so much more than that, he was one of my best friends."
Messing was supposed to be there last Friday, too. Brenneman would be fighting another upstart prospect, Erick Silva, at UFC on FX 3, under the sun-drenched warmth of coastal Florida, and he never dreamed of doing so without his coach.
But Thursday morning came, and with it came a sobering voicemail from Messing's wife: "Hey Charlie, call me. It's important. I need to tell you something." Messages like that never mean what you hope. So Brenneman's wife logged onto Facebook, where she was met with the news.
"One of (Messing's) nieces had posted something about her uncle passing away, and he was the best person she had ever met," Brenneman dully explained. "This is all surreal, man. It's still surreal.
"So I immediately called his wife, and she told me what had happened. He had a heart attack in the middle of the night. We were just sitting out in the hall, and I didn't know how to react. I still don't know how to react. It just goes from, hey I'll see you Friday down (in Florida), to all of a sudden he's gone, and that's it."
Nothing in life prepares you for these moments. Brenneman still fought on Friday night, losing to Silva via first-round submission. Really, what else could he have done?
"This all kind of happened out of nowhere," Brenneman sighed. "It's an awful shame. Man, he was only 42 years old and one of the healthiest guys I knew.
"He was the poster-child for seize the day. He is it. I was fortunate enough yesterday, his family allowed me to speak at his funeral. One of ways I kind of rationalize this and the fact that it happened, is that he was one person that was full of life. More full of life than anyone I've ever met. Almost like it was too much for one person. So maybe God took him, so his message could be spread out to me, to all the other people he trained, so then we could be convey that exponentially and try to get that goodness out in the world."
Unfortunately, the fight game is a business, and business doesn't stop for personal mourning. Brenneman understands this, and while he knows he shouldn't sit on the sidelines, the fighter hopes to take some time off and try to enjoy a two-week honeymoon with his wife in Spain next month.
Maybe then, hopefully, he can start to work himself back into the grind, just the way Messing would have wanted.
"I've kind of found myself in a situation where it was hard for me to focus on the loss," Brenneman admitted. "It's almost like the loss hasn't happened yet.
"But I want to get back on the horse. It's what I do, it's what I am. In terms of the coaching, I don't know what we're going to do. Don taught me a lot. He taught my brother a lot. I don't really want another Don Messing."