As a student at the University of Phoenix in Phoenix, Arizona, Brandyn “Buff” Brandenburg was in for a surprise. His father, Anthony, was drunk driving, she had told him. Brandenburg feared he might die. Yet he was able to get his dad off the street and to the hospital before he managed to kill himself. That was probably the best thing that ever happened to Buff, who grew up, in Phoenix’s rough Parkview Neighborhood. When he moved to New York, it was a big change in both life and sports. After that, he kicked his streak of alcoholism, and he is now a champion in Ultimate Fighting Championship. Brandenburg appeared before lawmakers in Albany this month, as part of the public debate on combating sexual abuse in schools. After his death, The New York Times wrote, “his family, which had recently moved to Arizona, adopted Buff’s 6-year-old brother from Arizona.” We talked to Brandenburg about his walk to the top.
TELL US ABOUT IT: You wrestled for the Phoenix University Suns. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the amount of money athletes make. Is that relevant here?
BRANDENBURG: You’re really asking me to go into the world of contact sports. So, for me, this is none of my business or anybody else’s business. But this is the biggest I’ve seen the universities going after these athletes. Now, not all athletes are going to be paid. The fact is, colleges need money. The athletes in this state, they have an obligation to the schools and the universities owe them a lot. Everybody looks at sports like we’re the only profession that’s hard. This is a hard job. Anybody who says that — you’re a total idiot.
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF: You grew up in Parkview Neighborhood of Phoenix. Where were you born?
BRANDENBURG: I was born and raised in Phoenix. My dad and I had a rocky relationship, and he decided he was going to beat me for real one day. We argued, and he took out a knife.
At a certain point, he had me in my parents room and slapped me around. He slapped me so hard, I remember, it looked like I got punched in the face. He pulled me out of my parents room and drove me to the park. The young me went, like, whoa. I told my mom, “Somebody has to step in,” and she took me home. When we got there, I saw my dad. He was drunk, of course. He came over, picked me up by the backpack and drove me to the hospital.
It was the day he lost his license. The cops came and took him away from me. After that, I went into foster care, and we moved around. At that point, I was in a foster home and they kept me in their bedroom.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR ROLE MODEL: What’s your role model?
BRANDENBURG: My mother. She is a single parent and that whole situation, it really strengthened her as a person. She teaches me a lot about her story, which led me into motherhood. My mother always tells me you can take some good from the worst. I see myself a lot more in my mom. That’s one of the main reasons that I fought to get my sister to come with me to New York.
When I told her, she was hurt. She felt like I was abandoning her. My family was shattered. But I’m only 1 year older than my sister, and I figured I could take care of her. My sister is only in second grade, but I’m a champion athlete now. She saw me on TV. She asked me how I felt about winning the Gracie University fight, and I told her she’s not going to win, she’s going to lose. If she takes the fight seriously, she’s going to lose. She’s going to have to fight for her place in life.