How UFC bantamweight Bryan Caraway overcame his most dangerous opponent

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Bryan Caraway was living a charmed life. He just didn't know it.

The UFC bantamweight, who fights Erik Perez on Saturday in Albuquerque, N.M., was the envy of many men. He had a girlfriend he adored and a job he loved. He fought on television and was part of a reality show.

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Nearly everything he could have possibly dreamed about, he had.

He was fighting in the UFC, the highest level of mixed martial arts, and putting together a credible record.

Something was wrong, though. For the longest time, even before he made it to the UFC, Caraway would be miserable as fight time approached.

The last several days before a bout are torture for many fighters, who have to go through the weight-cut process. Cutting weight, sitting in a sauna dressed for an arctic winter and then coming out and running on a treadmill, is a nightmare for many.

Caraway had to deal with that, but as a wrestler, he had plenty of experience and was used to the process. His issues extended far beyond sweating off weight.

He vomited before nearly every fight and almost became a different person until his match ended.

Caraway was suffering from performance anxiety. The perception of Caraway that developed as a result of his condition was incorrect. He was portrayed as fearful and afraid, one of the worst things that could be said about a fighter.

He finally came to grips with it in 2010 after a loss to Fredson Paixao while he was still in the World Extreme Cagefighting promotion. He realized he needed to correct the problem if only for his sanity, let alone his career.

Bryan Caraway is having fun in the cage again after overcoming a serious case of performance anxiety. (Getty Images)
Bryan Caraway is having fun in the cage again after overcoming a serious case of performance anxiety. (Getty Images)

Since then, he's won three of his four fights, has appeared as both a competitor and a coach on "The Ultimate Fighter," and is moving steadily up the UFC's rankings.

He'd been afraid to lose and of being unable to perform under the bright lights. He was, in essence, a great practice player who had difficulty translating his gym skill into positive results when it mattered on fight night. He was like a golfer who could drive the ball 300 yards on the practice range but would slice it weakly out of bounds on the first tee.

Caraway's first step toward solving his issues was focusing on why he was drawn to MMA in the first place. He loved the sport and the competition, and he was never happier than when he was training for a fight.

He had to learn to not concern himself with satisfying others and focus on satisfying himself.

He also had to come to grips with what it was that was making him vomit before every fight.

It wasn't getting kicked or punched or put into an arm bar that he feared as much as it was the anxiety that he would not be able to do what he had trained his whole life to do.

Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said that "90 percent of this game is half mental," and Caraway found that to be so true.

"People are very quick to judge and they can very easily misinterpret or misunderstand what performance anxiety is," he said. "They equate it to be afraid or being scared or being a coward. That has nothing to do with it at all."

He sought out several sports psychologists to aid him, but he discovered the most at the bookstore and on the Internet. He read everything he could find about performance anxiety, its cause and how to overcome it.

As he learned more about it, he became more comfortable with what he had to do and was able to perform much closer to the top end of his potential.

He, like many athletes, was frequently taunted by fans on social media. Most athletes ignore it and accept it as one of the downsides of fame. But for a long time, the barbs and the negative comments tore up Caraway.

"It used to really bother me," he said. "I grew up in a small town and I've always viewed myself as a good guy. I've always tried to do the right thing, to have good morals. I am human and I made mistakes in the past. I've always made it a point to try to be a good guy and to be the best person I could be. And then I'd see these comments people were making, and I'll be honest, it was very hard for a while to accept that."

His research helped him to understand that, no matter what he did, there are going to be those who dislike him or just try to get a rile out of him.

It was all a part of getting past his performance anxiety issues.

When he finally took a step back and looked at his life and examined it carefully, what he realized was how blessed he'd been.

"It's hard to believe all of this has happened to me and it's hard to buy into your own hype, so to speak," Caraway said. "It's basically a belief of how life is turning out. Am I really fighting on national TV? Have I really been on a reality show? Am I really fighting in the UFC? I was questioning myself for years, but these things kept happening.

Bryan Caraway, working against Johnny Bedford, has won three of his last four fights. (Getty Images)
Bryan Caraway, working against Johnny Bedford, has won three of his last four fights. (Getty Images)

"I finally got to a point where I realized I had to embrace this and realize how lucky I was and how much I had and had accomplished. I grew up in Goldendale, Wash., a town of 3,000, 3,500 people. I was a nobody from nowhere. But I realized God had given me these talents and gifts and not only was I thankful and did I realize I was fortunate, but I finally figured out what it was that got me those things."

What got him those things were hard work and his love of the fight. And so now, for five fights over four years, he's been a happy, content and more successful man, even as fight time approaches.

He's 14th in the current UFC ratings and figures to move up if he gets past No. 12 Perez. He said he doesn't want to look past Saturday, but knows what's ahead with a win: A Top 10 opponent and a continued climb toward the ultimate goal of winning the title.

He's a wise man of 29 now and has a far better grasp on life, his sport and his role in it.

"If I could sum it up and narrow it down to just one word, it would be 'fun,'" Caraway said. "I've learned to have fun. I took it too much like a job, like the most serious job. I honestly started to hate it and I thought about retiring.

"But I learned that I am doing this because I love it and I love it because the sport is so pure and I have so much fun. Knowing that, I'm able to go out and have fun. I still get nervous and pumped up, but in a good way. It's just a lot of fun for me now."

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