"I’m not taking him lightly, but I’m not flying all the way to Sweden for a loss." - Brian Stann
As Brian Stann puts it, he still had “sand in his ears” when he fought Steve Cantwell for the first time as a member of the WEC roster back in March of 2007. That can happen when you’re part of another elite fighting roster, the United States Marine Corps, and when he signed the contract for his third professional fight, Stann was still on active duty in Iraq.
Once he came home, the bout lasted just 41 seconds, as Stann won by first round TKO. It was nearly two years after Operation Matador, a mission where he earned a Silver Star for valor in battle after the unit he commanded was ambushed near Karabilah. Stann made sure all 42 of his men survived the attack, but he never was one to pat himself on the back or yell ‘look at me’ when it came to his life in the military.
Instead, as he built his fighting resume in the WEC and then the UFC, Stann preferred to talk about his mixed martial arts career, his teammates, or his Hire Heroes organization. Inevitably though, most interviews circled back to his time on a battlefield that had no rules, no referees, no gloves, and no handshakes and hugs when the smoke cleared. And though Stann was always gracious, it wasn’t something that he relished reliving.
“It’s not therapeutic, and to be honest, I’ve always tap danced around a lot of questions concerning my military background,” said Stann, who had everything come flashing back to him in a recent UFC Ultimate Insider piece on FUEL TV that saw him go over Operation Matador in painful detail with his squadmate Corporal Robert Gass.
“It was very difficult for me, and in all honesty, I told my manager afterwards, that was it, I’m done talking about it,” said Stann. “That piece in particular was emotional, and it was very difficult to sit there and look into the eyes of a young man (Gass) that I cared for and loved like he was my own son and see the scars and see the pain. I know the difficulty he’s had in his life, from having to learn how to use a fork all over again, to his own personal relationships that stemmed from multiple brain surgeries. And that’s just one instance and one guy. I’ve served with multiple guys that are no longer here. So it’s just not easy stuff to talk about, and luckily for me I did my job for that particular show and I now have the choice that I don’t have to do that anymore. I’m done.”
It’s a brave admission from Stann, and an understandable one. We’ve all heard, seen, and read about the horror stories of young men and women coming back from the war vastly different than they were when they left to go overseas. Post-traumatic stress disorder is real, and to have to relive a host of bad memories on a regular basis has to be even tougher than getting into a cage and fighting another man. But Stann, always a good soldier, did it without blinking an eye, knowing that the more he spoke about it, the more people would realize the sacrifices made by his fellow servicemen and women. And amazingly, he seems to have escaped the nightmarish homecomings experienced by many of his peers. Ask him how he was able to do it, and his response is immediate.
“Two things,” he said. “One was martial arts. I had a fight already scheduled and signed in the WEC to fight Steve Cantwell the first time. I signed that contract in Iraq. They emailed me and said ‘hey, we want you to fight,’ and it was basically six weeks to the day I landed. I had sand in my ears when I fought Cantwell the first time, and that was one thing. Martial arts is an amazing release, it’s great therapy, and you’re not gonna come home angry after you’re going to the gym a couple of times because everybody knows the positive things that happen to your body after a great workout.
“The second thing that happened, even more importantly, was immediately upon returning from Iraq, within three weeks I got my wife pregnant. We got the news that we were having a baby, and at that point in time, that was the biggest change in my life. I wasn’t getting out of the Marine Corps. I was gonna stay in the Marine Corps, I may have a couple of fights just for the hell of it, but now all of a sudden I’m gonna be a dad, and there’s no time for feeling sorry for myself. There’s no time for getting angry over these things. I gotta raise a family, and I made a promise to myself when I was all alone, that I would never bring that into my home. Never. My wife doesn’t know much about it whatsoever and she’s never had to be a part of it. But I truly believe that the consistent training and focus and the mountains and adversity I have to overcome through martial arts, there’s a lot of therapy involved there. Martial arts is known for being something that’s character building, that increases focus and keeps your mind, body, and spirit as one, and that’s all true. And I’ve been very adamant with the military in their own martial arts programs being used to combat post-traumatic stress, because I feel like they are a huge tool for doing so.”
Yet even though he won a WEC light heavyweight title, transitioned to the UFC, and after a rough start at 205, moved down to middleweight and became a contender, Stann never believed that fighting was going to be his career.
“I always used to say ‘fighting’s not my career, it’s simply something that I do,’” he admits. “But in reality, especially in 2011, fighting became my career and I came into my own. Before the (Mike) Massenzio fight (in August of 2010), I was kind of on the bubble. If I had lost a fight or two at that point, I probably would have been cut and had to go back to the regional shows and try to earn my way back up if I was even going to continue fighting.”
He beat Massenzio, scoring his first submission win and a Fight of the Night bonus in his middleweight debut. That was a nice start to life at 185 pounds, but when the idea of a New Year’s Day bout with Chris Leben became a possibility, everything changed for him.
“I knew it was a fight I wanted, and my manager, Robert Roveta, did a really good job and he’s a true professional,” said Stann. “He maintains a great relationship with all the people at the UFC, which is really important, and he was able to get me that fight. The timing was just right, every other middleweight was matched up, and Chris wanted to stay busy. It was a fight I knew I would win and my manager told me it was going to be a game changer if I went out and performed, and it was. We were able to at that point secure sponsorships and things of that nature, and that’s when it really allows it to be a career.”
Stann needed just 3:37 to knock out the steel-chinned Leben, and suddenly, he had himself a career and a bright future. Four months later, Stann upset the oddsmakers a second consecutive time, picking up another Fight of the Night bonus with his second round TKO of veteran contender Jorge Santiago, and when he was matched with top contender Chael Sonnen at UFC 136 last October, no one was counting out the “All-American.”
Unfortunately, Sonnen took Stann just as seriously, and his experience and ground game led him to a second round submission win. It was a setback, but a minor one considering that Sonnen is one of the best 185 pounders in the game, and Stann doesn’t believe that his loss was a case of too much too soon.
“I don’t know if it was too much too soon to fight somebody at that level,” he said. “I just think that if you were to take the entire middleweight division and say who is the absolute worst matchup for you right now in your career, that would be the guy at the top of the list. That’s what it was, and I’m just not the type who’s gonna sit there and try and matchmake. It’s not my style. It was a fight that was gonna get me a chance to get a shot at the title possibly, and it wasn’t a fight that I was gonna run from. I don’t think anybody else was out there that was willing to fight him. There’s a lot of people talking about it, but people weren’t willing to fight him, and I stepped up to the plate and unfortunately I think Chael had one of his best nights in the Octagon and I couldn’t get my momentum started. He’s a guy that once he gets his momentum started, it’s really tough to change the tide against him. I started to get his timing down in the second round and I made a tactical error, and I paid for it.”
And not surprisingly, instead of dwelling on the defeat, Stann has taken a host of lessons from the fight that he’s put to good use in his preparation for Saturday’s UFC on FUEL TV co-main event against Alessio Sakara.
“You’ve got to look at what led to the performance and what took place in the Octagon,” said Stann of what he took away from only his fourth pro loss (against 11 victories). “Chael was a really difficult guy to simulate in the gym, and if you get guys in that can simulate him for a week or two, or three weeks, that’s nice, but he’s a guy with a style that you need to have simulated on you for your entire camp so that you can get used to both his pace, his style, and his pressure. That was probably one of the biggest things I learned. The techniques and the gameplan that we had established for him was the correct gameplan. I know it was. There were just certain techniques that I needed to execute that gameplan that were still outside of my comfort realm, and those were the biggest things that I worked on in the last four, five months – getting more comfortable in some of those positions and with some of those techniques.”
Given that, expect to see a much improved Brian Stann in Stockholm, but also a 31-year old who was forced to change things up in his training schedule after the tragic death of his brother-in-law just days before Christmas. So to make sure he was there for his wife and their two daughters, Stann set up camp in Atlanta, Georgia, bringing in not only local talent, but members of his Jackson’s MMA team as head coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn offered advice from Albuquerque.
“It was different at first, but it was mainly due to the fact that despite being fighters, life happens sometimes,” said Stann of the change in training scenery. “And that happened. We had a tragedy in my family two days before Christmas and me leaving home for nine to ten weeks was just not a good idea right now. My family needed me here, so I called down to Greg, I called down to Coach Wink and I said ‘hey, this is my situation.’ I have some great teammates here in Atlanta, that before the end of 2011, we all just kind of trained at our own place and we’d get together a couple times a week. After my Chael fight, I kinda put a stop to it and said ‘this is ridiculous. There’s too much talent here for guys to be all over the place. We should train together every day at one location at one time, just like any other team would.’ And lo and behold, I’ve had guys come in from Jackson’s for this camp, I’ve had guys come in from a lot of other big camps, and they can’t believe the level of talent we have in the room. We’ve assembled a really good crew of talent and some great coaches, and Greg Jackson and Wink have sent guys out here to help me. I’ve taped all my sparring rounds and sent them down to them, so it’s actually been a little less stressful because I’m not sitting there every night wondering if I’m doing the right thing for my family. Yes, I’m working, yes, I’m earning a living, but I’m also missing precious moments with my daughters by not being with them every day. So it’s taken a lot of pressure off me mentally.”
And given the emotional rollercoaster that involved a loss to Sonnen, a death in the family, and reliving one of the worst nights of his life in front of the world, Brian Stann will finally be in a place of peace on Saturday night, where he can unleash everything that’s been building up since October on his opponent.
“I’m not taking him lightly, but I’m not flying all the way to Sweden for a loss,” he said. “I’m going out there, and with the difficulties my family has had to overcome over the last few months, I can tell you right now that it has not been easy, it’s been difficult, and there’s nothing more I want to do right now than get locked into a cage with another man and have some fun.”