“I don’t need to have a grudge match. I can have the utmost respect for a guy, and I have no problem stepping into the cage, locking the door, and wanting to knock him out because it’s just what you do at that time.” - Brian Stann
Admit it, Brian Stann snuck up on you. That same guy who was as raw as they come at light heavyweight while losing to Krzysztof Soszynski and Phil Davis, isn’t the one stepping into the Octagon on Saturday night to face Chael Sonnen in a pivotal middleweight matchup.
Not by a longshot. But the decorated veteran of the United States Marine Corps isn’t going to gloat about his 3-0 record (all finishes) at 185 pounds and say ‘I told you so.’ But ask him if he thinks he surprised some people with his new look at middleweight, and there is no hesitation in his response.
“Oh yeah, and I knew I would,” said Stann, who has defeated Mike Massenzio, Chris Leben, and Jorge Santiago in succession since dropping from 205 pounds in August of 2010. In fact, he looks at the lead-up to his UFC 125 win over Leben as the moment when he and his coaches said ‘okay, it’s time to strike.’
“We knew that at that point in time, through my training, that I was really turning a corner,” said Stann. “And when you train with guys who are some of the best guys in the world, you can really know what your level is and you know what your strengths are and you know what your weaknesses are. And when I made the drop to ’85, it was at the same time I really started to turn a corner. I really started to train and really focus on wrestling and the technical aspect of it. I really started to develop a sound submission game and become an all-around fighter, and I started to understand the subtleties of the sport in all realms – striking, wrestling, and grappling. So we knew what I was capable of and the thing is that fans, writers, and the media, they can’t see you in the gym. They don’t get to see those things and they have to judge you based on your fights, and you have three, four months in between fights, so you can grow an awful lot when you’re a pretty raw athlete like I was just a few years ago.”
Against Leben, Stann blitzed and stopped the steel-chinned contender in a single round, but he was beginning to show signs of his development way before that. Once just a hard-hitting brawler whose tendency to leave his chin up and exposed during serious exchanges, Stann won the WEC title in just his sixth pro fight, but lost it one fight later in 2008 to Steve Cantwell, who he had already beaten in 41 seconds a year earlier. But in their rubber match in the UFC in 2009, Stann – now under the tutelage of Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn – kept his chin tucked and his fists moving en route to an easy three round win. And then when he made it to middleweight in 2010, he showed off his ground game by securing his first submission win over a solid groundfighter in Massenzio. The Leben fight was the exclamation point though, and was followed by a Fight of the Night stoppage of Santiago in May. He’s making it look easy, but it’s been anything but for the 31-year old.
“You have to do some things a thousand times before you can actually become proficient at it,” said Stann. “And it just becomes like second nature. Every single day I spend 35 minutes on the pads with coach Winkeljohn. I’m training three to four times a day every single day, drilling techniques over and over again, and it just takes time. This sport takes time and that’s why when you get guys like Jon Jones and Phil Davis, people really make a big deal out of them because this sport is supposed to take a long time to develop, and then you get some athletes that can come in and pick things up rather quickly. More often than not, those athletes are wrestlers that actually come from a background where they’ve already somewhat mastered one third of the game, which is obviously an advantage.”
Stann had no such advantages, but in the process of learning on the job (and on the sport’s biggest stage), he’s gained an even greater appreciation for what’s happening to him now and the kind of athletes who surround him every day.
“I’ve really developed an appreciation for the guys who make it to this level of the sport,” he said. “It’s not easy, and I think early in my career, while I was still active duty, I thought that while it’s obviously very much a privilege to be a professional athlete, I kinda looked at it as being a pro fighter’s easy. There’s lots of time off, you dictate your own schedule, etc. But as I’ve climbed the ranks and made it to this level, I find that you are working full-time and there is no off-season. At the top level there aren’t guys that take off two months after fights. The guys that make it to the elite level, the guys similar to Chael, the Kenny Florians, the Georges St-Pierres, the Carlos Condits – these guys are always in the gym, and I’m the same way. A week after my fight, I heal up some bruises and I’m right back out there trying to find coaches who can give me one or two moves for my arsenal or one more edge so I can continue to grow as a fighter.”
“So I’ve really grown to respect the profession and my peers a lot more in the UFC because it’s a difficult way to make a living, the income is volatile, you can’t plan certain things because you never know when your career can end, and I think we all share that bond,” Stann continues.
With comments like that, it’s no surprise that no one has decided to pick a trash talking battle with the Scranton, Pennsylvania native. Add in that he’s a war hero still active in helping out his fellow vets, a family man, and a good teammate, and the odds of him having one of those “bad blood” matchups is even slimmer. And that’s fine with him.
“I don’t need to have a grudge match,” he said. “I can have the utmost respect for a guy, and I have no problem stepping into the cage, locking the door, and wanting to knock him out because it’s just what you do at that time.”
Even the trash talking king himself, Sonnen, has had nothing but good things to say about the man dubbed “All-American” Stann. It’s a shocking development in some respects, but it’s no surprise to Stann.
“When he (Sonnen) fought Dan Miller he didn’t have a whole lot to say; when he fought Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami it was the same thing,” he said. “I just think he was so vocal for certain fights, especially the Anderson (Silva) fight, that people just expected him to be vocal on me. And I think Chael’s honest when he says if he feels a certain way and he doesn’t like somebody, he’s gonna say it. And if that’s not the case, then he’s not gonna say anything, and I think he’s being very honest with that. And we share a very important person in both of our lives in a man named John Bardis, who is one of my head coaches and one of my closest mentors that I’ve ever had in my life. And he also has a relationship with Chael, and I think their relationship has grown in the last couple years as well where Chael sought some advice from him, etc., and so in respect for John, I knew that even for entertainment purposes Chael probably wouldn’t verbally attack me, which I wouldn’t have taken personally anyway.”
And there is still the reality that the two middleweights have to fight on Saturday night, so whether there was trash talk and ill feelings or not, that cage door is going to get locked in a few days and there will be bad intentioned blows thrown. Stann and Sonnen are prepared for that, and Stann, while respectful of his foe, is also confident in his chances this weekend.
“You can look at his record in the UFC and all that, but if you look at his fights, you see a guy who hasn’t lost a round in the UFC,” said Stann of Sonnen. “Unless he’s been submitted in that round, he hasn’t lost a round, and he has been able to take every guy down and impose his will on him every single time. I’ve looked at earlier fights in his career, and it’s really the same everywhere. So there are a lot of different, unique challenges that I have to face in there. But the biggest thing that I see that’s different is that the fighters that he’s been fighting have really gone into the cage with their skillsets and that’s it, and they did not appear to be prepared for certain positions and certain things that Chael could do to them. Whereas I feel that I’ll be the best prepared fighter he’s fought in quite some time. I have gone into very uncomfortable positions, I’ve brought in the people I needed to bring in to learn how to compete in certain areas that he may try and put me in. And there’s the obvious biggest difference as well, in that I can knock Chael Sonnen out with any punch.”
Stann’s power and Sonnen’s underrated speed (just watch him close the distance in his fights against Silva and Nate Marquardt) may be the key factors in this weekend’s fight. And while Sonnen can’t match Stann’s stopping power, Stann believes he can match his opponent’s quickness.
“If you watch my last two fights, I feel I have some of the best handspeed in the middleweight division, and I’m a lot stronger than those guys, physically stronger, so he’s gonna have to really work to get me to the mat and he’s gonna have to work the entire time to keep me on the mat,” said Stann. “I’m not gonna lay there, close my guard and just hug him, hoping the ref is gonna stand us up. And I believe I can hit him harder from my back then he can hit me on top. And I’ll put my money where my mouth is on that.”
Brian Stann isn’t a big talker, so when he says he’s putting his money where his mouth is, that’s something you could probably take to the bank. And though he doesn’t have the world-class experience of Sonnen or the wrestling of the former collegiate standout, he is getting better with each fight and he’s as confident as you can get without crossing the line into cocky territory. The only problem he appears to have is that he’s lost the element of surprise when it comes to opponents who definitely won’t sleep on someone who may not be the favorite, but who is certainly no underdog.
“I didn’t expect to get a fighter the caliber of Chael Sonnen for another year or so, and here I have this great opportunity,” said Stann. “And the best part is, I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m the underdog coming into this fight and there’s zero pressure on me. I can fight a hundred miles an hour; he’s got to be concerned with the amount of pressure he’s put on himself. He’s the older fighter, he’s got to get back to a title fight, and I feel a lot of these things are going to play into my favor and I know I’m gonna go out there and surprise a lot of people.”