Former WEC light heavyweight champ Brian Stann makes his middleweight debut Sunday against Mike Massenzio. UFC.com caught up with the "All-American"...
The fight is the same every day for Brian Stann. It’s a battle that doesn’t take place in a gym or in an Octagon, but wherever the UFC middleweight may open an email or catch a television news program. For a decorated war hero and Captain in the United States Marine Corps like Stann, it could take just one phone call and he will go from being a professional athlete to a leader back on the battlefields in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Simple as that. But the emotions are far more complex.
“I miss it every day,” said Stann of his time on active duty. “I watch the news a lot and think that I should be back out there. It’s been difficult for me and God bless my wife, she’s really been the one who’s had to deal with it. But there are a lot of times, especially now that we’ve had the bloodiest month in all of the war in Afghanistan, where I feel like that’s where my place is.”
Stann calls it “survivor’s guilt”, the idea that no matter what you have done to serve your country both on and off the battlefield, if you’re not still out there, there’s something wrong. It’s the struggle behind the scenes that pales in comparison to anything Stann deals with in his life as a mixed martial artist, but he shakes off those feelings, knowing that there is work to be done here that is just as important.
“I get emails every once in a while for hot fill positions that they need to deploy right away and the only thing that keeps me from doing that, to be honest with you, is my kids,” said Stann, who has two daughters with his wife Teressa. “I have two daughters that really need me, and when I leave just to go to a training camp, my two and a half year old daughter gets very upset and cries and behaves differently when I’m not at home. I realize that that’s my number one priority right now and I have to stick to that. I didn’t have a father who was around, so it wasn’t a big deal to me, but I think for two little girls, I think it is a big deal for them.”
So Stann stays home, tends to his family and focuses not only on them, but on a fight career that takes him to San Diego this weekend for a bout against Mike Massenzio. It’s a pivotal battle for the 29-year old, who will be making his middleweight debut, but it’s not the only thing on his plate, as he deals with his previous life in the military by helping fellow vets through his Hire Heroes foundation.
“It’s one of the few things I do take solace in,” said Stann, who serves as Executive Director for the foundation, which helps find jobs for returning vets and aids in the re-acclimation process to civilian life. “It’s awesome to travel around the country and work with wounded warriors and transitioning warriors and talk about their experiences and try to help them to succeed later in life. It really is therapeutic for me and it probably helps me more than it does help these veterans. It’s a huge part of my life right now that will never go away.”
It’s not his only connection to the military life these days, as Stann has also found time to write a book, “Heart for the Fight”, which will be released in September. It’s not a vanity biography or quick cash-in book. For Stann, it’s an opportunity to not only tell his story, but that of his brothers in arms.
“I originally turned some people down when I had offers to do it and then I met this writer (John Bruning) and we decided to do it,” said Stann, who toiled on the book nightly from 9:30pm to 11pm, when his kids were in bed, and his work in the gym and with Hire Heroes was done. “I know that the men I led in battle, like myself and many combat veterans, have trouble talking about the things you experienced in life and things you went through over there. If I could put some of those things in a book, I know that the men I used to lead can say to their mom and dad or their wives and kids, ‘I know I have trouble saying anything and you want to know, but maybe this is something that can help explain it.’ Certainly not all the details and all the stories, but I think somewhere in the book it will help put people in that mindset and make them understand what our men and women go through over there.”
Yet even though Stann is years removed from the 2005 battle in Iraq where he earned the Silver Star for valor in combat for bringing back all the Marines he led back alive, re-opening those wounds on paper wasn’t easy.
“It was very difficult,” he said of the writing process. “I’ve never really gone into too much detail with the media on things that I’ve felt, but it was a very difficult time because it really brought me back to a lot of tough memories. I normally don’t bring any of that into my home with my family. I hope I’ve done a very good job of not doing that, but sometimes the book brought that back and my wife would walk in the room and I’d kinda be in tears and not want to talk. But as private as some of those things are and some of those feelings are, the certain men that I served with deserve to be remembered and to be memorialized in something, and I don’t know if my book will do nearly as good a job as they deserve, but it’s just one more thing that will memorialize them.”
Stann admits that as far as book sales go, “I’m not a Forrest Griffin or Chuck Liddell or a name like that that’s gonna be a bestseller,” but at the same time, he hopes that whoever does pick up the book picks up more than an entertaining read.
“I’m gonna get some random people who are gonna pick up my book and maybe some kids, and as long as they get something from it, and learn something, than I’m happy with it,” he said. “I’m sure I’m gonna get some criticism as well, but that comes with anything that’s in the entertainment industry, and I’ve learned to block that stuff out at this point.”
That’s not surprising, since Stann is one of those people who actually acts and doesn’t talk about what he’s going to do, basically rendering critics irrelevant. How else can you explain a fighting career that started on the fly and blew up before he even had a steady training situation in place, earning him a WEC light heavyweight title in his sixth pro fight, while he was still on active duty with the Marines? It’s a topic he also pulls no punches on in his book.
“I think it’s a very honest account of my fighting career – brutally honest,” he said. “What it’s like to try to be fighter, how I was basically trying to do this with zero skill in the sport and how emotional it is when we win and lose and all the tough things we go through. I talk about going into different gyms where you don’t know anybody and you get your butt kicked and things like that, and the overall theme is overcoming adversity. I’ve made more mistakes in my life than I’ve had successes, but I think the biggest thing for me is how I’ve dealt with those failures. And because I’m so stubborn, I don’t like to have people looking down on me. I get back up and I’ll climb the mountain again no matter what people think or what people say. I’m gonna try again. Hopefully some of those lessons I’ve learned will help another man or woman.”
This determination is why, after a disappointing three round defeat to unbeaten Phil Davis in February, Stann got back into the gym a week after the bout and began the process of sewing up the gaps in his fight game as well as dropping the 20 pounds to the 185-pound middleweight limit. He admits with a laugh that he’s hungry in the days leading up to Sunday’s bout, but considering that he walks around at approximately 217 pounds and woke up the morning of the weigh-in for the Davis fight at 204 ½, the middleweight division is probably the perfect fit for him.
“The great thing is that I feel like I’m striking with more velocity, so I hit harder and faster at this weight,” said Stann, who finished six of his eight light heavyweight wins by knockout. “I’m leaned out, but I haven’t lost anything tangible, so this is more of a natural weight class for me. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to fight at full energy and be a faster 205er, but the problem is that everybody’s gameplan against me is to hold me down and keep me in that position to where they can neutralize the threat of my striking and my power. This is the better thing for me if I’m gonna make it very, very difficult for these top level wrestlers and grapplers to hold me down all night.”
That will be the key against Massenzio, as Stann will be in there with a quality wrestler for the third straight time, making it clear that if he is to progress in his fight career, he will have to figure out the puzzle that befuddled him against Davis. To do that, coach Greg Jackson has been throwing plenty of wrestlers at him, and he even went a little unorthodox (at least for him) over the last few months.
“I put a gi on for five and a half months straight, doing gi jiu-jitsu every day as well just to get my bottom game even better and to tighten up my grappling,” said Stann, who is fine with the idea of taking on yet another wrestler.
“This is three wrestlers in a row and the person who has really benefitted is me,” he said. “It’s all similar gameplans, it’s forcing me to work with higher and higher level wrestlers and continue to gain skill in the wrestling and grappling area, and I’m just getting a lot better. I’ve been very fortunate to have coaches and teammates who care a lot about me and have shared so many skills and Greg (Jackson) and my coaches couldn’t be happier with my progress. My skill set is finally catching up to my athleticism and I think I’m about a year to a year and a half away from peaking at this sport.”
Stann has showed marked improvement under the tutelage of Jackson, particularly impressive in his 2009 rubber match with WEC rival Steve Cantwell, as he used effective movement and quick flurries to keep his foe at bay and off balance all night. More importantly, he looked relaxed.
“I think a lot of fighters, when they get to the UFC level, and the longer you fight, you go through transitions where you overthink the sport and your fight, and it hinders your ability to fight at full speed,” he said. “I certainly went through that transition period in a couple fights when I first got in the UFC. And now I’m back to where it’s you know what? He (Massenzio) is who he is. He’s a wrestler and a grappler. He’s got good boxing skills, but let’s be serious; I don’t care what he says, we know he’s going in there to take me down and stay on top of me and ground and pound me all night long. There’s no doubt about it. He’s gonna use some strikes to set it up, but we know what he’s gonna do and there’s enough film out there on him to understand and really get a good respect for his skill set.”
And get this…Stann is actually having fun in the Octagon now.
“There’s nothing that’s gonna happen in that cage that will make me panic at this stage and the best part of where I am now is that I truly enjoy the fight, which a lot of fighters lie about,” he said. “They don’t enjoy that moment at all. They’re scared to heck in that locker room, they’re scared walking out there, and they’re happy as heck when the fight’s over. I enjoy it. There’s gonna be a time in my life where I can’t do this anymore, and I’m gonna daydream and tell stories about when I used to do this. So I truly want to enjoy every minute that I get to be a professional athlete and fight on the greatest stage in the world in the UFC.”
“The ultimate goal for me in fighting, and this may sound weird to anybody, is first off to be a champion, and second is that when I’m done, I want to be able to look back on it and be satisfied and not have a whole bunch of what ifs,” he continues. “I want to have faced the toughest competition that I could have faced and I’d rather have a whole bunch of losses to really tough guys than a whole bunch of wins against guys I was supposed to beat and telling people ‘yeah, I could have been the UFC champ one day, I just decided I didn’t want to do it.’ I don’t want to be one of those has-beens who spits a lot of BS at people about how good they used to be. I’d rather say I got to this level but then I just ran into these couple guys who were better or I got to this level and I beat those guys and I was a champion one day. It’s all about the challenge and the journey and I think every fighter can attest to that.”
If Brian Stann sounds like he’s got it all figured out, that may very well be the case, and it’s a nice place to be in before you’ve reached your 30th birthday. But you won’t hear that out of his mouth, as he’s too busy with his family, his training, his foundation, and whatever else will find its way to his plate in the coming years. And you know what? That’s just fine with him.
“I think I would be bored if all I did was fight all day,” he smiles. “There’s way too much free time during the day. I’m not the guy who can take naps all day.”