The first time I talked to Brian Stann in person was in a kitchen on a gray January 2008 morning in Big Bear, in what seemed like a Kumbaya camp for the scariest humans in the west. The compound he was at had once belonged to Oscar De La Hoya, but at the time was owned by Tito Ortiz. Dan Henderson was doing altitude training up there ahead of his fight with Anderson Silva. There were icicles hanging off the A-frame and snow all over the ground, and the barn in the back was the training facility.
Several times a day the fighters would crunch through the snow from the cabin to the gym and from the gym back the cabin, with very little else to do on that mountain.
And what a devil’s den there was—all holed up at the compound. There was Henderson, Vinny Magalhaes, the Frenchman Cyrille Diabate (brought in to emulate Silva’s length), the “X-Man” Xavier Foupa-Pokam, Matt Lindland, Krzysztof Soszynski (who looked like a lab experiment), Chris Wilson, Darrell Gholar, Heath Sims, the doctor Ryan Parsons…and Stann. All of them had left their lives back somewhere to train in relative isolation.
Stann, a square-jawed comic book action hero with the propriety of military elite, was a relative unknown. He had a fight coming up with Doug Marshall—the biggest of his career to date, as it was for the WEC Light Heavyweight Title. He and Chris Wilson were both cooking oatmeal and staying out of each other’s way, like a scene from The Ultimate Fighter, minus the cameraman and posturing. Wilson had just agreed to stand in for an injured Akihiro Gono against Jon Fitch on the same card that Henderson was fighting Silva. It would be his UFC debut. I asked him if all of this seemed a little daunting.
“No,” Wilson said. “What is Fitch going to do—summons the wind?” Wilson was full of this kind of thing, and it made sense to me that his nickname was “The Professor.” Fitch was a great opportunity for him, and he had the confidence, I thought, to make it a fight.
Stann, on the other hand, was a picture of inward dedication. It immediately stood out. There was a quiet dignity to him that showed up right out of bed over a morning stovetop. It wasn’t that he was just an All-American (because he wasn’t in the lesser way we’ve defined it), it was that he was a true All-American when nobody was looking.
“What are you up here for,” he asked. “To cover Henderson,” I said.
At the time I was editing an alternative weekly newspaper in Southern California’s Inland Empire, and Hendo was a cover subject. Stann talked to me about that fight a little bit. He mentioned what a worker Henderson was, and talked about technique. The idea of that fight genuinely seemed to excite him. It was for a title, and he understood the added spotlight on it. We talked about Henderson for a good 15 minutes, spoke about his Greco-Roman skills and Hendo’s “H-Bomb,” and—to my surprise—he queried me on general life things. He was one of the few fighters who took an active interest in a random writer’s life.
And I have to admit, his ability to listen knocked me off balance a little bit. In all subsequent conversations, this has always been the case. Even as he moved up the ranks and into contention in the UFC’s middleweight division, and found a seat as an analyst with FOX, and became one of the most respected men to ever take up the grim trade, he has kept that genuine interest in his fellow man.
What he didn’t talk about that morning was Marshall, or the belt he was about to fight for (and ultimately win). He was solitary in that regard. It was his sixth pro fight, and he had knocked out the first five guys he’d faced. Here was a decorated soldier, a Silver Star recipient for valor in war, who had played collegiate football at Navy. He was seemingly successful in about everything he ever attempted. But there wasn’t an air of smug accomplishment to him, and the urge to talk about himself never came up.
Team Quest had a motto that went like this: “Pain is merely weakness leaving the body.” This was a saying posted all over the headquarters in Murrieta, and I always associated it with Heath Sims who ran that branch. The saying was borrowed from the Marines, a slogan used in recruiting. Stann, a gallant Marine, embodied it. He performed his training circuits every time I saw him in that camp like he had something to avenge. And he’s talking about Henderson being a hard worker, I thought. In the best way possible, Stann makes you feel like you’re not doing enough…that there’s so much more to human potential.
In other words, watching him train had me thinking of goofy parables.
I revisited the compound a couple times before Henderson fought for the belt, and saw Stann many more times. Henderson lost to Silva at UFC 82, but Stann won his belt. He lost it later that summer to Steve Cantwell, before making his UFC debut against none other than Soszynski. Soon thereafter he became a star. And even as he walks away from fighting, as he heads off to work the broadcast booth for the ACC in college football and to dissect the fight game rather than conquer it from the inside, something stands out about him.
Is it the casual chivalry? Maybe. But it’s also something more basic. It’s something like true self-assurance together with a general lack of masquerade. It’s that the man you see on TV today is no different from the one eating oatmeal on a random January morning in Big Bear back when nobody seemed to care.