(Stann trades with Rodney Wallace at the TUF 10 Finale.)
His start should go down in MMA lore. First Lieutenant Brian Stann, US Marine Corps, was winding down his fi rst tour of duty in Iraq. Although he was in the midst of war, with the threat of death around every corner, he could not help but think about the spare time he would have upon his return to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. See, if you asked Stann back then what he liked to do for fun, he’d tell you that he enjoyed anything that involves competition.
That explained why, in the middle of the Iraq desert, he would pick up his satellite phone or get on the base’s computer and send emails to people he had never met. Those people were always safely halfway around the world, 8,000 miles away.
The exchanges generally went like this:
“Hello, sir, my name is Brian Stann, and I’m a US Marine currently serving in Iraq. Upon my return to the States, I’m looking for a pro fight.” “Hang on a second, you’re calling from Iraq?” “Yes, sir.” “Umm, ok, how many pro MMA fi ghts do you have?” “None, sir.” “Have you fought before?” “Just a couple times. Amateur matches. Muay Thai, and a couple MMA fi ghts. Just local things.” “You’ve never fought pro?” “No, sir.” “Who do you train with?” “The guys on my base. But I’m tough and I’ll put on a good fight.” “I can keep your name if something comes up.” “I’d appreciate it, sir.” “Are you really calling me from Iraq?”
Indeed, he was. Brian Stann was a soldier so competitive that war was not enough for him. He also needed a personal battle. The call was finally answered by Matt Lindland, a former Olympic wrestling silver medalist and UFC fighter who has competed throughout the United States. Lindland is also the founder of SportFight, a regional promotion based in Portland, Oregon. He was promoting a card in January 2006 when one of his athletes dropped out. He remembered Stann’s professional demeanor, and called him in as a replacement.
“The manner in which he approached us was impressive,” Lindland said. “I saw the kind of person he is, and I realized, that’s the kind of guy I want to be associated with.” Stann took the match without a moment’s hesitation. After finishing his workweek on a Friday night, he flew from North Carolina on a late flight, arrived in Portland early Saturday morning, fought later that night – he won via first round TKO – and flew home the next day to get back in time for work. Despite the fact that his 36-hour cross country voyage ended up costing him money even when you factored in his the fight purse, he was hooked.
Stann spent most of his early years in Scranton, Pennsylvania. From a young age, he was always involved in sports. He excelled in football, but also participated in basketball, baseball, and track. But even then, he could fight.
“I moved around a lot, so I was constantly the new kid, which benefitted me later in life,”he says. “But at the same time, I wasn’t one to take much crap from the older kids when they picked on me and my friends. I think everyone I grew up with saw me fight at least once.”
(Courtesy of Zuffa, LLC)
By his high school years at Scranton Preparatory School, he’d settled into his environment, and was comfortable in his own skin. Soon, his good grades and athletic background were attracting recruiters. Several Ivy League schools even came calling. But Stann knew he would be taking a different path.
In his sophomore year, a track star friend chose to attend the US Naval Academy. Intrigued by the decision, Stann stayed in contact with his former schoolmate and peppered him with questions. More and more, it seemed like a place he could call home. “When I went there for my first official visit, I just knew that was where I was supposed to be,” he says. “I canceled all my other visits, didn’t even give them the opportunity. It was where I belonged.”
The challenges of a military education were many. It was regimented, but so was he. It was demanding, but so was he. And he had to juggle top-notch academics with Division I athletics – he played varsity football as a linebacker – yet, he loved the challenge. But while he was tucked away in Annapolis, the world changed. When he enrolled in the fall of 1999, the United States was not involved in a single conflict. However, that peace was shattered two years later, on September 11, 2001.
Soon, troops were mobilizing, and friends he spent time with on campus were being deployed to faraway outposts in the war on terrorism. Stann and his classmates faced the reality that upon graduation, they too, would be shipping off to fight a war. “It made me very eager to get in the Marine Corps, get my training completed, and get my first platoon,” he says. “Me and my buddies didn’t want to sit on the bench. We wanted to get in the game as soon as possible because we already had friends dying.”
The story of Stann’s heroism in Iraq has been told several times, by media outlets as diverse as The New York Times and MTV, although Stann himself is reluctant to tell it. He is hesitant to sound like a hero, because even though he won a Silver Star for his bravery and leadership at Karabilah, even though President George W. Bush singled him out for appreciation for his service to the country, he sometimes doubts he did all he could for his men.
The 42 Marines who served under him all returned home alive, despite an ambush attack that was fought for days. But one soldier, Jonathan Lowe, suffered catastrophic injuries to his legs. Another, Robert Gass, needed multiple brain surgeries after the vehicle he was riding in was struck by a suicide attack. While he was rewarded for saving the many, he feels the pain of the few.
“I lay awake at night sometimes, hoping I didn’t fail those guys that time, or any time,” he says. “That’s what we as leaders live with every day. I’m always going to wonder, if I could’ve done this or that, would anything be different?” He’s also reluctant to tell the tale because it limits what people see in him. His military service is not who he is, it’s a chapter of a life with many stories. There is the collegiate football player, the Marine, the Silver Star winner, the fighter, the son, the husband, and the father.
“The guy might be the most unique athlete I’ve ever worked with,” says Robert Roveta, Stann’s manager. “The sky is the limit for him. The media loves him because he’s articulate and has an incredible story, he can fi ght, and he’s the epitome of a true professional. Ultimately, he could be an icon in the sport in the future.” But Stann doesn’t want to be an icon for his service to the country. It will always be a part of him, but he’s ready to be known as Brian Stann, professional mixed martial artist.
“I’d rather people concentrate on the fighting, but I understand the nature of the world; I’m going to get exploited for my story,” he says. “I don’t mean that negatively, but some people think I use my past to get ahead in the fight game. The people who know me know that’s not the case. I don’t volunteer this stuff. But when I’m asked, I try to spread the message about what these kids in Iraq are doing. Whether people agree with the war or not, they should understand that there are young people doing amazing things for the people of Iraq and for the other men and women in uniform.”
Those men and women are real people with real families. Stann, for instance, is nicknamed “The All-American” for his background and his story. Wouldn’t you know it; the football star married a cheerleader. His wife, Teresa, was a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader and Marywood College grad he met while in college. Together, they have a young daughter, Alexandra, who was conceived after his second tour in Iraq. “Mentally and spiritually, a war can change you quite a bit,” he says. “Coming from a place where you’ve seen many lives taken and you’ve seen so much death, it was a truly great experience to give life.”
During his service, Stann was building himself a new career in MMA. Scott Adams, the founder of the WEC, signed Stann in 2006, just before he sold the company to Zuffa, parent company of the UFC. Stann ran through one opponent after another, taking less than a round to dispatch each of his first five opponents, until getting a title shot at Doug Marshall, the most experienced fighter he’d ever faced. He walked into the cage and thought about all the adversity he’d encountered. He thought about the father that abandoned him at two, about all the people who didn’t believe he’d amount to much. And then he thought about those who always believed. About the men who fought alongside him, about his wife and daughter. It took him just 95 seconds to knock Marshall out.
Brian Stann, full-time soldier, part-time fighter, was the WEC Light-Heavyweight Champion.
(Courtesy of Zuffa, LLC)
A million more thoughts ran through his mind, a million faces from the past, as though they were sitting in the crowd at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. Soldiers like Lowe and Gass, who served with him and still inspire him. Soldiers that weren’t so fortunate to make it back to their families.
“I’ve had a lot of people supporting me in my career, including the families of Marines I’ve served with, some which I lost,” he says. “When I won the title, I felt like I was able to do something in their name and their honor. I feel the best way to cope with the loss of your fellow Marines and friends is to live your life to the fullest in their honor.”
The amazing thing is that Stann has basically done it all on raw talent. Being a soldier didn’t leave him the time or resources most would need to get to a championship level. But in May, Stann finished his service to the Marine Corps, wrapping up five years and two tours of duty in Iraq. He’s now relocated to Atlanta, where he’ll train regularly with Rory and Adam Singer at the HardCore Gym, and he’ll travel to Portland to work with Lindland. He’s also spent time in the recent past training with Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, and Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou.
“I have a lot of room to grow,” he says. “I’m going to evolve. If you’re going to survive in MMA, you’ve got to continue to get better; otherwise you’ll fade away very quickly.”
Lindland has no doubts about Stann’s ability. “I think he can be one of the best fi ghters out there,” he said. “Just because he’s got a warrior heart, a great work ethic, and an open mind. He’s got all the potential, honestly, as much for his qualities as a person as his athletic talent.”
The All-American dream moves forward. He’s already won a title, and his future is even brighter with the time he can now devote to his new profession. And it’s with the knowledge that nothing he will ever face in the cage can scare him. No one will pose a threat like those who wanted him dead. “It’s funny, because early in my military career, I thought that fi ghting would help me make decisions in combat,” he says. “I thought it’d help me to have the mental agility and toughness to make decisions. But really what ended up happening is that military experience prepared me for mixed martial arts.”
It started with a satellite phone from half a world away. He thought he was only making a call, but he was really finding his calling.