Brian Stann: All American Devil Dog
Brian Stann Is Poised To Attack!
With an air of confidence, Brian Stann walks up to the deli of a suburban Atlanta restaurant and orders a turkey club—no mayo, no pickle on top. He’s back home in the sweltering South exactly seven days after his UFC 130 TKO-victory over Jorge Santiago, his face still a little banged up and his right thumb in a brace. You get the feeling that when Stann orders a sandwich, it’s never flubbed up by the deli lackey. He’s not a man you want to disappoint, which is probably why the former Marine was such a successful Captain in the Corp. Sure enough, his sandwich is made to his exact specs. Pissing off a man with a muscular physique, square jaw, and high-and-tight haircut is just not good business sense – whether in Iraq, the Octagon, or a deli. That’s the first thing you realize about Brian Stann. He has a commanding presence.
Stann’s past accomplishments have been well-documented—collegiate football player at the U.S. Naval Academy, Iraq war hero, WEC Champion, UFC prospect—it’s all in his book, Heart for the Fight, which was published last year by Zenith Press. For the no-nonsense at heart, however, life moves in one direction. Stann doesn’t live in past glories or failures, he treats those imposters as equals. Yet, as hard as it is to believe, what lies ahead for the man some have affectionately dubbed “Captain America 2.0” may surpass the extraordinary things already accomplished.
Crazy talk? Not when dealing with Stann. The 30-year-old has plans. Big plans.
Stann left the Marines in May 2008, and the word “left” is exactly how he feels about it. It’s part of Stann’s hard-wiring to feel this way—when leading people is what you do, there’s an inevitable sense of letting people down when you don’t. He has already sacrificed more than most people—every man and woman who serves their country does—but Stann doesn’t ask anything for it.
The Naval Academy prepared him mentally for virtually everything he does. There’s a reason the freshmen at the Naval Academy undergo Plebe Summer, a seven-week welcoming to the school that begins at dawn and ends long after sunset—a compelling physical and mental anguish that is designed to prepare newbies for the rigors of a university that teaches its grads how to survive war instead of how to survive a hangover. Typically, a quarter of those freshman plebes don’t survive to graduation. Stann not only survived but thrived, and he proudly lived the Corp way of life from his frosh year at the Academy in 1999 until leaving for active duty in 2008.
“I knew that I was going to have my choice of the best and most difficult assignments in the Corp,” says Stann. “There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t regret being out of the Marines. Sometimes, I think I should be in Afghanistan leading a company of Marines. But this is the choice I made. I understand how short life can be and there are a lot of things that I want to accomplish.”
A few years ago, it might have seemed outlandish, but winning the UFC Middleweight Title is on the list. Stann had already ascended to the top of the heap in the WEC for a short while—he was the promotion’s 205-pound champion in mid-2008, despite being undersized for the division. And to think, when he got to those heights, he had only been doing mixed martial arts for a relatively short time. Brawn made up for experience, until experience could be had.
With no amateur MMA career to speak of, Stann’s pro career took off like a Tomahawk Missile. He debuted in January 2006, while still on active duty, and his first five fights had a militaristic cadence that went like this: TKO (punches), TKO (punches), TKO (punches), TKO (punches), TKO (punches)—all of them executed efficiently in the first round. He owes each step of his success to the Naval Academy for teaching him selfdiscipline. It’s a foundation where you learn to organize your time and decide which things are most important. You develop the ability to think clearly under stress and to react quickly when the unexpected comes your way. Stann lived the Marine mentality in the true-blue WEC cage, making the most of his time there. He was quick to react, and quicker to pound out his adversaries.
After five consecutive wins to begin his professional fighting career, WEC Light Heavyweight Champion Doug Marshall was next on his hit-list. Stann detoured around his TKO M.O. and simply KO’d Marshall into oblivion at the 1:35 mark of the first round to win the title.
The WEC’s golden boy, Urijah Faber, probably lost a little sleep that night worrying that Stann—with his good looks, decorated war hero back story, and obvious punching power—might supplant him as the face of the promotion. Then, as now, Stann is a man you want as the face of your organization. The truth is, that wouldn’t be Stann’s style. He’d be the first to deflect such attention and remind you that there’s always room for an “All-American” and a “California Kid.”
Times were good.
The ever-increasing demands on Stann’s time make a simple lunch meeting difficult to schedule. On this afternoon, FOX News wants to talk about his job with Hire Heroes, an organization that provides job search assistance and placement to those who have honorably served in the military. Later, he is scheduled to be a guest via telephone on ESPN’s MMA Live—a gig he is a natural fit for and would like to continue after his career as a fighter. His analytical mind and on-air poise translates on television, and it doesn’t hurt that “everything this kid says is a homerun,” as Dana White points out. MMA Live host Jon Anik has said of Stann, “He is such a great person, too… even when having lunch in Bristol, he’ll stop and talk to the cafeteria lady the same as he’d talk to the executives.”
Stann, the fighter, is a hot commodity right now. He is fresh off his victory over former Sengoku Champion Jorge Santiago (who was riding an 11-1 run outside of the UFC) and still feeling the sizzle from his stunning TKO victory over the hard-headed Chris Leben in January. Being as grounded as he is from his Naval Academy days, the accelerated fame doesn’t faze him at all. It helps too that Stann’s priorities are well defined: family first (wife Tressa and two young daughters), work, and fighting take precedence over all outside distractions. He’s got it all organized. He’s a military man. The Marine Corp should pay him an exorbitant salary to be their head of recruiting. The ROI would be unbelievable.
What is also unbelievable is that any man is invulnerable to pain. It doesn’t matter how much military training you have, human vulnerability is the X-factor. In his book Heart for the Fight, Stann wrote, “Their screams are the worst. We’re more than 100 meters away, on the other side of the river, but I can hear Marines dying. Their armored vehicle hit a land mine. It caught fire with 15 men aboard. They scream as they burn alive…I can do nothing. It is the most helpless, enraging feeling I’ve ever experienced. I have no way to get across the water to those burning men. It takes forever for the last screams to fade away.”
It’s a sound that will stick with him the rest of his life. Fighting in a cage is nothing when you’ve experienced the cruelty and pain of war. However, public expectations in the cage run high when you have the aura of invincibility. Stann proved he wasn’t bulletproof in his first WEC light heavyweight title defense against Steve Cantwell at WEC 35 in August 2008. Just three months removed from active duty in the Marines, Stann stepped into the six-sided cage and did something he wasn’t accustomed to—he lost. Cantwell got the better of him that night, avenging a previous loss by TKOing Stann in the second round. And just like that, gone was his invincibility. Gone was his title. Gone was the light heavyweight division in the WEC.
“Every fighter has a beating coming,” says Stann. “My job was to train hard and try to push that beating off as far into the future as I could.
Until then, Stann had trained only in the interstices afforded him. He spent time in Athens, Georgia, at The Hard- Core Gym training with the Adam and Rory Singer, and in Big Bear, California, training with the likes of Dan Henderson and Chris Wilson, but he was mostly nomadic. After losing the title to Cantwell, Stann and Tressa decided that he needed to immerse himself in MMA training if he was going to be successful. He felt he needed a place were he could “eat, sleep, and breathe MMA.” This opportunity came after visiting Greg Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“Greg and I got along right off the bat,” Stann says. “However, it was Coach Mike Winkeljohn that sealed the deal. His style of striking just fit me, athletically, stylistically. It’s old-school toughness. You don’t whine to Coach Winkeljohn.”
What more could a former Marine want? Stann finally had the direction he needed. Instead of relying on pure heart and toughness—MMA already has one Forrest Griffin—it was time for Stann to forge himself into his steel potential.
“Discipline and toughness are Brian’s biggest gifts,” says Jackson. “He is one of the most phenomenal fighters we have ever had. What he was initially lacking in technical ability, he made up for with a desire to work hard and learn. Now, he has become a leader at the gym—he helps set the tone for the entire practice. He’s a ferocious worker.” World War I Germans described the ferocity of U.S. Marines at the Battle of Belleau Wood as “Dogs from hell.” More than 93 years later, Stann is living up to the ferocity of the Devil Dog moniker. In fact, “ferocious” is a word that commonly comes up when talking about him.
Still, Stann’s UFC learning curve was steep. With only three years of training and competing under his belt, he was thrust onto MMA’s biggest stage after the WEC dissolved its light heavyweight division. His first four fights resulted in a 2-2 record that put him on the bubble to retain his roster spot. One more loss very likely could have been enough for the organization to issue a pink slip.
“I really don’t know what I would have done until the moment I lost that third fight,” he says. “People were already pushing me to go back to school, earn an MBA and move on with my life.” The persistence that Stann had learned while a football player at Navy—he was a quarterback that transitioned into a more natural-fitting linebacker—and later as a Captain in Iraq were what kept him motivated. “Football really taught me that it’s all about the bottom line—you either contribute or you find yourself no longer needed. It’s the same in the military. It’s the same in the UFC.”
Just as it did for Tim Boetsch a year later, the loss to upstart Phil Davis at UFC 109 showed Stann that his future was no longer in the light heavyweight division. After that fight, he knew that no matter how much he closed the gap, there would always be bigger, stronger wrestlers at 205 pounds—Jones, Evans, Bader, Jackson, Hamill, Couture. “I quickly realized that this was not the last high-level wrestler I was going to face,” says Stann. “The UFC is their NFL. The morning of weigh-ins for the Davis fight, I woke up at 204 pounds without cutting weight. I realized that 185 pounds was going to be a level playing field for me.”
The decision had been made. It was time to test the waters in the 185-pound division.
To get there, Stand credits his nutritionist, close friend, and fellow MMA fighter and Marine, George Lockhart. “My first fight at 185 pounds, it was unbelievable how easy it was,” says Stann. “Doing it on my own would have been a huge problem. George is one of the best in the game. Now, I go into the cage around 204 pounds in the middleweight division. The strength and size difference is amazing.”
What’s one tactical lesson that transferred
with Brian Stann when he made
the transition from the Marine Corps
to MMA? “Take the initiative,” Stann
says without hesitation. “In the military,
we always take the initiative and
keep it. We don’t let the enemy have
a chance to mount any sort of organized
counterattack or dictate the
battle. That’s the same for me in the
cage now. I always want to take the
initiative and keep it so my opponent
doesn’t have a chance to enact his own
gameplan.” As Gen. George S. Patton
famously said, “In the absence of orders,
attack, attack, attack.”
Since dropping to his new weight class, he has submitted a tough wrestler in Mike Massenzio, knocked out brawler Chris Leben at his own game, and at UFC 130, on Memorial Day weekend with plenty of his fellow Marines in attendance, he made his case for being a top 10 fighter in the division with a surgical TKO victory over Jorge Santiago.
“At light heavyweight, the guys were just too big,” says Jackson. “They could lay on him and control him. At middleweight, he is as strong as—or stronger— than the other guys in the weight class. It takes work to be a 185-pounder, but he has the discipline to do it.”
His punching discipline showed against both Leben and Santiago. Leben, renowned for his iron chin, succumbed to a flurry from Stann. Santiago was felled the same way. “Without a doubt, he’s the hardest puncher in the 185-pound division,” says Winkeljohn. “We haven’t even seen where he can go yet.”
Scarily, Stann said that he was two years away from realizing his potential in the cage in the post-fight press conference. In other words, where he’s going is always up.
Stann is not a fearless man. There is a difference between fearlessness and confidence—recklessness and ferociousness. He’s not fearless in the cage, either. His time in Iraq taught him how to control and use his fear. “My biggest strength is my poise, my ability to walk into the Octagon and immediately think clearly,” Stann says. “I am able to read my opponent and execute my gameplan. Too many fighters dread everything leading up to the final decision.”
MMA superstar Quinton “Rampage” Jackson comes to mind as someone who hates everything leading up to the fight— the training, the cutting weight, the media. Rampage would rather just fight without the bells and whistles and constant distractions. Some men are wired like that. It’s not right or wrong. Others, like Stann, thrive under the physical and mental demands, channeling that pain into the cage and using their own fear to their advantage. Yes, fear can be an advantage. Remember in the movie Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby’s Daddy tells him, “You need to learn to drive with the fear, and there ain’t nothin’ more goddamn frightening than driving with a live cougar in the car.” Ricky Bobby’s Daddy was right.
“The fights when I had no nerves were my worst performances,” he says. “You have to have some nerves or you don’t care enough.”
That’s one market he has covered – Stann cares. He empathizes with people. In fact, one of his biggest motivations for fighting is to inspire others, and he understands that entertainers and athletes have a natural platform to reach people. He feels a responsibility to leverage that voice for good. With his unique position, Stann has used his fame to help the people he admires most—American troops. Originally hired as a spokesperson for Hire Heroes, he recently transitioned into the role of president. “Our veterans are already so skilled,” Stann says. “They have unique training and leadership value. Sometimes, they just don’t know how to communicate that through résumés and interviews. Hire Heroes is changing that.”
Stann’s work as president of the organization will probably not be his last in the commander-and-chief role. Everyone who is around him—including his mother Beth—can’t help but feel that the political arena is in his future. Although he claims to have no political aspirations, he admits that he is constantly pulled in that direction. “Brian has been a leader since he was a child,” Beth says. “He is the type of person this country needs, but I am not sure he would make the concessions needed to be in politics. Brian’s honesty and bluntness might derail that kind of career.”
Right now, his honesty and bluntness are kindly letting the deli lackey know that he enjoyed his sandwich. Regardless of what the future holds for Stann, one thing is for sure—he will keep working hard and pushing himself toward further greatness. He wants to accomplish so many things in his life: open a gym (Warrior Legion Gym opening soon in Alpharetta, GA), coach fighters, go back to school for an Executive MBA, work as an analyst on television, and continue to help his fellow veterans. Right now, his path seems to be leading toward a title shot in the UFC’s middleweight division.
The UFC title would be the pickle on top. He’ll take the title, hold the pickle.