Nicki Jhabvala
Friday August 1st, 2008

If you're going to ask Brian Stann about how tough it is to be a mixed martial artist in one of the world's top fighting promotions, World Extreme Cagefighting, you should first consider asking him how difficult times were when he was trudging through the 100-plus-degree heat of embattled Iraq for months -- twice.

Or how demanding it was to oversee and train a group of nearly 80 men while a salvo of grenades, machine guns and bombs went off around him.

Or how heart-wrenching it was to pull five of his fellow marines out of a bombed vehicle, all the while thinking that he just let some of his men die.

And while you're at it, ask how taxing it was to do all of the above at an age when most are resisting maturing into responsible post-fraternity adults.

Stann, a former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, Iraqi War veteran and Silver Star recipient is now on a new mission, but one, he claims, doesn't veer too far off his previous path. Now the WEC light heavyweight champion, Stann sets out on his first title defense Aug. 3 -- what would seem a pressure-filled battle for most is just another day at work for the young fighter.


Stann's leadership initially reared its head in high school, when he played quarterback for Scranton Preparatory in Pennsylvania. Having set school records in career passing yards and rushing, Stann had a zealousness that defied every teenage stereotype -- those procrastinating, inherently lazy and "wow-I'm-so-cool" stereotypes.

And he doesn't deny it.

"I was always a little bit more intense and competitive than my peers in high school," he said. "I took football a lot more seriously than my teammates, I took track and wrestling and all the other sports I played a little more seriously than everybody else. So I figured the Naval Academy would probably be a better fit for me, rather than a normal college. I thought that I'd identify with the people there a little bit more, and I was right."

At the U.S. Naval Academy, Stann transitioned well into his role at middle linebacker, helping his team to victories over archrival Army every year except his junior season in 2001. He graduated with an economics degree in 2003 -- just months after the United States' invasion of Iraq -- and longed for more than a spot behind the line of scrimmage. He joined the U.S Marine Corps as an infantry officer and headed for the front line,.

Stann embarked on his first of two trips to Iraq after mere months of service. Roughly six months after U.S. troops battled Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah, which resulted in thousands of foreign and American casualties, Stann led the 2nd Mobile Assault Platoon in "Operation Matador." Their mission: fight off the onslaught of Iraqi soldiers who migrated west to regroup and retrain their troops.

Stann's troop camped out south of the Euphrates River in Al-Qaim, which is about 250 miles northwest of Baghdad next to the Syrian border. His men were the back-up force, the group responsible for re-supplying and reinforcing the guys in the thick of the action.

But, as Stann would soon grown accustomed to, plans changed instantly, and his decisions had to follow equally fast. After a three trips through enemy territory, Stann's troops were ambushed.

"We really had to lean on all the training we had had up until that point because there wasn't much planning for the operation," Stann said. "I'm getting orders and, within five minutes, I'm putting together my own order and I'm briefing it to my men. And 10 minutes later, we're out the door and we're rolling and we're executing it."

Of Stann's 42 men, 42 survived. When he returned back to the States, he was awarded a Silver Star, the third-highest honor given to those in combat. The medal, he says, is simply a testament to his men. But, along with the obvious physical battles he endured, not even the top marine training facility in the country could have prepared him for the mental tenacity required to handle a war first-hand, let alone lead dozens of men.

"Here you are, 25 or 26 and leading anywhere from 40 to 150 20- to 22-year-old men," he said. "It makes you grow up quickly. They're looking to you for answers on everything, whether it be on the battle field when bombs are flying and rounds are going off, or worse yet, when you lose somebody, and you have a bunch of kids looking at you, like 'Why'd this happen? Why are we doing this?' You have to be prepared to answer all those questions."

During one his trips to Iraq, one of his platoon's vehicles was blown up while a handful of his men were on board.

"The first thing that went through my mind was 'I just got five kids killed,'" said Stann, his eyes squinting in pain as he recounted the incident. "My heart broke instantly, but I couldn't show that to anybody. I came across the radio barking orders of what we had to do next, and it was very calm, collected and calculated. Even though, on the inside, I was broken hearted."

Stoic, yet dejected, Stann rushed to the vehicle and, one by one, started pulling out his fellow marines. All were alive. Injured, but alive.

"I've never been happier to see five people in my entire life," he said.


It's rare to see a fighter veer from the typical fist-pumping and hollering in a post-victory celebration. It's even more rare to see a man drop to his knees in tears. But, on March 26, Stann did just that.

For nearly the entire opening minute of his fight against WEC light heavyweight champion Doug Marshall, Stann chased his opponent around the ring. The tiniest move seemed to make Marshall wince in fear. But the champion turned the tide grabbing Stann in a Thai clinch before delivering him a barrage of punches. But Stann escaped and needed only one fierce swing of his left fist to send Marshall sprawling on the canvas.

One minute, 35 seconds. A new champion. Another accolade for Stann.

It wasn't the shine of the belt that brought Stann to tears. It probably wasn't the pain from Marshall's strikes. No, the emotions of winning weren't about him, but for his men. For all those who were lost.

On Aug. 3 -- nearly three months after completing his active service with the Marines and a year since balancing his duties as a captain, first-time father and a fighter -- Stann defends his title for against a man he flattened in 41 seconds in their first meeting: Steve Cantwell.

Since his MMA debut in January 2006, Stann has a perfect 5-0 record in the WEC -- all by technical knockout or knockout in the first round. His debut fight with the promotion, a TKO victory over Miguel Cosio in June 2006, lasted a whopping 16 seconds. In his title defense, which airs live from Las Vegas on Versus at 9 p.m. ET, Stann takes on a 21-year-old fighter who is coming off two-straight wins, against Justin McElfresh last Oct. and Tim McKenzie in March of 2008. Stann also takes on a fighter who has been training full-time since he was 16 and has earned a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

"I just really don't care," Stann said about Cantwell's longer career. "My biggest strengths are going to be mental ... [Cantwell's career] can only affect me if I allow it to affect me, and I won't ... and just to be able to think and react and make adjustments during the fight, like 'This isn't working, I need to go to this.' Those types of decisions I can make very quickly. I'm used to doing that."

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