Opportunity stood right there in front of him. So close. He'd worked his way up through the ranks of the UFC middleweight division, vanquishing his last three opponents by choke-out submission, TKO and another TKO. Now he was across the octagon from his ticket to a title shot.
But things didn't work out for Brian Stann that night last October in Houston. His opponent, Chael Sonnen, had shown a year earlier during a challenge for Anderson Silva's championship that he's a guy who can take you out of your game. And that's what he did to Stann at UFC 136. The thunder-fisted Marine, a former WEC light heavyweight champ, was left with no punching room when Sonnen swiftly closed the distance, smothered him against the cage and put him on his back, where Stann remained for the better part of two rounds before tapping out to an arm triangle choke.
So now it's back to the drawing board. Time to travel across the Atlantic in search of momentum lost. On April 14 in Stockholm, Stann will step in the octagon with Alessio Sakara in the co-main event of UFC on Fuel TV 2.
Sure, Stann acknowledges he's still feeling the sting of the Sonnen loss, "especially because it was a fight where I didn't get to showcase the things I'm good at." But this is a man with the type of background -- he was awarded a Silver Star for valor during a treacherous Marines operation in Iraq -- that helps keep things in perspective. "When you've experienced true loss, such as you experience in wartime, a loss in an athletic competition does not sting as much," he said. "I mean, I'm a competitor and I hate losing, but at the end of the day, I don't have to go tell some mom why I couldn't bring her son home."
Parenthood and home actually play a vital role in soothing Stann's psyche. It turns out that this big, tough war hero, mixed martial artist and former Naval Academy middle linebacker is a total softie for his young daughters. Two days after the Sonnen fight, he wrote on Twitter that he was driving them to school and quipped, "Nothing like meeting their teachers with a huge black eye." A few weeks later he tweeted, "Packing for Disney tomorrow with my girls. I have trained hard for this, but I am not sure if I can keep the pace!"
"For me, it's all in perspective," said the 31-year-old Stann. "When I go home, I don't walk in the house as a fighter, I don't walk in the house as a Marine. I'm Dad. All I care to do is be with my girls."
That's the mindset at home. Stann also has another life outside the gym, as president of Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit organization that seeks to create job opportunities for veterans. He's expressed a profound drive to give back to his military brethren ever since leaving active service to pursue his MMA career. Stann also has become a spokesperson for a few companies related to the fight business. Beyond simply wearing a logo on his shorts in order to profit from his name recognition, he really digs in. He was calling me, in fact, to tout the TRX training system, which was developed by a Navy Seal. "I used the equipment when I was in the military," he said.
But don't think for a second that these out-of-the-cage interests distract Stann from keeping his eye on the prize. He was back in the gym a week after the Sonnen loss, and says he is feeling healthy and prepared -- and determined. "I'm taking this fight like it's a title fight," he said, "because I can't afford to slip up."
He speaks the truth. In the wake of last October's defeat, in which he was mounted in the first round and unable to threaten Chael in any way, there were whispers that maybe Stann was overrated, that he didn't deserve to be one fight from a title shot after all. He heard those whispers, and rather than create self-doubt, all they did was put a chip on his shoulder. "I've got something to prove, which is nothing new for me," said Stann. "My life has always had ups and downs, from childhood on. There have been times when I've been on top of the mountain, and times when I've been at rock bottom. I'm used to having to climb back up."
He'll start his climb against a fighter whose style plays to his strengths a lot more than Sonnen's did. Sakara (15-8, 1 no-contest) does own a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but his game, like Stann's, is in the standup. The 30-year-old Italian fought nine times as a professional boxer, and nine of his 15 wins in MMA have come by knockout. Stann has eight KO's in 11 wins. You can practically see the fans in Sweden moving to the end of their seats already.
They're not alone in being excited for this matchup. "When you get a guy who wants to trade hands with you," said Stann (11-4), "that's what the crowd loves the most and it's what I enjoy doing the most."
It's not simply that this matchup is suited to what he does best and that he's a hand-to-hand combatant at heart. Stann also recognizes that producing some heart-thumping fisticuffs is good for the career. "One thing I've learned with the UFC," he said, "is that if you're a guy who shows up to fight, you don't just punch your time card but you fight real hard, your likelihood of having a long-term job is high."
Yes, trading hands with Alessio sheds a better light on you than being smothered under Chael does. It also doesn't hurt Stann's cause that Sakara is coming off a knee injury and hasn't fought in over a year.
In order to make a good impression with the UFC while climbing back into contention in the middleweight division, "All-American" Brian Stann doesn't mind leaving behind the home-field advantage he always has when fighting on US soil. He recognizes that Sakara, as a European, will have a lot of fans on his side in Stockholm. But he believes he'll have fans on his side, too. And if not, it wouldn't exactly be a new experience for the Marine.
"I've been in plenty of places," said Stann, "where 90 percent of the people don't like me."