Stann resists war hero storyline ahead of UFC 152 showdown
Brian Stann doesn't like to talk about those six nights in Iraq in May 2005 that earned him a Silver Star, the military's third highest award for "gallantry in action."
He doesn't enjoy bringing up the feelings of guilt that surround the night his 42-man Marine Corps battalion was ambushed with rocket-propelled grenades on a pitch-black road, as they attempted to retrieve a downed vehicle they'd abandoned the day before.
These feelings return without coaxing during the 31-year-old Stann's quiet moments, when he questions every minute decision he made as infantry leader that night to execute the mission, then protect and extricate his men in the five days that followed. He still hears the cries from the neighboring infantry tank that was blindsided by a pick-up truck full of explosives, driven by a wide-eyed young boy. He still smells the burning flesh.
"People look at it and say it must be a great, heroic story, but the bottom line is there were a lot of men who were permanently wounded during that time," said Stann. "It's not a fun story for me, so I try to avoid it. I just don't want to do it anymore."
In MMA, UFC middleweight Stann (12-4), who meets Michael Bisping (22-4) at UFC 152 Saturday in Toronto, has been marketed as a war hero, and rightfully so. All 42 soldiers were rescued and lived to talk about the operation that's still used as a Marine Corps recruiting tool today. But Brian Stann is much more than a war hero.
He's a husband and a father to two young daughters, ages 2 and 4. He's a businessman whose day job has helped hundreds of war veterans transition to productive civilian lives. And he's a mixed martial arts fighter amidst changes and a little uncertainty.
He's a son who's never known his real father, and the product of a single mother who worked long shifts away from home as a hospice nurse to provide for him and his older sister until she remarried when Stann was in middle school.
He's a man who began mastering his "fight or flight" reflex as early as third grade, getting into many fights on the streets of the less affluent areas of northeastern Pennsylvania.
He's a person who decided at an early age that he'd much rather lead than follow, and he was going to do everything it took to get into a position to do just that.
Stann got on that track when his mother enrolled him at the Scranton Preparatory School, a private Jesuit high school with attendance fees that put a lot of demands on his family financially.
At Scranton Prep, Stann was the star quarterback, a role he took on so earnestly that it sometimes alienated him from his own friends.
"I took everything seriously -- my sports, my academics. I took it so seriously that I took the fun out of it," said Stann, who maintained a 3.5 GPA. "Over time, I think that would turn a lot of people off."
However, fleeting popularity was a small price to pay. Stann had a timetable to keep.
"I wanted to go to a good school," he said.
By his senior year, Stann was being tracked and scouted by a slew of universities that included Lehigh, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the military academies. But he injured his throwing arm in the first game of the season, and with that crucial cog out of place, the team underperformed that year.
"For me, a lot of the accolades I thought I'd be competing for -- being All-State and everything else -- fell back," Stann said. "I didn't reach what I'd wanted to. That disappointment, it definitely helped shape who I am."
The Naval Academy became the most attractive option. Stann played linebacker for the Midshipmen all four years, even as he rose to the officer ranks upon graduation in 2003.
"I love leadership," said Stann. "Going from the Naval Academy into the Marine Corps, you learn. You go through tons of simulations and different exercises to learn what's expected of effective leadership."
MMA had started just as a hobby. Martial arts training was mandatory for all Marines, and Stann said he still had an unquenched thirst for competition. When he'd paired together enough skills, he entered local amateur bouts before his first deployment.
"After my first tour in Iraq, the first thing I wanted to do was get my first pro fight," recalls Stann. "It was something I would do on weekends and every night after work."
Following his second tour in Iraq, Stann rattled off six consecutive first-round TKO wins while stationed as a captain at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, accumulating his leave time to put toward training camps. His third pro fight would prove the most life-changing, when he won the WEC light heavyweight title just as UFC owners Zuffa LLC, which had an eye on expansion, purchased the promotion.
Stann left active duty in 2008, just as Zuffa's WEC experiment was coming to an end and the company folded Stann's weight division back into the UFC. He accepted a job offer in Atlanta extended by MedAssets CEO John Bardis, a longtime benefactor of the nation's amateur wrestling program.
"[With] the money I was making at the time coming out of the WEC, and my performance (Stann had back-to-back losses) -- I didn't know if I was a guy who'd last in the UFC and I had kids to provide for, so I couldn't take any chances," said Stann.
In 2009, Bardis re-assigned Stann as CEO of Hire Heroes USA, a not-for-profit organization that has placed 630 veterans in long-term career job positions nationwide since it started in 2007. Of those 630, 500 veterans have been placed in the last two years under Stann's leadership.
With full-time pay and benefits, Stann thought he could afford the inconvenience of working around his day job while balancing a fight career. As CEO, Stann gradually pieced together a support staff that's allowed him to take a big step back six weeks out from a bout to train properly.
In return, Stann said his MMA career has brought added attention to Hire Heroes, which the organization has leveraged for more donations and marketing opportunities to bring more veterans its way.
Last December, Stann left the tutelage of Albuquerque coaching gurus Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn to stay closer to home after his brother-in-law died. Stann had trained with Jackson and Winkeljohn during fight camps for three-and-a-half years and their culled knowledge won't be easy to recreate. Still, Stann has started the rebuilding process at the Warrior Legion Academy in Alpharetta, Ga.
"For me to leave my wife and kids for weeks at a time just wasn't practical," said Stann. "I need to be here. This is my home and I need to be here for support. That's obviously far more important than fighting."
The opportunity to commentate fights fell into Stann's lap in February, when Fox used him as a late-replacement cageside analyst for a Fuel TV broadcast in Omaha, Neb. Fans immediately warmed to Stann's straightforward assessments and the Fox executives were impressed. By April, Fox announced Stann as the third commentator for the quarterly UFC on Fox network broadcasts.
Stann said he partly owes his confident speaking-style to his last commanding position in the Marine Corps. Every Friday at Camp Lejeune, Stann addressed the 900 soldiers who reported to him for their "Liberty speech" about smart decision-making before they were released for the weekend. Stann also speaks at Marine Corps balls and other social events regularly.
In the Octagon, Stann has had an up-and-down year. He rebounded from a humbling loss to Chael Sonnen in October 2011 by knocking out Italian boxer Alessio Sakara in April. But he had to pull out of his biggest fight to date as the UFC on Fox 4 headliner last August over the same shoulder joint-separation injury that had stunted his senior-year run in high school.
Stann opted to forgo surgery for a partially-torn rotator cuff and said he's rehabbed the shoulder back to its full range of motion in time to face British striker Bisping. But it's Bisping's wrestling that Stann, whose strengths lie on his feet and in his fists, might have to look out for. To prepare, Stann brought two-time All-America wrestler Raymond Jordan (University of Missouri) into his Atlanta camp.
Even Bisping, a part-time heel who gets a motivational boost from trashtalking his opponents, hasn't been able to muster the nerve to speak ill of the "The All-American." So, this fight will roll out this week on the momentum of its relevance as a middleweight contender's bout -- possibly the most immediate one to decide champion Anderson Silva's next title challenger.
This week, Stann won't tout his war-hero status, though it is what he's come to be identified as. '"War hero" is a term he honors, but he hopes to eventually leave its current connotation in his past on a pitch-black road in northwestern Iraq.
"I think the preconceived notion of me is that because I was in the military, I'm all for war and conflict," said Stann. "Some of my fondest memories were rebuilding schools, opening stores on the streets of Iraq, and injecting more money into the economy to help families. Some of my fondest memories were fighting for people I've never met."