(Photo courtesy of MMA Weekly)
Brian Stann‘s accomplishments in MMA and military heroism are matters of public record. But what about the man himself? As the UFC middleweight contender heads into his pivotal co-main-event against Alessio Sakara at UFC on Fuel TV: Gustafsson vs. Silva this weekend, we spoke to the All-American about everything from his childhood to his intense training to his various pursuits outside of fighting. Enjoy, and follow Brian Stann on twitter @BrianStann.
CAGEPOTATO.COM Hi Brian, many thanks for the opportunity to conduct this interview. I read that you played football as middle linebacker at the Naval Academy. How good were you at football? Do you think you could have made the NFL?
BRIAN STANN: No, not even close. When I played football in college, I was recruited to play quarterback. My style was more to pass than run the option. Quarterback didn’t really work out, so I got moved around to a lot of different positions before finding a home at linebacker. It was a position I had only played sparingly at high school, so I had to learn the position while actually playing at a competitive level. I was always a good athlete, but quarterback was my primary position, and I never really had the stuff to play in the NFL.
Going back even further, you were actually born in Japan, at Yokota Airbase. Were your parents in the armed forces?
Yes that’s true. My father was in the air force, so my family was stationed at the airbase. My mom left with me and my sister when I was two years old, and we moved back to Scranton, Pennsylvania. I pretty much lived there until I left for college.
Obviously you were very young so you might not remember, but being born there, do you feel any affinity with Japan at all?
Yes I do. When I was young, The Karate Kid was big, and I always thought it was really cool that I was born there. My mother and I made this promise that one day in the future we would return to visit Yokota and that she would show me all the different spots, and reminisce, since I don’t remember anything. So there’s certainly an affinity there, and when my fight career is over and I’m not constantly in training, my mom and I will make that trip.
So, you were born in Japan, raised in Pennsylvania, currently live in Georgia, train out in New Mexico, and fight everywhere. Where do you consider home now? You must feel a little displaced at times with all the traveling.
Haha, well, it’s normal to me, though my wife is still getting used to it. My kids are very young, and that’s what they’re accustomed to. Once I left home in 1999 and went to the Naval Academy, that was it. At that point, I had a bag packed and I was all over the place. When I graduated I lived in Virginia for a while, then I moved to North Carolina, then I moved to Georgia. But while I was in North Carolina, I was constantly back-and-forth, training in California with the Marine Corps for two weeks at a time, and two tours in Iraq, so I’m really used to living on the move. My wife has lived in the same place virtually her whole life, and only recently moved out of Scranton to Philadelphia just a short time before we were married.
Does your wife remain in Georgia with the kids while you are doing your training camp in New Mexico with the Greg Jackson camp?
Not for the whole time. She’ll come out for about four weeks of my training camp — two different periods of two weeks — and sometimes I will fly home over the weekends also, because I can’t stand being away from my kids. I have considered walking away from the sport on several occasions, because I wasn’t making a tremendous amount of money, and I couldn’t stand being away from my children.
Have things gotten any easier as your UFC career has progressed?
Yes, once I dropped down to 185 and I fought Mike Massenzio — and won the “Fight of the Night” bonus — then I defeated Chris Leben, things really started to turn around for me. I began to sign new endorsement deals, providing me with the opportunity to spend time with my family during training camps, which makes the sacrifices of being a professional fighter more worthwhile. And the UFC do a great job of taking care of their fighters.
Is the Marine Corps Martial Arts training elite-level, tantamount to the training you receive at Jackson’s?
The level of training is very different. The training in the Marine Corps has to be at a very basic level because the masses are being trained, as opposed to individual fighters. The Marine Corps needs to have a program that gets a lot of people to the point where they are functional martial artists with striking and ground-fighting, rather than making them exceptional at any one specific skill. Furthermore, it’s a weapon-based system, in which the officers have to learn techniques that incorporate their weapons. However, having said all that, it still provided a great basis for my MMA training, and ensured that I fell back in love with martial arts, because it was practical. When I started to grow up, I began to realise that the traditional martial arts’ stances and techniques that I had learned as a child weren’t necessarily practical, and in turn I started to gravitate more towards conventional sports.
Could a lot of your Marine training partners have competed in the UFC?
Oh, without a doubt. Maybe they couldn’t walk straight out of the military and into the UFC, but with time they could compete at the highest level. They possess the fundamental athletic skills, coupled with the mental fortitude required to compete in the sport — not to mention the poise you need when the lights are on and the cameras are rolling. The military has a lot of personnel that could be successful in MMA. The principal difficulty is that they already have a large commitment, and it’s extremely hard to train while simultaneously on active duty. During the majority of my WEC career, I was active duty and didn’t possess the sufficient time or assets to train as I currently do.
What degree black belt MCMAP do you hold?
I’m a first-degree black belt. The other degrees do not necessarily denote superior technique, but rather the time which one spends practicing. My level was that of an instructor/trainer, so I could appoint instructors. You have regular practitioners of all different belt levels, but then you have instructors who can award belts and appoint instructors, which is the highest level you can attain.
I noticed online that you appear to boast three fighting nicknames, including “Grosso,” “All-American,” and “Captain America 2.5.” Do you prefer your current moniker, “The All-American”?
Haha, I wasn’t even aware of the other nicknames. I get awarded new nicknames at our gym on a weekly basis. It’s a great environment where we all tease each other. With regards to the “All-American,” when my manager tried to figure one out, there were a bunch of suggestions made, and I wasn’t overly keen on any of them. I was thinking I might go without one. Some of my buddies chipped in with their opinions, and the “All-American” was mentioned, which I preferred to “The Assassin” or something obvious like that.
Who are your main training partners at Jackson’s?
Obviously we have our core group of guys, including Joey Villasenor, Keith Jardine, Jon Jones, Diego Sanchez, and Clay Guida — all guys that have been there for several years or longer. And we also get fighters coming in from all over the world to train with, either new members of the team or guys who have tagged along with somebody else. At the moment I’m training with the likes of two-time All American wrestler Derek Brunson and the ex-football player Shawn Jordan, so there really is a wealth of talent at my disposal.
Who are you closest friends with at Jackson’s outside of training?
Tom Watson is the guy I’m the closest to. Tom is fantastic, and we have a great friendship. Aside from the talent he possesses in the various realms of the sport, he’s just very, very tough, one of the toughest I’ve ever trained with. At that point of exhaustion in training, when you have to draw from your deepest resources, Tom will continue. He’s the only other guy I know who will train as hard as myself. We are both known for overdoing it, actually.
Yes, Tom has attributed some of his previous injuries to overtraining.
Well, Tom trains really hard, and he also fights as often as possible. He’ll take a kickboxing fight, and sign up for an MMA bout two weeks later. Three weeks later, he’ll take another kickboxing fight. The guy doesn’t care who he fights, doesn’t care about his opponent’s record or reputation, or whether he’s supposed to lose. I share his attitude, and these are the kinds of people I really like. Some people underestimate Tom’s ground game, but he’s improved significantly in his wrestling and BJJ, as evidenced by his last few fights. I believe he could fight anybody in the top ten of the middleweight division. He’d pose serious problems to them all, and could beat most of them. He belongs in the top ten.
That’s great to hear, especially as an English MMA fan. I noticed that you appeared in a recent video by Isaac Kesington, aka Genghis Con. I’m a fan of his work. Have you ever seen his stuff?
Ah yes, I’m aware of Genghis Con, because he produced an episode on Jorge Santiago, who I fought last year. I always want to know my enemy. And not to say that my opponent is my enemy, but it’s just a term used in other facets of life. I want to know what kind of guy my opponent is. Is he the kind of person that works real hard all the time, and doesn’t require anybody to motivate him, or is he more of a quiet person? What kind of stuff is he doing in training? Even if footage can only provide me with a glance at something, I might be able to find an advantage. I thought the videos were very well put together, and a great portrayal of who Jorge is, his background, his skill-set and his lifestyle. And Genghis manages to capture the intensity of emotion involved in a fight, in the build-up, during, and the aftermath.
What does the UFC’s support of the U.S. armed forces — through their Fight for the Troops events and other charitable efforts — mean to you personally?
The UFC’s support of the U.S. military is fantastic and I’m very proud to be a part of the promotion. Being a guy that is very involved with veteran charities, it means a lot to me to be part of an organization that understands and rewards the sacrifices of those men and women. Obviously, when the UFC stages a Fight for the Troops, they send me to the bases so I’m always present at these functions, but in all honesty, these things come from the leadership of the company, the Fertittas and Dana White, who are extraordinarily patriotic and grateful for the sacrifices of these men and women.
Would you like to headline one of the Fight for the Troops events? I imagine that would be pretty emotional for you.
Oh yeah, I’d love to. It would be a great honor and a lot of fun. I was supposed to headline the [first] Fight for the Troops out in North Carolina, but I broke my foot so I had to withdraw. And for the most recent Fight for the Troops, I had just fought Chris Leben so the timing didn’t quite work out. But I was there with the soldiers all week attending all the different events.
Back when you were in the WEC, was it always your ambition to fight in the UFC?
Not really. I was honestly just taking one fight at a time, really until 2011. I knew I was going to leave the military because I didn’t want to continue leaving my kids behind for periods of time when I was deployed. I was looking into various career options, including returning to school and numerous federal agencies. In sports, a career is precarious, and can be curtailed by injury. It’s the same in the NFL where you can be cut, or in baseball where you can be sent to the minors. So, I’ve always had several backup plans, even when I was brought over to the UFC, in the event that it didn’t work out. I mean the UFC is the elite. These guys are the best. I have kids, so I can’t afford to be cut by the UFC, and then go to fight for peanuts on a smaller promotion in the hope that I make it back. So I have to have other things in place, because I just want better for my family. I’ve kept a parallel career as the President of Hire Heroes USA, a national non-profit organisation that helps heroes to secure work, and I have my own martial arts gym in Alpharetta, Georgia, so I have my fingers in a bunch of different avenues to be prepared for when fighting is over, and to build my resume in other areas besides professional sports.
One last question regarding your biography, Heart for the Fight: A Marine Hero’s Journey from the Battlefields of Iraq to Mixed Martial Arts Champion. How did this book come about and why would you recommend it to people?
It actually took a lot of convincing to get me to do this project. It was a difficult process. I wasn’t prepared for everything that’s involved in writing a book; having to revisit and recount so many different stories and times in your life, on top of having to deal with a publishing company that generally has opinions on the style of the book, how it’s written, chapter placements, etc. It wasn’t just a case of producing a book exactly to my liking, because there were other people who have a say. For the most part though, I was happy with the end product. I didn’t go into this expecting to make a lot of money, but rather to put out a quality book for my family and the Marines that served under me. It was written for them to read, and I feel that it was an honest portrayal of certain aspects of my life. Once the book was written, I sent it to a bunch of my Marines, and they really enjoyed it, as did my family. They were all able to take something from it. At the end of the day, that’s all I could ask for.
It’s not a book in which I spend time praising my achievements. In fact, I spend a lot of time vividly recalling my mistakes and the lessons learned, and that’s really the theme of the book. Going through life as a leader of Marines and making mistakes, going through life as a professional athlete and making mistakes, coming back from those mistakes, and understanding how they can help you learn about yourself and life. There’s a Russian expression that states, “a smart man learns from his own mistakes, a wise man learns from those made by others.” So maybe some people will learn from my mistakes and be wise.