NEW YORK — It's 7 a.m. and New York City's financial district has yet to rub the dust from its eyes. The street is eerily still, the urban symphony of car horns, gnashing gears and millions of voices has yet to stir.
But two stories below the city sidewalk, the Church Street Boxing Gym is already humming, the jump of Latin music punctuated with the intermittent slap of leather on leather. But the most prominent thwacks in a basement buzzing with fight sounds come from a room tucked away in the back of the gym, where professional mixed-martial-arts fighter Brian Stann is getting in an early workout. He fires crisp five-punch combinations in the blink of an eye. The heavy leather bag hanging from the ceiling seems to groan with each low kick. He easily sweeps his sparring partner's legs, takes him down to the mat and sets up for a submission attempt. But considering where Stann has been, this morning ritual is a walk in the park. You see, in a sport populated with self-professed badasses, there is perhaps none badder than Brian Stann.
It's not his undefeated record, though four knockouts in four pro fights (the latest coming via knockout during World Extreme Cagefighting's broadcast debut) is a mark of some serious bad. Rather, it's the fact that he's a decorated war hero who amassed this record while still serving as a lieutenant with the U.S. Marine Corps. A trip inside the octagon is nothing compared to duty in Iraq.
Stann seems born into this, entering life on an Air Force base in Japan before settling in the dusky industrial hamlet of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Football is king in that stretch of the rust belt, and Stann was a standout at Scranton Prep, racking up record yardage on the ground and in the air. "Fortunately, I did well enough in football that they started to recruit me my junior year," Stann recalled. He took his football prowess to the Naval Academy, an easy choice for a man seemingly built for duty. "Here was a place where I could go and play football and jump out of helicopters and shoot guns. It was right up my alley," Stann said.
Stann excelled as a linebacker during his time at the Academy, but beyond the action, he also found himself immersed in lessons about leadership and discipline. Driven in part by the events of 9/11, Stann moved on to the Marines after graduating from the Academy in May 2003. "When you're playing football, you like to be physical, leading other men out onto the field," Stann explained. "The Marine Corps is the obvious choice if you want to be the leader of men, a leader in combat."
Stepping into an officer position, Stann soon got his wish, leading the 2nd Mobile Assault Platoon in Iraq and relishing the mission-driven nature of life at the front. "When I first arrived in Iraq, the first thing I noticed was how simple they make life," Stann said. "Everything else is weeded out, and your sole focus is your Marines and the mission at hand. It's great because that's all you need to think about, because for seven months there's no rest, there's no days off. It's a seven-month sprint, so you don't have time to think about anything else. Your family understands that, and your family supports you while you are out there fighting terrorism, fighting for your freedom and fighting for the Iraqis' freedom."
Over time, the missions — and the action — increased with the arrival of Operation Matador in May 2005. "We really saw a lot of ripple effects," Stann said. "Our area changed and the enemy activity changed quite a bit. From the get-go, it was some very intense combat for me and my Marines."
The heaviest action came when Stann and his men tried to secure a bridge near Karbalah. "As soon as we pushed there, we saw heavy enemy contact," Stann recalled. "We traversed back and forth to that bridge three times, each time fighting through multiple ambushes and getting in multiple engagements just to re-seize that terrain."
The fighting went on day and night for four days, with Stann and his men facing rocket-propelled grenades, machine-gun fire and improvised explosive devices. "During that time, my guys were getting minimal sleep — maybe one to two hours a night — because we had sporadic firefights at that bridge throughout the day and throughout the night," Stann said. "There really wasn't any chance to let our guard down. The ultimate discipline and integrity and honor of the Marines, that's where you really see it come to life, and that's why we had no Marines killed and we brought everybody home alive."
Stann led 42 men into battle near Karbalah, and he eventually led all 42 men to safety, a feat that earned him the Silver Star (the military's third-highest honor) in March 2006 ... though he's quick to downplay his role and share the honor with his men. "As far as heroic actions, pulling guys out of tanks under fire, as an officer you're supposed to do that, in my opinion," Stann said.
But the soldier was still an athlete at heart. During his second tour in Iraq, the former amateur mixed-martial-arts student rekindled his interest in the sport. "I really started to see where doing combat sports and the anxiety you feel before a scheduled fight makes you a lot calmer and a lot more prepared for violent situations and combat," Stann explained. "There's nothing that you can really do to prepare yourself for war, but that was the best thing that I found."
He broke out his boxing gloves and Thai pads and dove into training while in Iraq, making up for what he lacked in amenities with one of the few plentiful resources around him. "The best resource you have is United States Marines," Stann said of his martial-arts training. Soon, he contacted World Extreme Cagefighting (which had recently been acquired by the UFC) and began e-mailing its promoters, begging for a shot at a pro fight. Eventually, as Stann puts it, the WEC "decided to give this kid who served in Iraq a chance."
Stann made his debut with the WEC in June 2006. His opponent lasted all of 16 seconds, the victim of the quickest knockout in WEC history. In a sport where some of the biggest names in the game fight to shake off jitters — and even nausea — before a big event, the battle-tested Stann called his debut "fun."
"Going into a fight where no one is shooting at you is easy because the worst thing that can happen to me is I get knocked out or I get a broken nose," Stann explained.
Stann's record now stands at 4-0, and none of his opponents have made it out of the first round. But while his accomplishments in the cage might make for some bold boasts — a practice raised to an art form by many an MMA practitioner — Stann instead reserves his praise for the Marines that he served next to in Iraq and those he continues to serve with at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
"When I hear athletes call themselves warriors, it does bother me a little bit," Stann said. "When I think of a warrior, I think of the Marines I've led in combat, those Marines that sacrificed so much ... no showers, little food, no contact with their family, all for their love for their brother Marine and for their love for their country. That's a warrior, willing to lay his life on the line, and I've had Marines that have laid their lives on the line for the man next to him and for their family and for their country. That's a warrior. The guy who goes into some athletic contest who has no war experience, in my eyes, really has no right to call himself that. That's a coveted thing to call someone, and that's what I call my Marines. Those are warriors."