“Fighters hate having fights that they’re supposed to win; they do.”
Brian Stann laughs as he says this, and I don’t know if it’s because he doesn’t think I believe him or because as far as his fights in 2011 go, he’s waxing philosophical on a subject matter he’s not particularly familiar with.
The decorated former Marine Captain has stepped into the Octagon twice already this year. On both occasions, he was the underdog. While that might be debatable for his UFC 130 meeting with Jorge Santiago, it was certainly the case when he took on Chris Leben at UFC 125 on New Year’s Day. On both occasions, Stann handed his victims crushing knockout losses.
“I love situations where people tell me I can’t do things,” says Stann, his excitement about facing Chael Sonnen on Saturday night at UFC 136 clear from the minute we started speaking. “I’ve had people tell me, `You can’t be a professional fighter’ or `You can’t be a professional fighter and have a full-time job,’ and you’re able to go out there, prove them wrong, and do it. This is just another one of those situations, and it just so happens to be the highest profile situation for me in my mixed martial arts career.
“This fight is the biggest fight of my career, because of who it’s against, the odds, and everything else, but it’s really the lowest pressure fight I’ve had all year. There was a lot more pressure on my going into a co-main event fight with Chris Leben, and fighting a former Sengoku world champion in Jorge Santiago.
“Now I come into a fight where I’m more than a 2-1 underdog in this one. I’m fighting a guy that’s rank way higher than me. This is the position you want to be in as a fighter, where you can go out there, you have everything to prove, everything to gain, and really nothing to lose because it allows you to fight at your best, and that’s what I feel is going to happen on Saturday.”
Stann has raised the bar measuring his best in each of his last three outings, three victories that coincide with his move to the middleweight division.
He made the move following a loss to rising star Phil Davis at UFC 109, a defeat that left him at 2-2 in the UFC, but knew before the bout that a drop to the 185 pound ranks was in order.
“The day of weigh-ins, you do a pre-weigh-in around nine in the morning, so the UFC knows where you’re at and how much you have to cut. I walked down there that morning, and I weighed in at 203.5 for the Phil Davis fight, and I think I had a decent amount to eat the day before.”
The 31-year-old Stann laughs at his recollection, a remembrance of knowing he was going to be in for a long night with the former Division I National champion wrestler.
Six months later, Stann debuted as a middleweight, facing fellow UFC 136 competitor Mike Massenzio. He looked vastly improved; his size and athleticism helping him stave off the former NCAA wrestler. Stann collected a third round submission win, and he hasn’t looked back since. In January he knocked out Leben to announce his place as an emerging threat in the 185 pound ranks, then punched his ticket to the division’s top 10 with an impressive showing against Santiago.
While the weight cut has certainly been beneficial, Stann says shedding the extra pounds is only part of the winning formula. More than changing addresses, he credits his coaches and teammates at Team Jackson for helping him reach his potential in the cage.
“When you make the cut and you’re increasing your skill set, in my mind, there was always the potential to be a great fighter; to be a top 10 and a world class fighter. I knew I could do it, it was just realizing it, putting it all together.
“When you train with great guys, you realize the holes in your game much faster. If you train at a small, more limited gym, you get more attention from your coaches possibly, but you’re not going to have the guys that can expose you on a day-to-day basis.
“For me and for all of us here in Albuquerque, there’s so much talent that you’re going to get exposed in any area you’re weak in, and it immediately keys you as the fighter and your coaches in to `Okay, we need to work on these areas.’ That’s really helped me along in my progression because we’ve been able to do that, and we have an environment where those fighters who are exposing holes in my game are also coaching me, so you end up having a gym full of coaches. Everybody is there to help everybody.
“It definitely has gone smoother than what you could imagine in your mind, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve gotten, and how it’s gone. This is just one more step. It’s the next step, and it’s the big step.”
Saturday’s fight with Sonnen is more than just another fight; there is the very real possibility that the winner of UFC 136’s marquee middleweight attraction could find themselves standing opposite divisional overlord Anderson Silva sometime next year.
That’s a fast climb up the championship ladder for a guy who was making his middleweight debut less than 18 months ago.
“I didn’t expect to get a fight like this for possibly another year,” Stann offers earnestly. “I was expecting to fight a top 10 guy — no doubt about it — but Chael and Anderson are kind of on their own playing field as far as I’m concerned in the middleweight division.
“To get this opportunity, it’s outstanding. This is what you live for as a fighter. If you’re a real fighter, and you want to be a champion, you live for those opportunities to prove everybody wrong, and that’s kind of what I define my life by.
“I love to fight guys that I’m not supposed to beat,” he continued with a laugh. “I love fighting up; that’s how you always want to be. This is three fights in a row now where I’m fighting guys that are ranked higher than me.
“I think there was a lot more pressure on me in the Leben fight because in that fight, if I didn’t perform in that fight, than I was going to be constantly dubbed as a guy that wasn’t going to make it in this sport. I think there was a lot more pressure going into that fight than there is with this one.”
When we spoke prior to his fight at UFC 130, Stann told me his goal for 2011 was to earn a place in the top 10 of the middleweight division. Three nights later, he went out and claimed that spot. This time, we talked about his long range goals, and the role this fight on Saturday night plays in achieving them.
“I want to be a champion, and I think my long term goal in mixed martial arts is that I’d like to one day be in the UFC Hall of Fame. I’ve got a lot to do before I can even be considered for that. You have to win a title, defend a title; you have a to do a lot of amazing things, so my next step is to get my shot at the type, and that route goes through Chael Sonnen right now. He’s the guy everybody wants to see fight the champion again.”
Stann says he’s very excited about the rhythm he feels heading into this fight; the way his training camp has gone, paired with his recovery and development reminding him of his unbeaten run in the WEC that resulted in claiming the light heavyweight championship in just his sixth professional fight.
“I have a good standing with the company, I put on exciting fights. Now I’m fighting a guy who put a lot of attention on himself — a guy a lot of people do not expect me to have the skill set to beat — while I walk in there knowing that I do have that skill set; that I can beat him. It puts you in a very fun situation as a fighter.”
Fun for Stann; no so much fun for Sonnen on Saturday.