I’m now in the host hotel of UFC 136 here in Houston. The most important fight of my career — vs. Chael Sonnen — takes place in three days. I am looking forward to the challenge.
It’s no secret really: The more time you spend working on and practicing your art — whatever it may be — the better you will become as a result. I have experienced this during my own mixed martial arts career and am now reaping the benefits of my time spent in the sport. I am a far more technical fighter now than I was back in my light-heavyweight days and, while it helps that I am fighting guys my own size in the middleweight division, a lot of my improvements have been down to time spent learning in the gym, as opposed to any perks of moving down in weight.
I lost a couple of fights as a light heavyweight, before I dropped to the 185-pound middleweight division, and those setbacks really forced me to re-evaluate and come to terms with the holes I had in my game. Those situations pushed me toward improving my skill-set and becoming a better all-round mixed martial artist. I’ve since spent a lot of time improving my jiu-jitsu and wrestling and now probably spend around 85 percent of the time concentrating on the improvement of those two particular disciplines.
One of the toughest aspects of this sport is coping with the mental demands of competition. You need to be mentally tough to step into that Octagon and thrive, and that mental toughness often only comes with experience.
I have seen hundreds of fighters over the years who are great in the gym — you’d swear they were future world champions — and yet flop completely when they get in there and compete. They can’t carry out their gym form into the place where it really counts. They don’t know how to bring out the fighter within themselves when the lights are on and the cameras are rolling. This happens to many fighters — young and old — and is something that can often make or break a guy on the way up. You need to overcome that mental hurdle if you’re to get anywhere in this sport.
I believe the reason we see a lot of mature fighters flourishing in the sport these days is simply because they are better equipped to deal with the mental pressures that occur before a fight. They are more seasoned and experienced and can fall back on that experience in times of stress. There is a lot to deal with in the build-up to a fight — this thing isn’t like football. Football players get nervous before a game, but after the first play they settle down. The same thing is true, to an extent, with fighters, but the dynamics are a lot different when somebody is trying to stop you settling in by knocking you out or break your arm.
Physically and mentally I feel prepared for what lies ahead on Saturday night. My opponent, Chael Sonnen, is the No. 2-ranked fighter in my weight class, but I have been building toward this moment for my entire fighting life. I am ready for it.
I’ve fought a lot of wrestlers in my career to date and have only lost to one of them. Although no two fighters are ever the same, I feel a lot more comfortable about dealing with wrestlers than I did a couple of years ago, and this is something that will stand me in good stead come Saturday. I’ve been forced to work very hard on my wrestling for the last 2 1/2 years now and, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, it has all been leading up to this huge challenge on Saturday night. In a matter of days I will go face to face with arguably the best MMA wrestler in the sport.
There is a reason the UFC called me and offered me this fight with Chael — it’s because nobody else wanted it. Even though he’s the No. 2-ranked guy in the world, nobody is in any rush to fight Chael Sonnen, believe me. No fighter will have watched Chael’s last three fights and turned to their manager and said, "Wow, I really hope the UFC matches me up with this guy next." That’s not what happens. Stylistically, this is the worst matchup possible for me, at least as far as the experts will have you believe.
I’m in this sport to be the best, though, and in order to be the best you have to fight the best. There is nobody in the UFC who is going to step into the Octagon and scare me at this point in my life. My attitude is still the same as it was the day I started out on this journey — you go in there, fight your heart out and expect to win. I don’t care who I’m up against, that mentality will never change.
Visit www.brianstann.com and @BrianStann for more information on Brian "All-American" Stann