Brian Stann was in eighth grade when he first came upon the idea of mixed martial arts. He remembers watching the inaugural UFC fight, UFC 1, and being in awe. He watched it again and again and again, some 20 times total, and told his middle school teacher he was going to become a professional kickboxer and move to Las Vegas.
Then life, as it often does, got in the way. Stann played football in high school and in college at the Naval Academy. He got his economics degree and became a Marine Corps infantry officer. He was awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest combat honor, after everyone in Stann’s 42-man platoon survived a harrowing six-day assault while trying to secure an Iraqi bridge. And then, six weeks after returning from his second tour, Iraqi sand still plugging his ears, Stann fought his first professional mixed martial arts fight.
On the Fourth of July holiday it’s a national pastime for American sports to bathe themselves in the American flag and to pay homage to the military. But perhaps no professional sports league has as legitimate of a military connection as the UFC, in which Stann is now a top-ranked middleweight and one of the sport’s most popular stars.
Because it’s not as if Stann’s martial arts dream ended when he went into the military. In fact, the military is where he really picked it up. Throughout his years in the military, Stann trained in mixed martial arts as part of his combat training. As a second lieutenant in training at Quantico, Stann worked his way up to the highest level of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. In Iraq, he forced his Marines to train mixed martial arts when they were on base. They would grapple and spar and hit bags in the desert. Mixed martial arts has become an essential part of combat training across the US military.
And it’s not like Stann’s men were in training to single-handedly disarm Iraqi insurgents with armbars or spinning elbows. True hand-to-hand combat in today’s high-tech military? Doesn’t happen much. Sure, Stann’s colleagues have used armlocks or jiu-jitsu techniques in trying to subdue a detainee and get him in flexicuffs. But it’s not like Stann and his fellow Marines are really being trained to win America’s wars with choke holds or ground-and-pounds.
Instead, Stann believes mixed martial arts training is key in developing the mental side of combat training.
“It’s very easy in mixed martial arts to train and get to a point of exhaustion,” Stann told FOXSports.com. “When people are exhausted physically, they tend to break mentally. Their decision-making processes break down. Their ability to think analytically breaks down. They look for a way to stop whatever activity they’re doing so they can breathe and rest. The more you put yourself in that scenario, the more comfortable you get when you’re in it. And you encounter a lot of situations like that in combat, when you’re physically or mentally exhausted. But as a leader of men, you can’t afford to allow that to turn internal and think about how tired you are.”
“Nothing can simulate combat,” Stann said, “but you need to get as close as you possibly can.”
When you’re in the Octagon — or when you’re in combat — you can’t think of how you’re tired. You can’t think of how much your back hurts. You can’t think of how it’s 120 degrees in this desert and how bad life sucks right now. Any of those thoughts creeping into your mind means you aren’t thinking about your mission, you aren’t thinking about your fellow Marines, you aren’t thinking about what audibles you need to call on your game plan.
That’s what Stann has in common with the Marine in charge of teaching mixed martial arts to countless other Marines, Master Sergeant Johnny Marlow, the staff non-commissioned officer in charge of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Center of Excellence.
But there is a huge difference in the mentality of fighting in the Octagon and fighting in combat, as anyone trained in the two disciplines would tell you.
“I don’t want to offend anybody,” Marlow said, “but there’s a huge difference between three judges ringside, and you’re kneeling on a guy punching him in the face, as to what I teach a guy: when you’re kneeling on top of a guy you shove a bayonet through his neck and go home and see your mother and your father and your children. That’s the difference between the two. I don’t teach men to fight for points. I teach men to fight for the man on his right and his left so we can all go home and see our wife and children tomorrow.”
What Marlow tells the Marines he’s training is this: “If you’re doing what I’m teaching you (in combat), that means things have gone really bad for you and your platoon.”
Yet these Marines in Virginia look to UFC fighters and see the ultimate achievements in the discipline they spend countless sweaty hours training in.
Who knows? Maybe some day we’ll see one of the young men they’re training in the Octagon, just like Brian Stann.
“I just couldn’t see a better hobby for guy who was going to be an infantry officer preparing to lead men and women in war,” Stann said. “It makes you mentally stronger, spiritually stronger. Every day you’re going to face adversity, because there’s always somebody that’s able to kick your butt in one of the disciplines we train. And I think that builds character.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at email@example.com.