Mixed Martial Arts Marine Is Used to Fighting for His Life
Karen Tam for The New York Times
Brian Stann is juggling the responsibilities of life as a husband, future father and Marine officer with having an undefeated record in World Extreme Cagefighting.
By CHRIS DIXON
Published: May 22, 2007
When asked to assess his state of mind before stepping into a steel cage for a fight, Brian Stann provides a matter-of-fact reply that also stands as a stark warning.
“For me, I think it’s probably different from other mixed martial arts fighters,” said Stann, a 26-year-old first lieutenant in the Marines. “I’m used to a fight that’s for my life.”
In May 2005, Stann and some fellow members of the Third Battalion, Second Marine Division, faced machine guns, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades in a fight to control the area around a bridge along the Euphrates River in Iraq. The battle earned Stann a Silver Star, the military’s third-highest award for heroism.
After returning home in March from a second deployment, Stann is juggling the responsibilities of life as a husband, future father, Marine officer and having an undefeated record in World Extreme Cagefighting, known as W.E.C. A six-year-old offshoot of the Ultimate Fighting Championships, W.E.C. features a smaller, octagonal cage and a wider variety of weight classes.
With piercing blue eyes, and standing 6 feet 1 inch, Stann seems composed of 205 pounds of muscle. He is an imposing figure with a disarmingly friendly demeanor whose workouts twice a day would render an average athlete incoherent.
From his desk at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Stann’s duties might include weapons logistics, combat training or counseling a young corporal who may need some advice.
Stann was born on Yokota Air Force Base in Japan. When he was 2, his father abandoned his family, and his mother, Elizabeth Cieless, moved Brian and his sister back among their extended family in Scranton, Pa., he said in an interview at Camp Lejeune. From childhood, Cieless said in a telephone interview, her son’s G.I. Joe collection and leadership skills were remarkable.
“He was just a born leader,” she said. “When he was a little boy, he was always the one in charge; the kids would just trail after him.”
Stann played quarterback from age 9 through high school. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy, where he majored in economics and played linebacker.
But leading troops was his ultimate aspiration.
“It was a calling to know that I could go to the Naval Academy, get a phenomenal education, play Division I football and then at the end of it, become a warrior,” he said.
Commissioned by the Marines in 2003, Stann trained to become an infantry officer at Quantico, Va., and immersed himself in martial arts.
On May 8, 2005, Stann and some 40 fellow Marines advanced on the Iraqi town of Karabilah, near the Syrian border, in an effort to take a bridge that served as a key conduit for insurgents.
While the Marines rolled across an open swath of farmland, as Stann said, one of their tanks was destroyed by an improvised explosive device. With four wounded Marines inside the tank, enemy forces began to concentrate machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire on it.
Stann and Sgt. Luke Miller climbed into the tank to extricate the four Marines while Cpl. Richard Mcelhinny took over the tank’s machine gun and began firing. A helicopter soon evacuated the wounded Marines.
Stann said that after seizing the land south of the bridge, he and his troops endured three more days of combat as they battled to keep supply lines open through Karabilah. He said that all of his men survived the nearly six days of combat.
The details of these encounters could not be independently verified.
On New Year’s Day 2006, when the Eagles played the Redskins in their regular-season finale, Stann was on the 50-yard-line of Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia asking his longtime girlfriend, Teressa Ruspi, an Eagles cheerleader, to marry him.
A week later, in his off-duty time, Stann competed in his first professional mixed martial arts event, Sportfight 14, defeating a fighter named Aaron Stark by a technical knockout in the first round.
Correspondence with Scott Adams, the president of W.E.C., led Stann into his first match.
On June 15, 2006, Stann won his first fight, defeating Miguel Cosio in 16 seconds. On March 24, Stann defeated Steve Cantwell, an unbeaten fighter, in 41 seconds after a flurry of punches, earning a purse of $6,000. On June 3, in a match to be televised by Versus, Stann will take on Craig Zellner, who has a 4-1 record and whose last victory took only 31 seconds. When asked how she felt about her husband’s competition in W.E.C. events, Teressa Stann said it did not begin to compare with the anxiety of deployment.
“I have no fear for him,” she said. “It’s like, Babe, this is something you should be doing. There’s not many things he talks about from Iraq or his past. He kind of keeps it inside. But when he’s in the cage, he can let those emotions out.”
Stann said he was fighting to honor four lance corporals who died while serving under his command. On April 29, First Lt. Travis Manion, one of his closest friends, died fighting in Anbar Province. Stann said that “my next fight will also be in his honor.” Stann called cage fighting among the best ways he can prepare himself to lead his troops.
“No one’s shooting at me when I’m in a cage,” he said. “But close the cage on me, and what’s going through my mind is that I’m still fighting for my life. If they’re going to beat me, they’re going to have to go to the level I’m willing to go. I’ve been places they haven’t. I’ve seen things they haven’t. They’re not just fighting me when I’m in there. They’re fighting all that past experience as well.”