In mixed martial arts, we often find ourselves watching fighters hang on past their expiration date.
Some of them are longtime veterans of the sport who toiled for meager paychecks when the idea of a UFC event airing on network television was more than a pipe dream—it was an impossible idea. And yet they persevered, making far less money than they ever should for putting their bodies on the line in the name of sport and entertainment.
I don't have to mention names. You know who they are. And you also know now that Brian Stann will not be one of them.
Stann announced his retirement on Thursday morning during a special edition of The MMA Hour. Despite being just 32 years old, Stann made the decision to walk away from the sport after consecutive losses to Michael Bisping and Wanderlei Silva.
It was the Silva fight that convinced Stann that it was the right time to walk away, before he starts displaying any effects from being punched in the head too many times.
It was a thrilling fight, filled with the kind of violence that earns rave reviews from UFC fans, and Stann and Silva were rewarded with Fight of the Night honors.
But it was also the kind of fight that reminded Stann of what was truly important in his life.
As he told Ariel Helwani during The MMA Hour,
It's not a healthy fighting style. It's not a fighting style that's going to give you a long career. It's going to give you a career that's about as long as the one that I have. I think the best decision for a guy like me is to walk away at the right time.
I have not had any issues with head injuries. I don't have a number of documented concussions, but these are issues that you don't know there's something wrong until there is something wrong. Bringing my third child into the world this fall, my third daughter, it is not a good idea for me to roll those dice.
As with every other task that Stann has undertaken in his career, his decision to retire with his health intact is filled with a kind of grace and humility that's tough to find in modern sports.
When I first met him several years ago, I was instantly impressed with his intelligence, his ability to make anyone he talked to feel important and his history. When you spoke to him, he didn't pretend to hear you; he actually listened.
A decorated war hero and Naval Academy graduate, Stann had the background of a congressman or public servant. In fact, I noted to one of my old editors that if he elected to go into politics, Stann would make a great presidential candidate. I still believe that to be true.
I also believed that his personal story, combined with his all-American good looks and charm, could potentially make him one of the UFC's biggest stars. He never quite reached those heights because he kept losing the fights that mattered the most.
But his record doesn't matter. Stann's impact on the sport extends beyond the cage, and he'll attempt to take it even further when he joins Fox Sports South's broadcast booth for ACC football games this fall. On camera, he is well-spoken. He makes his points in an easy-to-understand fashion, and he does so without ever making the viewers feel as though he's talking down to them.
He also remains a tireless advocate for veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. That aspect of Stann's personality rings true with me; as a former Iraq combat veteran, I know what it's like to come home and attempt to transition from the military into a civilian job. It wasn't easy.
Stann works as the CEO of Hire Heroes USA to constantly change that, to help soldiers move from a difficult phase of their lives into a comfortable role in the outside world.
In short, he's a man who has given a lot of himself without requiring much in return. That's a rarity in today's world, and especially in mixed martial arts, where it pays to be selfish and look out for your own interests.
Stann isn't selfish, and he never will be.
I'm a journalist, and as a journalist I'm not supposed to have biases. I'm required to sit back, watch the sport and offer my opinions where I feel they are needed. I can't root for one fighter to beat another. I can't show favoritism when I'm writing stories.
But despite that, I've never been able to stop myself from rooting for Brian Stann.
Even when I tried to suppress it—and I'd never show it outwardly—there was always a little part of me that couldn't help but hope Stann would find a way to win those big fights. I hoped he would climb to the top of the mountain and become one of the biggest stars in the entire sport, because he's the embodiment of everything that I believe is good and just and right about sports.
He deserved the kind of accolades that typically belong to the best and most famous and selfish fighters.
Stann deserved more. He didn't get it, but he sure as hell deserved it. He was a true role model in a sport filled with jerks. He was the perfect ambassador for mixed martial arts as the UFC expanded its global reach.
And by walking away with his health and his brain intact, Stann showed us that there are still smart people out there who aren't addicted to the fame and the bright lights and the thrill of competition and the money. He showed us that you don't have to hang on, trying to realize a dream that may never materialize.
He never became the UFC champion that he desperately wanted to be. But just as he did inside the cage and in his charity work, Stann reminded us of something we'd all do well to remember: You don't have to hold a belt to be a champion.
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