STOCKHOLM -- A thesis, if you will, about Brian Stann: the man is too remarkable for his own good.
I realize how that sounds. Here we go, the lazy intro to another fawning sports writer piece, but I actually mean it. After sitting down to a weight-cutting dinner (water with lemon) with the Marine war hero and UFC middleweight at the Clarion Hotel on Thursday night, I think his own extraordinariness might be an actual, genuine problem. It’s not a problem for him so much as for us, who in turn make it a problem for him because we can’t understand how any human being could really be like this.
Again, I realize how that sounds, but just stay with me for a second. To understand the phenomenon that I’m referring to, first you have to understand how Stann unintentionally makes people feel bad about themselves.
Example: before our gourmet weight-cutting meal, I get a chance to listen on Stann doing a typical pre-fight phone interview. If you’re a sportswriter, I don’t recommend this experience, if only because it reminds you how many times you’ve been on the other end of the line, asking the same inane questions that the interviewer before you just asked. But Stann is a good sport, and at one point he goes off about all the praise he received for his turn as a commentator at the last UFC on FOX event, calling his turn as a talking head one of the easiest jobs he’s ever had, "if you can even call it a job."
Does he realize how this sounds, I ask him later. Does he realize what someone who’s currently in broadcasting school or pursuing a career doing just that sort of non-job might feel if they heard him -- a guy who stepped up, grabbed a headset, and nailed out so effortlessly on network television -- talking about it that way?
"Well, now I feel bad," he says with a sheepish grin, which in turn only makes me feel bad for having made him feel bad. Later on, in an attempt to explain what it’s like to walk out in front of thousands of screaming fans, he’ll tell me that he sometimes gets moments of "weird perspective, where I think, man, what am I doing with my life? I’m fist-fighting for a living."
Which, of course, makes me wonder what I’m doing with my life. I’m writing about guys who fist-fight for a living. I could mention to him here that now he’s made me feel bad, but then he’d just flash that sheepish grin again, at which point I’d feel even worse. You can’t win with this guy.
That’s the whole problem. Unless you’re a good-looking heart surgeon reading this article on your way to deliver free toys to orphans before tomorrow’s triathlon, there’s a very good chance that Brian Stann is better than you. He’s a successful UFC fighter and commentator, a Marine officer and Silver Star recipient, a former linebacker for the Naval Academy, and on top of all that he’s not even a jerk. He’s actually a really articulate, warm, nice dude, which paradoxically makes it easier to hate him.
I think this has something to do with our concepts of greatness and celebrity. We expect famous people who are really, really good at something to be really, really bad at something else. Whether that something is marriage or sobriety or money management, we like our heroes flawed, perhaps because it makes us feel like the playing field is still somehow even. If you’re good at too many things, we suspect that you must be hiding some terrible secret. And if you aren’t hiding a terrible secret, well, then we just hate you.
Stann is used to this, as it turns out. As a captain of his high school football team, he admits, he wasn’t the most popular guy on the team. He took things too seriously. He yelled at guys on the sidelines when he heard them talking about where they wanted to drink beer after the game. It was like having another coach around, but one who could legally hit you if you made him angry.
After high school, Stann decided to seek out others who were as serious as he was. He attended the Naval Academy, where he thought everyone would be strictly business, but even there his peers thought he was a little too intense.
"So I went to the place where intense people who take things very seriously are welcome: the Marine Corps," he says. "I mean, the Army calls us extremists."
Being an officer in the Marines, first with seventy people and later with 140 people under his command, was, Stann says, "the coolest job in the world." Now that he’s a full-time fighter, though, people seem to only want to hear about the terrible parts, the bloody parts. They want to hear about the firefight on the bridge in Iraq. They want the same story he’s told to others, but they want him to tell it again, just like he told it before, this time for their website, their newspaper. For a guy who lived it, you can see how this would get old.
"I don’t know if it cheapens it, but it makes it difficult to talk about," he says. "I’ve told [manager] Robert [Roveta], I’m done going into specifics about it. When people ask me, ‘Hey, tell me about the time on the bridge...’, you know, no. I don’t want to talk about it. Those are painful memories, stuff I lose sleep over. It’s not something I thump my chest about. War sucks. Nobody likes it. No warrior who’s been in real combat wishes that the country would go to war. They don’t. They want to see things end."
Still, it was his time in the military and the things he saw while at war that, at least in part, made him who he is today. When he tells a story about when he considered retiring from fighting in order to get started on "whatever’s going to be my long-term career," I mention that he seems to have a level of self-awareness that’s uncommon among fighters, or even people in general.
"When you’ve been around a lot of death, it gives you that perspective, unfortunately," he says.
And here we are again. Me feeling bad. Him seeming like some sort of superior being, sent to earth to teach us all a lesson.
He’s not, of course. I know that. The people who hate on him in internet comments sections probably know it too. At least I hope they do. I hope they know that, just because Stann’s remarkable life makes them feel bad about their own, it’s not his fault. He’s just a guy who takes things too seriously sometimes. He’s a guy who, from the outside, seems too perfect. And isn’t that a flaw, if you really need him to have one? Isn’t that enough of a problem to allow you to root for him?