Brian Stann on early retirement, broke athletes, and why the hardest decision isn't always to walk away, but to stay away

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Look back through the history of combat sports and it's not hard to find a laundry list of prizefighters who, for one reason of other, simply hung around too long. Whether due to outside pressures, dire financial straits, or a gut-wrenching inability to let go of the game, cases of tarnished end-of-career records, and the steady creep of Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that comes along with them are all too commonplace.

Luckily, Brian Stann is not one of those cases.

Stann, the former UFC contender turned FOX talking head, retired abruptly at the age of 32 citing concerns over increasing time away from family and the looming specter of head trauma, stating at the time, "there's only so long that I can roll those dice and be successful." Earlier this month, TUF 1 veteran Chris Leben mirrored those sentiments as a few of many reasons for his own retirement. Leben, like Stann, was a fighter in his early-thirties facing a tough losing streak with years of brawls already behind him.

In light of Leben's announcement, I spoke to Stann about his own retirement, the constant battle against second thoughts, what it's like to see the success of his old WEC running mates, and what Leben -- as well as other fighters in the future -- can do to smooth their transitions from fighting life to the realities of ordinary life. (Portions of this interview have been edited for concision.)

Shaun Al-Shatti: Historically the fighter who hangs around too long is a much more common sight than the one who gets out while the getting out is good. You're still only 33 years old. Earlier this month Chris Leben announced his retirement, and he's only 33 years old. Both of you were lauded for your decisions. So I wonder, do you think we're starting to see the seeds planted for a new trend in MMA -- the idea of not sticking around to suffer all that extra damage once your best is behind you?

Brian Stann: I really do. We're always really quick to criticize, but this is an area where [the UFC] is pretty good. Not that I had personal experience with this, but they're pretty quick to point out when they think a guy is done. And I think that having them be honest with fighters (is a boon). Because look, fighters, it's always going to be difficult to get them to stop, and there's not always going to be people in their life who will tell them to stop. I think that Chris made a great decision, and that it will become more of a trend. Guys are going to be smarter, because the longer you hang on, the longer you're not doing something else, and working towards whatever it's going to be that's going to pay your bills, and long term, is going to fulfill your family's needs when you're 34 or 35 -- even 30 years old for some of these guys who start pro at 18.

Al-Shatti: That's an interesting point. Donald Cerrone recently came out and said, not for the first time and perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that he needed his fight at UFC on FOX 10 because he's "out of control" with his spending. The broke athlete certainly isn't a problem that's exclusive to MMA, but in a sport where the league minimum salary is miles away from a half-million dollars, it seems like a much more likely destination than for athletes in the NFL or NBA. What measures should fighters take to avoid that road?

Stann: The first thing is, if the money is in your account, you're going to spend it. You have to set yourself with some kind of investment account, to where it's automatically taken out of your account monthly, or weekly, or whatever you need -- whatever your pay cycle is. That's the most important thing. Because if it sits in there, and a guy like ‘Cowboy,' after his fight looks in his account and he's got a lot of money in there, he's going to go spend it. He's going to go buy another boat, another quad, another gun, another something. He, out of all the fighters I know, has the most expensive toys.

I've mentioned this to a couple fighters, but every fighter, after their fight, has a couple weeks where they can't do much. You have to let your body rest, you have to let it heal, you're going to have family obligations. But during that downtime, since we're on a national and global stage so often now, it wouldn't be a [bad idea] for them to establish some relationships in the local community. Maybe do a little bit of interning, or go speak to certain companies. Establish relationships with other avenues, maybe something you would like to pursue later. It may be something you're not interested in now, but 10 years from now, when you are done fighting and you realize, okay, I need to do something else now, at least you'll have those relationships. Because, you know, people watch us on the TV all the time. And people think, ‘Oh wow, someone [I know from TV] is going to come in and intern every morning for the next month? That's awesome!' Or, ‘[Someone I know from TV] is going to come in and talk to us at lunch today about this or that?' You never know when those kind of connections can pan out in the long term, where someone wants to give you a shot when it's time for your own transition.

Because the bottom line is, most fighters, they say, what am I going to do when it's all over? They're either going to do one of two things. They're either going to run a gym, or, oh, I want to do what you do and do that stuff on FOX. Well, two things. Gyms don't make a lot of money, and second, there's not that many seats to be filled at FOX. So unless the UFC plans on rotating 50 of us through these things, I don't know how many of these other guys are going [get the chance].

Al-Shatti: You mentioned that if the money is just sitting in that account, it's likely going to be spent. For the average person, that's not too big a deal. But a fighter's situation is pretty unique in that, until the next fight, that number in that bank account is likely only going to shrink. I almost wonder then if that number is deceiving, because for the most part, it's not as if it's being supplemented by an annual salary.

Stann: You know, it is. It is. And a lot of fighters, we have (unexpected) life instances. I know that was one thing for me, where, we had a tragedy in my family, and there comes a lot of unexpected expenditures from that. I certainly didn't plan on retiring when I did. I planned on fighting four more years. But immediately after that (Wanderlei Silva) fight, I knew I was done, and I had to make immediate plans for that. So it is very deceiving, because the other thing that doesn't happen when you cash those checks is taxes. That's the most deceiving thing, where actually a lot of fighters get caught. Because at the end of the year, they didn't pay the estimates or they weren't prepared for it. You get taxed a little bit if you fight overseas, but if you're here in the U.S., your federal and state taxes [increase], and so that can be a problem as well. You have plenty of people in the UFC telling these guys this. You have coaches and trainers telling you this. It really just comes down to individual discipline, setting things up. If the money is automatically taken out of your account and put where it needs to be, and you cannot spend it -- that's the best advice I can give these guys.

Al-Shatti: Both Donald and Benson Henderson fought on last Saturday's card... on a massive stage like FOX, no less. Those are your WEC brethren. You guys all went through the ringer together. It has to warm your heart to see where they're at now.

Stann: It does. It's weird, and I know the Strikeforce guys feel the same way, but there's this weird feeling of alumni that goes back to those days at the Hard Rock, where there was just a curtain separating us, and you might as well be hitting pads together as you wound up to go out there. And it's nice, because we all knew that there was some real talent in those locker rooms. There was real talent that was going out there, hungry for the big show.

There's plenty of old-school WEC stories where everybody's staying at the Hard Rock, which is one of the more difficult places to fight at because it's always loud there. It's always a party. It's not like fighting at the Mandalay, where your room can be quiet. I remember before one of my fights, it's 4:30 in the morning, and I have to go out in the hallway and tell about 20 people to shut up and get back in their room. (Laughs.) I was trying to get some sleep. It's stories like that that we all share. The first time I met Donald Cerrone, he was cutting weight... he was eating nothing but candy! I thought to myself, [I wish I] could make weight by eating chocolates! Things like that, when we were young and a lot less [assimilated] to the sport.

It's great to see those guys' dreams coming true, each and every card and continuing on. And that's the big thing. When you meet good, hard working men or women, it's great to see their dreams come true like that. And ‘Cowboy' was one of those guys that, along with Benson, people could quickly see, wow, this guy belongs at the elite level.

Al-Shatti: Do you miss it?

Stann: Yes. Every day. Every day I miss waking up in the morning and having that challenge ahead of me, having to figure out how to balance everything, how to come up with a training plan. Because it's no secret, I was way behind the [learning] curve when it first came to the UFC. I held a full-time job my entire time there, so I had to do a lot of planning as to, okay, how can I beat this guy? Who are the experts I need to consult to teach me the techniques to beat him? And that was fun for me.

Then that feeling when you're in there and it's fight night... it really trained my mind to enjoy it, to look forward to it. You miss it when it's all gone. You really do. It's never easy to walk away as a fighter. But when you kick the ball down the street a little bit, bad things happen. You miss other opportunities.

Al-Shatti: Are there ever any second thoughts? It's been six months; the sport still is part of your week to week life. I wonder if there are times where that itch nags and nags, and you just want nothing more than to reach back and scratch it?

Stann: You know, there's been a couple times where I've thought about it.

It's finally started to get easier to go to these live events and be the suit and tie rather than being in that locker room. It was really difficult the first, I'd say, five or six events I went to. You hear the fighters' music hit the speakers, they walk out there, and you start to get that itch big time.

But the situation for me to be at my best, when I was at my best, involved me traveling and spending a good amount of time away from my family. And I'm just not willing to do that anymore. When I do have to travel a lot now, it's for a couple days at a time. My home is here, my family is here. That's not the kind of father I want to be, and I couldn't recreate that (Jackson/Winkeljohn) atmosphere here in Atlanta. Not even by a long shot. So I had to make the best decision. And while sometimes I think about, man, it'd be so cool to do one or two more, I won't do it.

Al-Shatti: So if it's all behind you, I'm curious, what's the one fight you look back on and point to as your single proudest moment?

Stann: It's interesting. There's a couple, but there's always one that really sticks out to me. And it's funny because people always look at me weird and I always answer the same way, but it was actually the Phil Davis fight. And it was for a number of reasons. One, I had fought three times, I think, in like six months. He was a horrible match-up for me at the time, and I knew that going in but I wasn't going to turn it down. I couldn't find much film on him.

And I remember the first round, he gets me down. I'm underneath him trying to do God-knows-what, and I couldn't. And then the second round, I'm underneath him trying to do, you know, something, and I couldn't do anything. I'm just taking elbows, and there was a decision there. A lot of fighters at that point would cover up and say, okay, it's not my night. This guy's got me. Let's just get out of here. Or, I could let him sneak that hand under my chin, choke me out, and get out of there.

I made a decision that, if this fight were 10 rounds, I would be here for 10 rounds. I would answer that bell every time, and I'm going to keep fighting and keep trying, despite the fact that this guy has my number completely. And so while there wasn't much physically or technically I did well in that fight that I'm proud of... the character, and the affirmation of the man that I want to be, and the person that I believe I am, happened in that fight. That's why it was my most proud.

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