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War hero Stann stands out at UFC 130

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War hero Stann stands out at UFC 130
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Former U.S. Marine Corps Captain Brian Stann is "on his way to becoming a superstar," said UFC president …

UFC 130 overall was generally considered a mediocre show, yet it might have heralded big things ahead for three fighters on the undercard.

Bantamweight Demetrious Johnson (14-1) scored a unanimous decision win over former champion Miguel Angel Torres. The victory puts Johnson and former champion Brian Bowles in position as the two most likely fighters to face the winner of the July 2 Dominick Cruz vs. Urijah Faber title fight.

Welterweight Rick Story (13-3) moved up in a deep division with a unanimous decision win over former top contender Thiago Alves. Story specifically asked for Jon Fitch, the most successful UFC fighter in the division not named Georges St. Pierre, as his next opponent. A win over Fitch, whose only UFC loss was to St. Pierre, would make him leap frog the crowded pack.

But to the public, the hero of Saturday night’s show at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas was middleweight Brian Stann (11-3). The promotion of the former U.S. Marine Corps Captain fighting on Memorial Day weekend would seem brilliant marketing with the benefit of hindsight.

Stann stopped Jorge Santiago with a right over-the-top used as a counter to put the former champion of the Japanese Sengoku organization down, and he finished him with strikes at 4:29 of the second round.

No matter which of the three fighters advances the farthest in the sport, or has the best skill set, it is Stann who showed himself to be a guy with the "it" factor, the difference between a star and a superstar. He was as popular as any fighter on the show coming in, and the most popular leaving. He elicited loud "USA" chants throughout his fight, and even bigger chants after winning. Because of his performance in winning what was considered by many as the show’s best match, and his comments afterward, he left as the most talked-about fighter.

"I did hear those chants, obviously," said Stann, who believed he'd broken his thumb during the fight. "It’s a career moment. There were a lot of veterans at the show, including Seal Team 6, that nobody knew were there. It was an honor. They weren’t chanting for me. And those chants were not just in the arena, but that was across the world in bars and people watching on television chanting and that’s credited to the men and women who serve our country."

The look, speaking ability and military record may be great for a political candidate and helpful for a fighter, but in this game the "it" factor as the sport has matured is no longer going to make for a lengthy career near the top. A fighter still has to beat high-level opponents, and with this win, that’s all Stann will be facing for the time being.

"He’s on his way to becoming a superstar," said UFC president Dana White. "His skills are getting better and everything that comes out of his mouth is a home run."

Observers started talking about Stann as the star of the show at the prefight press conference Wednesday. At one point, he was not even on the list of fighters to attend because his fight was the pay-per-view opener. But he’s articulate in promos and a legitimate war hero, earning a silver star in combat in Iraq in 2005, fighting on Memorial Day weekend was a can't-miss angle.

Stann stole the show even with established big-time personalities like Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Frank Mir at the press conference and in headline positions.

Stann talked about a backlash on the Internet regarding his being promoted as a war hero since he began fighting in 2006. He felt he needed to overcome the perception that he was promoted more for being a war hero than a good fighter, which, early in his career, was an accurate assessment.

On the flip side, Stann was promoted heavily, and mostly winning against lower-level competition, but who early on wasn’t clicking with the crowd. He had the look and could talk, and he captured the WEC light heavyweight title in his sixth pro fight. But there was skepticism about what he could do in the big leagues, and it seemed his ascension had stalled when he lost the title to Steve Cantwell in 2008.

He retired from the military and devoted himself full-time to training that same year. He dropped to middleweight, which was a major difference maker, and moved to Greg Jackson’s camp. And since the move, the former football player at the Naval Academy has shown remarkable improvement.

"I’m not really sure what’s next for me," said Stann, who gave notice he was a legit force by stopping Chris Leben on Jan. 1. "I think all the top middleweights are matched up. The first step is to get back to the gym, and go back to training so you can improve. Right after a fight is one of the best times to train. There are no expectations."

Santiago came into the fight having won 11 of his last 12, and was considered lower top 10 in many rankings. He had won the tournament in Sengoku in Japan to become the first middleweight champion. He had also won a tournament in Strikeforce in 2007 that was supposed to get him a title match, which never materialized. He never lost the Sengoku title, having left the group to sign with UFC due to the decline in interest and overall weakening of the Japanese MMA economy.

Stann dominated the first round, hurting Santiago with hard low kicks, a newer weapon in his arsenal, and dropping with a left and putting him in danger.

While there’s naturally talk of title aspirations and that is Stann’s ultimate goal, he feels he’s not yet where he needs to be.

"I think I’m two years away," he said. "There are so many areas I can continue to get better at."

Johnson's win was controversial, and booing greeted the announcement that he'd won. Due to the closeness of the fight, it likely would have been booed had it gone the other way. Johnson, known as "Mighty Mouse," because at about 5-foot-2, he may be the shortest fighter on the UFC roster, dominated the takedowns and also landed more strikes standing.

But when Johnson was on top, Torres was more active from the bottom, scoring several sweeps, and attempting several submissions, but in reality, maybe one at most could be called threatening. Johnson didn’t do a lot of damage while on top. It really came down to the interpretation of a very close round two, since Johnson won the first and Torres took the third. The second round could have gone either way, so Johnson was simply the lucky one.

Interestingly, Johnson saw it differently.

"After the first round, I threw a kick and he checked it and I felt like I broke my leg," said Johnson, who has now beaten two of the biggest name small men in the sport in his last two outings, following his win over Japanese legend Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto on Feb. 5.

"I know he won the first round. The second round I think I controlled. The third round I think I beat him up on the feet. I’m very happy with my performance. On the feet, I don’t think he hit me once. On the ground, I controlled the top position and won the wrestling. I passed guard. He was trying submissions and he never came close."

In Story’s win over Alves, White noted that he thought the tide was going to turn in the third round when Alves landed a hard knee, and praised Story’s chin for shaking it off.

"Yeah, that was a good knee," said Story. "My teeth actually went through my mouthpiece."

Story has now won six in a row. He wasn’t afraid to mix it up standing with Alves, one of the best strikers in the division. But Story won based on his wrestling, breaking through Alves’ strong defensive game to score multiple takedowns. Story’s wrestling game is advanced enough that in his prior fight, on Dec. 4, he beat two-time NCAA wrestling champion Johny Hendricks via decision by beating him in the wrestling aspect.