LAS VEGAS – There's probably not a fighter alive who hasn't referred to an upcoming bout as a war.
But as a guy who not only was in a war but also became one of the country's greatest heroes, Brian Stann isn't going to shy away from a little hand-to-hand combat, even against an opponent as intimidating and powerful as Doug Marshall.
Stann, who earned a Silver Star for extraordinary heroism in 2005 in Iraq, staked his claim as one of the elite light heavyweights in mixed martial arts with a violent one-punch knockout Wednesday over Marshall.
Stann connected on a perfect counter left hook to the jaw, knocking Marshall down and out at 1:35 of the first round, to claim the WEC light heavyweight belt at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
It was his greatest accomplishment as a fighter, but after running through heavy fire to drag four comrades out of a burning truck and to safety in a battle in Karabilah, Iraq, the knockout of Marshall doesn't seem all that significant.
Stann, 27, a captain who is now stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., reacted emotionally seconds after referee Herb Dean stopped the fight.
He couldn't help but think of the Marines who had given their lives in defense of their country as he was being handed the WEC belt.
"In the Marine Corps, one of my greatest honors is to be able to live a life of service for my men," Stann, a former football player at Navy, said. "You can't put a price on that. You can't put a belt on it. You can't put a medal on it. There is no better feeling for me to help these Marines through (things).
"They're the reason I'm here. That's why I got emotional in the cage. It was not my plan, but they're my kids. I consider them my sons."
Stann prepared so intently for the bout that he watched videos not only of Marshall's fighting style, but also of how he relaxed in his dressing room prior to his bouts and how he looked at his opponents in the ring just before the bell.
He knew, then, that Marshall would attack and try to bully him. But with the kind of punching power Stann possesses, it wasn't the smartest move.
"I'm a different person, in the cage and out of the cage," Stann said. "I want the person I'm fighting to know, not that I'm there to hurt them, but that absolutely everything that is inside of me is coming out. If he wants to win, he's going to know that he will have to beat me down, beat me unconscious, because no matter what, I'm not going to submit and I will never, ever tap."
He didn't need to on Wednesday, though he joked that he was getting manhandled during his training sessions at Team Quest.
But Ryan Parsons, a trainer at Team Quest, said Stann was simply being modest. He said despite the elite fighters in the camp, Stann more than held his own.
The scary thing, though, is that Parsons doesn't think Stann is anywhere near his potential as an MMA fighter.
"I'd say he's at about two percent of what he could be," Parsons said. "Maybe two percent. In this sport now, there are a lot of prima donnas coming into it. They need the perfect gym, they need all their different little specialty coaches and everything needs to be just right. This guy, he's different. He does his conditioning in (an expletive) hallway. He works a 12-hour day, trains, then goes home to a wife and a 9-month-old kid. I would never put a limit on what that man might be able to accomplish."
He instantly backed Marshall up Wednesday, stunning the defending champion with a punch and a kick. Marshall is normally the aggressor and typically intimidates his opponents, but looked a bit wide-eyed on Wednesday as this snarling, 204-pound knot of muscle was walking him down.
Stann made a mistake and found his back against the cage, where Marshall unloaded a flurry of punches. He connected with a hard left and a good, sharp right. Stann fought his way off the cage, but as Marshall went to throw a wide left, Stann landed a textbook left hook.
Former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier, who was renowned as one of that sport's finest left hookers, never threw a better – or more effective – hook.
"Brian has big-time power, and you can see what he does to guys when he hits them," Parsons said. "If he catches you, I don't care who you are, I like his chances."
Stann, who began in MMA as a hobby and says he hopes his fighting career casts a positive image on the Marines, isn't sure how far his career will take him.
But he said he is thrilled simply to be in the sport because of the honor and character among the people he has met in it.
"The reason why MMA is so special and why Americans are grasping it so strongly, is that, unlike other pro sports, we put everything into this," Stann said. "We put every bit of our hearts and our souls into this. And it's not only us. It's our coaches and our team, too."
His corner celebrated with him in the cage on Wednesday as several dozen Marines who were ringside cheered wildly.
Stann had given them a gift with his win, but said it was nothing compared to what he had been given by them.
"People see guys in the cage or on a football field or in an arena, but what they don't realize is what it's like to see these 19- and 20-year-old kids in Iraq doing these unbelievable things," Stann said. "They come from terrible upbringings and backgrounds, but to watch them sacrifice themselves for other men, sacrifice themselves to save others, that's what makes me so proud to be a Marine. â€¦ They give me so much more than I have ever or could ever give them."