For Brian Stann, mixed martial arts was always just one piece of the puzzle. The decorated Iraq War veteran always had plenty of irons in the fire, be it his work behind the broadcasting desk, his leadership at the helm of the Hire Heroes organization or his robust family life.
On Thursday, during The MMA Hour broadcast, Stann announced his retirement from MMA. He compiled a 12-6 pro record, including a 6-5 run in the UFC Octagon and a stint as light heavyweight champion in the defunct WEC.
Stann, a former linebacker for the Naval Academy, will begin calling ACC football games. He will presumably also stay active with the UFC, for which he has served as an on-air analyst. As for fighting, Stann said the risks simply came to outweigh the rewards.
"It's the best thing for me and more importantly my family right now," Stann, 32, said. "In continuing fighting, I think I sacrifice more than I gain."
In particular, Stann brought up the specter of brain injury, which has lately received a mountain of scrutiny because of the suicides of high-profile former NFL greats like Junior Seau and the resulting massive lawsuit players are now bringing against the league.
"After playing football for this many years, and several explosions in Iraq, and now fighting professionally for eight years, I definitely am rolling the dice with my long-term health," Stann said. "I don't have any issues with head injuries. I don't have a number of documented concussions. But these are issues where you don't know there's something wrong until there's something wrong."
Pundits and the Twitterati rushed to praise Stann's move, saying he "did it for the right reasons" or "before it was too late." I don't dispute the praise or the decision. But when someone, like Stann, has so many options outside MMA and is an intelligent person, the decision is clear. Ensuring other fighters are able to make similarly wise decisions is the far more daunting proposition.
It's a complex recipe. Since the dawn of recorded MMA, a fighter with the knowledge and resources to walk away at the right time has been the exception, not the rule.
Part of the reason for this is a matter of hard science. I've written before about the lack of evidence around brain injuries in MMA fighters and elsewhere. We all know they happen, but no one knows the true extent of the risks, how to assess the damage caused (both by full-blown concussions and smaller sub-concussive traumas), or when exactly fighters should be prevented from fighting or training. Like it or not, the state of the art is basically a series of gut reactions—some obvious, others less so, but gut reactions all the same.
There's also that little matter of fighter pay. Not every retiree gets a corporate gold watch and their own personal red carpet to the broadcast booth. Even with sponsorships and bonuses, many fighters aren't able to build the kind of financial safety net they would need to leave MMA on their own terms.
As a result, they are forced to keep rolling those metaphorical dice, even against their better judgment. Many fighters, especially the long-tenured type, need more money as injuries both chronic and acute pile up. Ergo, they need more money, and therefore must keep fighting. It's Vicious Cycle 101.
This is not something that can be entirely laid at the feet of promoters, as satisfying as that might feel. This is on the fighters, too: Sound money management is as critical for them as it is for anyone else. But it can be a hard road—as some fighters have recently demonstrated—when training camp expenses, travel, medical tests needed for licensing and various other things are coming, all or in part, straight out of one paycheck.
Sure, fighters knowingly assume these risks, physical and financial. But does that negate their right to be supported? If you respond in the negative, consider the same question in the context of MMA. If you're a two-sport star in college and are choosing between a career in MMA and, say, baseball, which one are you choosing, assuming the odds of success and your own personal passions are equal?
And what if you're not one of those lucky talents, and your choice is between professional cage fighting and, say, retiling pools? Should that fighter not pursue his or her dream as a result of suboptimal conditions? Should they simply continue retiling pools as some kind of statement against a flawed system?
I know my answers. And I know those answers could ultimately funnel the best and brightest away from MMA.
To be clear: This isn't a screed against the UFC or anyone else. It's a collective set of problems that requires collective solutions. It's on researchers, trainers, promoters, managers, media members, fans and fighters to increase education and facilitate choices that are in the best interests of a fighter's life, long after this short-term gig that is pro MMA.
I could be wrong, but the sport seems to slowly be slouching in that direction. But even so, it may not be headed there fast enough to avoid the kinds of tragedies we've seen in the NFL, and which become increasingly likely for MMA as its Golden Age stars continue to retire and age.
For all we know and do today, for every Brian Stann there are several others who hang on much longer than is advisable.
Stann provided a great model Thursday for how to do it right. More fighters should be empowered to follow his lead.
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