Raised in a household of women, mainly by his grandmother in American Samoa, Master Sgt. Stanley “the Bull” Iakopo, 944th Fighter Wing Reserve recruiter, now trains and competes as a professional mixed martial arts fighter.
Iakopo has been an active Guard Reserve recruiter with the Air Force Reserve Command since 2008 and was a traditional reservist in the air transportation career field for seven years prior to becoming AGR. He has been assigned here with the 944th FW since 2012. During his 13-year career in the Air Force he has always been an active Airman.
In 2002, while a member of the all Air Force rugby team, he was introduced to MMA. A friend invited him and four others to a gym that was looking for some fresh local talent.
“They wanted us to spar,” Iakopo said with a smile as he reminisced. “We didn’t even have mouth pieces, they just threw us in the ring and we fought. After that, I was the only one in my group of friends that went back.”
Throughout his life, he has always been active, both physically and mentally. Along with Rugby, he ran track and played semiprofessional football for a while. He has a degree from the University of Hawaii where he majored in speech language pathology with a minor in premed.
He later received a master’s degree in education from Framingham State University, Massachusetts. While working toward his bachelor’s degree in 2001, Iakopo enlisted in the Reserves and began his career with the 48th Aerial Port Squadron, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. He later transferred to the 44th Aerial Port Squadron in Guam.
“It cost me around $500 a month for airfare and a rental car to attend the unit training assemblies,” he said. “I did that every month for five years.”
In 2009, everything was nearly taken away after he collapsed during physical training. A heart stress test was administered and minutes later he was admitted to the hospital.
The diagnosis was mitral valve stenosis, a condition where the heart’s mitral valve is narrowed. The abnormal valve doesn’t open properly, blocking blood flow into the left ventricle, the main pumping chamber of the heart. Mitral valve stenosis can can cause fatigue and shortness of breath, among other problems.
In Iakopo’s case, he had slowly developed the condition after having rheumatic fever as a child. At this point, passing PT tests and any physical exertion was a task he coped with.
“After a PT test, the front of my shirt was covered in blood due to the malfunctioning mitral value,” he said. “When I fought, my goal was to finish my opponent in the first round, because I was too gassed going into the second round.”
Soon after the diagnosis, he received open heart surgery to clean up the valve. However, the problems persisted after surgery; his heart raced as high as 200 beats per minute for no apparent reason.
Frequent visits to the hospital emergency room to set his heart to “sinus rhythm,” which is the normal regular rhythm of the heart set by the natural pacemaker of the heart called the sinoatrial (or sinus) node, were common. To do this, a procedure called cardioversion was administered. The patient is placed under anesthesia and doctors deliver an electrical shock to the chest to reset the heart’s rhythm back to normal.
In October of 2011, Iakopo had a second open heart surgery, this time to replace a valve that had calcified. After careful consideration of which prosthetic valve would best suit him, he chose a cow valve because of the durability for his very active lifestyle. Cow valves are similar to human in tissue physiology. His valve came from a bull.
On the verge of facing death and being medically discharged from the Air Force, the Reserve recruiter with the heart of a bull recovered with a smile on his face and new vigor for life.
At 41, Iakopo has no intention of slowing down now. When he arrived in Arizona he was looking for a gym to train in. He came in contact with Cesar Peraza, owner of Peraza Boxing and MMA Gym. A former professional fighter himself, he provides a gym that is family operated and a training regimen well suited for Iakopo.
“Working with Cesar and the rest of the team has improved my stand-up tremendously, as well as my jiu jitsu,” Iakopo said. “The people are friendly and family oriented.”
The Arizona State Boxing Commission does not recognize his previous international matches. Therefore, his debut on June 14, Duel for Domination at the Arizona Event Center in Mesa was his first recognized fight here. Although he dominated the stand-up portion of the fight he was eventually overcome by his opponents’ ground game, an area he admits he needs to improve upon.
“Stanley has all the attributes we look for in a fighter,” Peraza said. “He is a real competitor, a great athlete, and he pushes himself above and beyond. “It makes it that much easier for us to work with somebody like that at this level.”
Because of the performance he displayed during his last fight, Iakopo is scheduled to fight again Oct. 4 pending the approval of his number one fan and supporter, his wife Priscilla.
Iakopo approaches everything he does with the same intensity he displays in the ring. Different than many fighters in the sport, Iakopo has responsibilities that others do not. Balancing his duties as a father and husband, serving his country as an Air Force recruiter, continuing his education and finding time to train and compete are strategically prioritized.
Currently, Iakopo is a second year doctoral student at Grand Canyon University and has high hopes for the future.
“My goals are to achieve the rank of chief master sergeant and obtain a Ph.D. in behavioral health analysis. Fighting is just a sport for me.”
Throughout his life there have been people to provide stability and mentorship to enlighten him and get him through certain challenges in life. He attributes his success to his wife, grandmother, mother and key military figures he has come in contact with while in the Reserve and Recruiting Command.
His priorities have always been his wife and five children. If training for a fight does not coincide with family obligations, it is put on the back burner.
“He is a man of unique character,” said Senior Master Sgt. Christian Jorg, Air Force Reserve Command Flight Chief recruiter and Iakopo’s direct supervisor. “His uncanny ability to be happy and positive yet demanding makes him a great recruiter.”
Iakopo’s motto in response to life’s adversities is to “get down and fight.” Although always positive and upbeat, he confronts every challenge with intensity and a fighter’s attitude. He hopes his story helps or inspires someone to fight for what they want regardless of the obstacles.
“Whatever you choose to do in life, don’t give it 100 percent, give it your all,” Iakopo said. “Your all can’t be measured.”