LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, ARIZ. --
Raised in American Samoa by his grandmother in a household of strong women, Master Sgt. Stanley "the Bull" Iakopo, Air Force Reserve Command recruiter with the 944th Fighter Wing, 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. Throughout his 13 year career in the Air Force Iakopo has remained active.
In 2002, while a member of the all-Air Force Armed Forces rugby team, he was introduced to Mixed Martial Arts. Iakopo's 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 who went back."
Iakopo has always been active, both physically and mentally. He played rugby, ran track, and played semi-professional football for a while. He is also educated, with a degree from the University of Hawaii where he majored in speech language pathology with a minor in pre-med and later received a Master's degree in education from Framingham State University, in Massachusetts. While working towards 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 would cost me around 500 dollars each month for airfare and a rental car to attend the unit training assemblies," Iakopo said. "I did that every month for five years," a costly expense for a senior airman Reservist at the time.
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 in which the heart's mitral valve is narrowed (stenotic). With mitral valve stenosis the abnormal valve doesn't open properly, blocking blood flow coming into the left ventricle, the main pumping chamber of the heart. Mitral valve stenosis can cause tiredness and shortness of breath, among other problems.
In Iakopo's case, he had slowly developed the condition after acquiring rheumatic fever as an adolescent. Up until his diagnosis Iakopo had coped with passing his fitness tests and any physical exertion.
"After a PT test, the front of my shirt was covered in blood because of the malfunctioning mitral valve and when I fought my goal was to finish my opponent in the first round, because I was too gassed if I went into the second round," Iakopo said.
Shortly after the diagnosis Iakopo received open heart surgery to clean up the valve. However, after his surgery the problems persisted; his heart would race as high as 200 beats per minute for no 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 heart's natural pacemaker, were common. At each visit Iakopo underwent a procedure called cardioversion which is when a patient is placed under anesthesia and doctors deliver an electrical shock to the chest to reset the heart's rhythm to normal.
In October of 2011, Iakopo had his second open heart surgery, this time to replace the calcified valve he had. 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 particular valve was from a bull.
"I am in debt to AFRC recruiting for how understanding and supportive they were to me and my family during my medical difficulties," Iakopo said.
On the verge of facing death and being medically discharged from the Air Force, the recruiter with the heart of a bull recovered with a smile on his face and new vigor for life.
At 41 years old, Iakopo has no intention of slowing down. When he arrived in Arizona he was looking for a gym he could train in. He came in contact with Cesar Peraza, owner of Peraza boxing and MMA gym. The former professional fighter provides a gym that is family run and a training regimen that is 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 Iakopo's previous international matches. Therefore, his debut on June 14, Duel for Domination at the Arizona Event Center in Mesa, Arizona, was his first recognized fight here. Although he dominated the stand-up portion of the fight, he was eventually overcome by his opponent's ground game, an area he admits he needs to improve upon.
"Stanley has all the attributes we look for in a fighter. He is a real competitor, a great athlete, and he pushes himself above and beyond," Peraza said. "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 October 4th pending the approval of his number one fan and supporter, his wife Priscilla Iakopo.
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 many of them do not. Balancing his duties as a father and husband, serving his country as an Air Force Reserve 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 goal is to achieve the rank of chief master sergeant and obtain a Ph.D. in behavioral health analysis," he said. "Fighting is just a sport for me."
Periodically throughout his life there have been people to provide the stability and mentorship to enlighten or get him through certain points of his life. He attributes his success to his wife, grandmother, mother, and key military figures he came in contact with while in the Reserves and recruiting command. His priorities have always been his wife and five children. If training for a fight does not coincide with the interests of family obligations, then his urge to engage in physical combat is put on the backburner.
"He is a man of unique character," said Senior Master Sgt. Christian Jorg, Air Force Reserve Command flight chief recruiter with the 944 Fighter Wing and Iakopo's direct supervisor. "His uncanny ability to be so 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 an intensity and 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 a 100%, give it your all, your all can't be measured," Iakopo stated.