In the beginning, Struve presented a lot of problems for fellow heavyweights, as his imposing height and seemingly unlimited potential conjure up memories of a young(er) Jon Jones, back when the LHW Champ's technical skill did not yet match his unique frame and athleticism. Of course, Jones has gone on to become the undefeated* pound-for-pound best in the world since making his UFC debut just six months prior to Struve, while the Dutch 7 footer hasn't had nearly as romantic a journey.
Struve's welcome into the UFC was a first round knockout at the hands of Junior Dos Santos, as Cigano finished the fight in just under a minute of action. His next three losses would come via knockout as well, to some of the most feared strikers in the division in Roy Nelson, Travis Browne, and Mark Hunt. In between, however, the Sky Scraper amassed nine victories in the Octagon, finishing all but one of his opponents and splitting his method of choice evenly between knockouts and submissions. His most recent fight against Mark Hunt took place back in early March, 2013 and was featured as the co-main event in a FUEL TV card headlined by Wanderlei Silva and Brian Stann. Hunt scored a third round finish worthy of 'Knockout of the Night' honors and the loss was viewed as nothing more than a minor setback in a promising young athlete's career.
On August 20th, 2013, it was reported via UFC Tonight that Struve had been diagnosed with a leaking aortic valve and an enlarged heart; a condition so serious that Dana White felt that he would likely never fight again. The MMA community rallied, showing support for the young fighter and expressing both defiant optimism and heartfelt condolences, but with heart surgery looming, the hope for a positive outcome seemed to be growing smaller. Nevertheless, Struve remained confident.
In an appearance on The MMA Hour back on August 26th, he described his mood as 'great'.
"I feel great. I don’t feel a thing about the condition. I’ve had it my entire life, so that’s the crazy thing. I’ve been fighting my entire career with a heart that’s only been working about 70%."
— Stefan Struve in an appearance on The MMA Hour - Ep. 196
Struve promised to return to the cage sooner rather than later, a statement that sounded bold at first, but now seems to be a reality. On last week's episode of UFC Tonight, it was reported that Struve's heart has improved since the original diagnoses. Treatment seems to be going well and heart surgery has been ruled out for now. He has begun training at 80%, a pace he will maintain until more tests can be run on January 2nd to see how his body reacts to the increased activity. If all goes well, he'll be training at 100% again, and he has gone as far as claiming he will return to the Octagon by this coming spring.
In a top heavy division with a handful of elite fighters and plenty more serving as cannon fodder for the big dogs, one or two more wins could very well land Struve a crack at a top 5 opponent, thus creating a path to a future title shot one day. With the expected heavyweight debut of Jon Jones, there could very well be a big shake up in the not-so-distant future. I would expect many of the heavyweights that can effectively cut to 205lbs to do just that, as having Cain Velasquez and Jon Jones in the same weight class is enough to send even the toughest fighters running for the hills. For those remaining, I like Struve's chances. His high level jiu-jitsu will present problems for Cain, who has a tendency to take the fight to the ground and implement his ground and pound, and Jones has shown a weakness in his game while facing tall opponents, although we'll have a better idea of the validity of said theory after his rematch against Gustafsson. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's take a moment to be thankful for all the positive news that we have received so far. In a sport where an athlete's prime isn't until he's in his late 20s to early 30s, Struve is very much a young man at just 25 years of age.
2013 has become a year filled with oddball injuries both inside and outside the cage, from a plethora of car accidents to Michael Bispings eye. What the MMA fanbase may lack in number, at least in comparison to other major sports, they make up for in passion, loyalty, and an overwhelming sense of community. Hopefully, Stefan Struve's progress is the first of many stories like this in the future. Seemingly insurmountable odds being overcome by fighters has become a cliche, and rightfully so. But for now, let's wish Struve the best on a speedy recovery and continue showing support for these men and women through the good times and the bad. We owe them that much.
*Jon Jones is undefeated. He just is. I refuse to acknowledge that joke of a disqualification early in his career. So that's that.