Martin McNeil, SB Nation
Stefan Struve is the heaviest he's ever been. He also has an uneaten birthday cake cooling in the back of his freezer.
The two aren't related, though that's more of a testament to the willpower of the 7-foot, 270-pound goliath, who plans to celebrate his 25th birthday at the expense of Mark Hunt and the rest of the UFC's heavyweight division.
"When I win this fight, and I finish this fight yet again, then I'm on a five-fight win streak with five finishes in the heavyweight division," Struve says of his upcoming bout at UFC on FUEL 8. "Nobody else in the heavyweight division is on a five-fight win streak. I think I have a pretty strong bid to call myself No. 1 contender."
This kind of statement is a change of pace for Struve, a young, but grizzled, veteran who in the past preferred to let his ample skills do the talking. Even now it takes some prying to coax a few bold assertions from the gentle giant among his general platitudes, but the very fact that they exist shows a slight shift in mindset for the Dutchman.
Attribute it to his unexpected run of success, the natural confidence that comes with age, the way in which vocal aggressiveness has overtaken the UFC, or perhaps even a combination of the three, but evidence shows that Struve is no longer the same fighter who gained an unfair reputation as a punching bag early in his career.
"There's a lot of different things that need to happen before you really can measure yourself with the top guys in the division," says Struve. "But I think we're doing all the right things.
"People expect a little bit too much too soon. I was 21 when I signed my UFC contract. 21 for three days when I fought Junior dos Santos. What do you think happens when a 21-year-old enters the UFC? He's not going to take the division by storm. He's going to need his time to become a better fighter, become bigger and stronger, grow into his body."
Struve's last point has been an emphasis of his for years, but only recently has it begun to show. Struve weighed 251 pounds for his headlining bout against Stipe Miocic last September; a fairly trim number for a man so vertically gifted. This time around Struve will be nearly 20 pounds heavier. The extra girth, he insists, are only part of his maturation process as a fighter.
"The sky is the limit," Struve vows. "I'm looking up, and I'm looking for that heavyweight belt in the next one or two years.
"Most heavyweights peak in their early thirties. So if you look it that way, I still have a couple years to go to become a lot better, bigger, stronger, whatever, still no rush. Although I feel like I can beat anybody in the world right now, and I feel like I can win a world championship."
Over his four-year UFC tenure, Struve has emerged the victor in nine of his 12 fights, a notable run not only of success, but also consistent health. In an injury prone sport, Struve is a rarity.
At this pace he could become the most active heavyweight in the promotion's history before his 30th birthday, though Struve simply chalks it up to avoiding bad habits.
"I see it all the time, man; guys training at our gym too," he explains. "I know how they train, I see how they train, and then at the end of the week they're going home and they're almost crying, because they feel broken. They're tired and they can't bring it anymore in sparring.
"It's definitely one of those things that will injure a fighter. If you overdo it in your strength and conditioning, or whatever. If you go at it every single training like you're trying to kill someone or whatever, it's not good man. You need to perform at your best every single day. You need to perform as good on Friday as you perform on Monday, in my opinion. Take care of your body. Don't overdo it. Really build yourself up instead of destroying yourself."
Struve's methods have been working thus far. Competing an average of three times a year since 2009, "Skyscraper" has received the slow-but-steady treatment from the UFC, fighting in four co-main events before finally headlining his first show last year. The gradual build has lessened the pressure and set his mind at ease. "I've never been this relaxed before a fight," Struve says. "That's really good to feel."
The new calmness Struve feels now is a far cry from the 16-year-old kid who fought at heavyweight after weighing in at 185 pounds. But the noise will always be there. Struve knows that.
The thing is, with each upset victory and each post-fight bonus check, it's getting easier for Struve to drown everything out. And he believes Saturday night will be no different.
"I hear before all my fights that I'm not the favorite," Struve bristles. "Still now I read my Twitter to be in touch with my fans, and I get a lot of people saying, ‘He's going to put you in a lawn chair,' and whatever. ‘He's going to knock your head into the third row.' So was Pat Barry, so was Dave Herman. So was Lavar Johnson, and so was Stipe Miotic.
"People keep saying I'm going to get knocked out, and whatever, but I don't care about it. I keep on showing that big strikers are not a problem anymore. They may have been at the beginning of my career, but not anymore.
"If this fight stays on the feet, and I fight smart, then it's my fight to win," he finishes. "And I have a good chance to knock Mark out."
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