The book on Stefan "Skyscraper" Struve’s MMA career has always been that the sky is the limit.
The Holland-born heavyweight was given certain attributes that you can never get no matter how hard you train, in being a coordinated 7-footer, who is tied with Jon Jones for the longest reach in UFC history.
He’s shockingly good on the ground with 16 submissions among his 25 career wins. It's something you don’t expect from someone that tall. On the flip side, where you expect him to dominate, standing with his size and reach, he doesn’t use his natural attributes well to keep opponents from getting inside and keeping the fight at a good range for him and an impossible one for his opponents.
Semmy Schilt, the famed kickboxer had similar issues at the same age, but as he grew older, he learned to parlay those God-given strengths to become the most dominant heavyweight in that sport of modern times.
At only 25, with the experience of 31 pro fights, Struve’s future was looking bright.
Until last month.
Today, Struve’s career has been turned upside down. He may not even have a career, although he emphatically states he’ll do whatever he can to prove that not to be the case.
After being diagnosed last month with an aortic valve leak and an enlarged heart, that at some point will need surgery, it is far from guaranteed he’ll see the inside of the cage again.
A month ago, he was undergoing some routine testing, and his cardiologist told him what they had found out. He nearly had open heart surgery that night which could have ended his career. While that didn’t happen, he’s had to deal for the last month that the life he expected to have may end up being greatly different from the one he will have, and much of it is out of his control.
What makes it tougher is this was a condition he was born with, that he’s been successful at fighting with, and there it’s nothing that affects him in every day life.
"I feel great," he said on Monday’s MMA Hour. "I don’t feel a thing about the condition. I’ve had it my entire life. That’s the crazy thing. I’ve been fighting my entire career with a heart that’s only working at 70 percent."
With hindsight, he can look back and see some signs that he didn’t understand before, and late in the day, he can feel it today.
Prior to his last fight, a third-round knockout loss to Mark Hunt on March 3 in Saitama, Japan, he got a case of the flu that wouldn’t go away. And he also noted that during two-a-day training sessions, he was having real trouble recovering from the early session and doing the second workout.
"Six weeks before my fight, I got really sick," Struve said about his last fight. "The normal flu leaves in about seven days. But it stayed until three to four weeks. What I know now is that when I have the flu, I cannot train. It’s crazy to do that when you have the flu, The bacteria will find a weak spot and you can get an infection in your valve or aorta, and an infection of your heart is very dangerous.
"Three weeks before the fight, I was with my manager and my trainer and I convinced them I was ready to fight, but my conditioning wasn’t there. It just sucked. I didn’t know why I didn’t recover from it (the flu). Now we know. It answered a lot of questions about my training, why I didn’t recover well after my first session for my second session of the day."
The conditions he has don’t show up in the electrocardiogram, which he has to undergo before every fight.
"A couple of weeks ago, almost a month ago now, they did an ECHO of my heart as a routine test," he said. "I was standing with a lady who was doing the best. She was nice and friendly. In the test, you can see your heart beating and your blood flowing. All of a sudden, she got a little quiet.
"‘Is something wrong,’ I asked. She said, 'I can’t tell. We need to ask the cardiologist to explain what’s going on.’"
The cardiologist asked him to sit down.
"'You may have a tear in the aorta, and you’ll have to go into surgery tonight, or you’ve got a leak in your aortic valve.’
"I had to get an MRI immediately to find out what was going on," Struve said. "You have to understand, I was scared as hell. I was thinking, 'Maybe I’ll have open heart surgery tonight.’ But everything was okay with the aorta. The only thing that was wrong was a leaking aortic valve and an enlarged heart."
The main problems is he only has two leaflets going into his aortic valve. A normal person has three. So blood leaks back into the heart. It leads to an enlarged heart.
"My heart was working at 70 percent," he said. "With medication, they’re trying to lower the blood pressure and get the leakage to become less than it has been, trying to get it back to 90 percent."
He had to stay in the hospital for several days undergoing tests to find out how well his heart was working. Still, he needs surgery to get his aortic valve replaced.
"There are a couple of options," Struve said he was told. "There is an option that will probably allow me to keep fighting. A fighter in Glory, Mark Miller, had the same procedure and he came back from it."
Struve speaks of being determined to come back, and with a better functioning heart, having the ability to train harder and have more stamina, which he felt cost him the Hunt fight. But he’s had to try and put it out of his mind now because there is so much he can’t control.
"The first day they said, 'We’ll have to check this out, but your career is pretty much over.’ But I don’t believe this thing that I’ve had my entire life will end my career. There are still a couple of question marks."
The next thing he did was blank it out and go into a denial mode.
"It was really crazy," he said. "It was like I was dreaming. After a week, it finally got into my head. This is crazy. I may need to end my career. I’ve got it under control. I’m over it. Whatever needs to happen will happen. I can’t change anything about it, but take the medication and hope something positive comes of it."
Still, he’s happy they found it now, because if he continued to train and fight with it, the heart would be enlarged even more, and that could lead to heart failure.
His next step is to take his medication and hope for the best. He goes back for more testing on Oct. 2.
"We’ll see what the medication does for my heart and the doctors will give their final view, and I’ll get the final answer on my career. The thing is, they’re (his doctors in Holland) not used to working with athletes. After they give their answer, we’re definitely going to the United States for a second opinion to see what is best so I can resume my career and live a healthy life."
The big problem is that after the surgery, if Struve gets a mechanical valve put in, he will have to be on blood thinners for the rest of his life. It’s too much of a risk to fight with blood thinners, because if you bleed, which happens all the time in fighting, the blood won’t clot.
While realizing he can’t take his future in the cage as a given, he’s trying not to worry about life in general.
"It’s crazy to think about, but only one percent of the people who go in (for open heart surgery) don’t make it out, and those are people who are elderly or sick."
Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White at UFC have been in contact with him and are going to set things up to see the best doctors at that point.
"The UFC told me they’re going to get the best cardiologists, the best people to work with me, and that, of course, they’re going to cover all the expenses," Struve said.
Struve noted that when word first broke of his condition last week, he got a ton of messages from people in different sports. One person, a triathlete, told him he had undergone a similar surgery and was back competing four months later. But fighting and traithlons are two different animals.
"There’s nothing you can compare it to, going into the cage. the impact your body needs to be able to endure," he said. "But most people say that after the surgery, they feel so much more energetic. Right now, at 5 or 6 in the evening, I get really tried."
It’s forced him to put everything into perspective at a young age.
"The thing is, I may have to end my career, but they found it in time."