Looking back, Stefan Struve can acknowledge that certain things came too quickly for him. He was just three days past his 21st birthday when he made his UFC debut. At that young age, he had barely had time to fill out his 6-foot-11 frame, which hovered around 235 pounds. And his first octagon encounter came against a then little-known Brazilian by the name of Junior Dos Santos.
The result was a 54-second knockout loss, a lopsided defeat that could easily have stunted his progression.
But there was always an end game in sight for Struve (22-5), who was clearly a work in progress when he walked into the UFC for the first time. While that's true for most fighters, it usually refers to their fight game, and the development of incorporating elements to complement their existing strengths while bolstering weaknesses. For Struve, it's a two-pronged growth plan encompassing both his fight skills and physical strength.
Many fighters try to pack on as much muscle into their frames as possible, but most don't do it in such little time, while trying to compete at the highest level of their sport. But due to his youth and a growth spurt, Struve was playing catchup from the beginning.
"I wouldn't do things any differently," Struve says now, just a few days ahead of his UFC on FUEL co-main event matchup with Dave Herman. "JDS was too much, too soon for my UFC debut. There are so many things you encounter in your UFC debut: media, fans, and then I fought a guy like JDS. Nobody knew exactly how good he was. I had beaten some really good guys before that, and I was ready for the next step, but facing JDS was too much, too soon."
Now just days shy of his 24th birthday and nearing his physical prime, Struve is likely to be cutting weight for the first time in his career next week, as he's currently hovering around the 265-pound cutoff. That means that the Dutchman will certainly make Herman live up to his "Pee Wee" nickname next Wednesday night when the two battle it out.
"We're working hard on [adding size]," said Struve, who has captured three of his last four fights, including a recent triangle choke victory over Pat Barry. "I just want to do it in a good way. I don't want to be 280 and fat. I want to add that solid muscle and stay athletic. That's the goal.
"I need to be able to do the same things now as fast as I was doing them last year or the year before that," he continued. "Maybe even faster. The way I'm doing my strength and conditioning, I get my muscles in the best form for doing what I need to do, which is punching and kicking people as hard and fast as possible."
Because of that, Struve says that his striking power has greatly improved. Working with coach Mousid Akhamrane, that part of his game has been a major focus. The biggest adjustments to his standup apart from power have come in working on his reach and balance, saying the latter has been an issue in the fights he's lost.
Recent results have shown the benefits of his hard work; while none of his first five UFC fights resulted in a TKO win, two of his last three victories have come via stoppage due to strikes.
"You don't want to have a straight right from me on your chin," he said. "That's not nice anymore."
In Herman, he faces a talented yet enigmatic opponent, qualities illustrated by his short tenure in the UFC. In his debut last June, Herman outlasted Jon Olav Einemo, earning a second-round TKO in the evening's FIght of the Night. A few months later, he was supposed to face Mike Russow, but was scratched from the event after failing a pre-fight drug screening, testing positive for marijuana. Herman denied usage but didn't formally appeal the result.
With a 21-2 record, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Herman has had a strong career, and with 15 knockouts, he has the kind of power that change the fight in a blink. But Struve says he's confident in his progression as a total mixed martial artist.
"He's got a lot of power in his punches and knees, but the same as me in my past fights, he gets off balance a lot," he said. "I hope he fights the same way. He's got good power but a lot of holes."
Last year, Herman made waves by repeatedly commenting on jiu-jitsu's lack of effectiveness in MMA, calling it, "kind of like trickery," and saying, "it's just not going to work, unless you're a complete idiot and fall for it."
Struve doesn't believe that Herman was completely serious in his statements, but is up to the challenge if he is.
"Let's see what he says when I got him in a choke, when I squeeze a triangle or whatever," he said.
That's what it always comes down to for Struve. In 27 pro fights, he's only been to a decision once. Adding muscle while improving his standup and retaining his speed is just part of his overall philosophy. It may have been a rocky start in the UFC, but it's all about how you finish.