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The slow climb of Stefan Struve

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It'd been just three days since Stefan Struve could legally stroll into an American bar and order himself a Jack and Coke, and already the floodgates of public scrutiny had been hurled open. Standing 6-foot-11 and sporting the most apt nickname in the world -- "Skyscraper" -- the green, 21-year-old kid from Holland, who looked more like a basketball player than a fighter, ambled into the Octagon hell-bent on smashing the little known Brazilian standing across from him and announcing his arrival to the UFC heavyweight division. It lasted just 54 seconds.

Looking back on it, no one could've grasped that throwing a UFC rookie into the path of Junior dos Santos actually meant you were throwing him to the wolves, least of all Struve, who looks back on the violent Octagon welcome with a rather fortunate sense of humor. "It's pretty crazy when you think about it," he chuckles, now a 24-year-old man who somehow, either through blind luck or hard work -- probably a mixture both -- survived the heavyweight meat grinder to transform into one of the division's elder statesmen in a span of three-and-a-half years.

It may seem like an peculiar title to give someone so young, but everything about Struve has always been peculiar in one way or another. Fighting on Holland's light heavyweight circuit -- which seems blasphemous now when staring face-to-face at his colossal 255-pound frame -- Struve held a 3-1 professional record before he could even celebrate his 18th birthday. He fought seven times in 2007, five times in 2008, and cashed four UFC paychecks in 2009, a remarkable stretch of durability considering the volatility of the heavyweight division and the injury-prone leanings of most men his size.

Now, glance over the UFC heavyweight roster at a list of the most seasoned fighters, and the top three may not surprise you: 33-year-old Frank Mir (20 UFC fights), 37-year-old Cheick Kongo (17), and 33-year-old Gabriel Gonzaga (13). The next man up to bat? Struve, who at such a young age has already amassed a quiet 8-3 record inside the Octagon.

"I'm going to retire with about 80 UFC fights," he jokes. "We'll see. It's just business as usual. Take it fight by fight, have fun with it. I've been doing it since I was 17 years old. The UFC was a real big step up and it really showed me that there were a lot of areas I had to work on, but I'm really enjoying it. I'm going to keep on doing this for a long time."

Keep talking to Struve and you'll find that longevity is a reoccurring theme. Even if he won't admit it, his advanced experience lends itself to an inherent sense of maturity most fighters his age couldn't even pretend to muster. Yet, while his resume may state otherwise, Struve is still often the young man in the room, and his extraordinary frame means he's also the one eyes are drawn to first.

It's something he's used to, and it's probably the reason he's so affably disarming. But for as many ups as he's had in his Octagon career, the few downs are just as striking. Three highlight reel first-round knockout losses -- to dos Santos, Roy Nelson, and an especially nasty one to Travis Browne -- caused many fans to write him off prematurely, and for a brief moment, Struve became a causality of his own hype, a young kid who entered the world stage christened as the next Semmy Schilt.

"If you look at it, I think some people may have expected a little too much from when I went into the UFC," Struve admits. "It's like, what do you expect when a 20-year-old kid enters the UFC heavyweight division. Do you think he's just going to destroy everybody? I don't think that's going to happen so fast.

"Of course it takes a little longer for me to develop my body. My physique is not the most common. But look at Jon Jones. He's a tall, lanky champ. Anderson Silva is a tall, lanky champ. So the tall guys are doing well, and I plan on being a tall, lanky champ in the future."

If he sounds confident, traveling the world and earning a minimum of six-figures a year while most of your college buddies are still studying will tend to do that to you. But Struve's confidence only seems to show itself in short bursts. Ask him if he'll win a fight, and he'll chuckle to himself at the silliness of the question. Ask him about his title aspirations and he simply shake it off, reciting a line he's probably used a hundred times before about how he's "taking it step-by-step, climbing the ladder," before shrewdly adding, "You don't want to do it too fast because you're going to fall down."

Even still, Struve knows this is his best shot yet. Three straight finishes against respectable opposition -- Pat Barry, Dave Herman and Lavar Johnson -- have led the Dutchman to where he is now, headlining his first event opposite undefeated Stipe Miocic at UFC on FUEL 5, with the winner likely to break into the early stages of title contention.

With so much on the line, you'd think the two heavyweights would be shooting mean-mugs anytime they came within 50 feet of each other. But the reality couldn't be further from the truth. After fighting on both UFC on FUEL 3 and UFC 146 together, Struve and Miotic have developed a friendlier relationship then most headliners. The pair exchange good-natured banter on Twitter from time to time, and Struve readily refers to the Croatian-American as "an awesome dude." It's surprising at first glance, until you realize how this falls right in line with the way the gentle giant prefers to handle himself off the mat.

"Before every single fight, I'm like, ‘What the hell did I get myself into again,'" muses Struve. "Every single fight. But, you know, what's the worst thing that can happen inside there? You want to win. You're always in there because you want to win and you want to perform well. I love what I'm doing, and I try to enjoy it as much as possible. I think pretty much everybody who fights has got that same thing, ‘What did I get myself into again.' But then walk into an Octagon with about 50,000 people sitting around the Octagon, cheering the fighters on? That's an amazing experience. How many people get to do that? I enjoy that. I enjoy it every single moment of my career, because I'm doing something not a lot people will be able to tell their kids and their grandchildren later.

"I don't stress about all the things that happen on a day-to-day [basis]," he grins as he finishes his thought. "The media, the fans, and all that. I just do it all with a smile on my face, have fun with it, and do my thing. I couldn't be more thankful for the way things are going. It's just something I've done so many times before and it's starting to get easier every time."