Life is rarely ordinary when you're a seven-foot tall Dutchman who prefers to bludgeon large men in the face for a living. But even for Stefan Struve, the young heavyweight who makes his unexpected return to the Octagon this weekend at UFC 175, the last 15 months have played out with enough sudden twists in the script that even the cheesiest Hollywood writer would suggest to dial things back a bit.
First there was the diagnosis. August 2013, a leaking aortic valve and an enlarged heart, the veritable death knell for such a massive athlete who competes in such a cardiovascular sport. Then came the passing of Struve's father a few months later, the result of a painful year-long struggle with cancer. The latter was a personal tragedy, while news of the former came abruptly and unpredictably -- after all, Struve was only 25 years old and in phenomenal physical shape.
The MMA world hoped the best for Struve, but expected the worst. After so many strange years, it's just our nature in this sport where good news is a far too infrequent visitor. UFC President Dana White went on record stating that he honestly didn't believe Struve would ever fight again, and all the while it seemed like the self-fulfilling prophecy was coming true.
"It was tough," Struve says. "But I made the decision to go for it, no matter what."
From the outset, Struve knew there was no realistic way to permanently fix the problem and still compete. A permanent fix meant cutting open his chest, replacing the leaking valve in his heart with a artificial version, then closing everything back up. "I told myself and my trainers, my team, that if I have to go into open heart surgery, I'm not going to make a return to the UFC," he admits. "Because I just didn't see that happening. I didn't see that as a smart move."
Instead, Struve turned towards a long-shot to save his career.
Doctors discovered he had high blood pressure because of his bicuspid aortic valve, and so while the left chamber in his heart and the opening from which the chambers connected to the aorta grew bigger, the valve didn't stretch as it should. Yet the hole inside Struve's heart continued to grow as well, causing increased leakage every week. So, rather than undergo surgery, Struve's team decided to put the fighter on medication to lower and maintain his blood pressure in the hopes of shrinking the chamber, on the outside chance it could minimize the leakage.
"In the beginning, we didn't know what the blood pressure medication exactly would do," reflects Struve. "The goal was [to help], but the chance of that really happening was not big, according to the doctors. They really see this as something that doesn't happen a lot.
"This is one of the first times they've ever seen a recovery like this just because of the medication. But they said ‘your body's so healthy, and all the tissue around the bicuspid aortic valve is so strong, the aorta, the chamber in your heart, you've got such a strong beat, that you were able to make that recovery.' So I think the training really helped me get through this."
Somehow, amazingly, two months in, the medication was actually proving to be a success. Against all odds, Struve's condition was improving. The valve opening grew smaller, and the leakage lessened. By late-November the heavyweight was able to return to a full training schedule, and by May, he had a fight against Matt Mitrione on the books.
If it wasn't a miracle, it was pretty dang close. But the craziest thing of all: Struve wasn't even that surprised.
"I don't call it a comeback," he says simply. "I've been so busy with so many things that have happened in my family in the past year that took my attention. Even if I wouldn't have had this, I would've taken time off to focus on everything. So for me, it doesn't feel like a comeback because I've been training constantly and I didn't have an injury that prevented me from training. I actually got a lot better.
"I really see it as another fight. It feels exactly the same as in the past, everything feels exactly the same. I'm just going to take care of business, but with a body that's functioning a whole lot better and I'm going to show that on Saturday."
Ultimately, Struve isn't altogether out of the woods. The condition has been with him from birth, and unless he undergoes open heart surgery or medical technology advances a bit further -- it's close, believe him; he's researched it extensively -- the problem is something he'll have to live with and manage for the rest of his life, so a setback is always possible.
"If for some reason the doctors now say something has happened and they don't feel comfortable clearing me for fights anymore, I have accepted it and I would accept that," Struve acknowledges. "Of course it would be a hard blow, but if that's the way it has to go, then that's the way it has to go ... but I went to one of the best doctors in Holland and one of the best doctors in Los Angeles, and both of them felt really comfortable with clearing me after examining me and my body completely."
So for now, at least, Struve has been cleared to pick up where he left off 15 months ago, back on that eight-sided blood-stained mat.
It's a bit crazy, thinking about everything Struve accomplished at such a young age, all the momentum he built for himself in a division filled with brutes and giants... doing all that with his body betraying him on a daily basis. It makes one wonder what Struve's truly capable of now. But in the meantime, his might realistically be the only case in mixed martial arts history when that old cliché -- this has been the best training camp of my life -- actually rings true.
"A lot of things that happened in the past in training camps, when I didn't feel good or I wasn't able to fight the way I can fight, it's easier to explain now," Struve says. "I have a lot more energy now. And when I get back home from training, too, I can sit down on the couch and still have energy. What happened a lot in the past, I would fall asleep on the couch or I would have no energy to drag myself to bed. Now I'm able to do my thing like I should.
"I'm still No. 12 in the world," adds Struve. "Not bad after a long layoff. I lost to Mark Hunt. I think I should've won that fight but circumstances made it what it is. Before that, I beat Miocic, and he's ranked number five or six in the world right now. He's on a streak. So I'm back, and I'm going to show it on the weekend. I'm ready to get into the top-10 again and showcase that I'm a much better fighter than a lot of the guys in the top-10."