A long and harrowing journey grew even longer on July 5, 2014, when just hours before his against-all-odds return from potentially career-ending heart troubles, UFC heavyweight Stefan Struve suffered a setback that derailed a year's worth of work and worry. The seven-footer, who had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart and leaking aortic valve in August 2013, fainted in the locker room prior to his UFC 175 comeback against Matt Mitrione.
Just like that, the feel-good bout was cancelled, and Struve's career, which had once been so promising, was again cast into doubt.
Speaking publicly for the first time since that night, Struve appeared on Monday's episode of The MMA Hour to detail the chain of events that led up to the fateful moment when everything changed.
"It started when we were still in the hotel room," he explained. "I started to feel a little dizzy and not well, and it took me a little bit to get over that. I ate something, we went down and I felt better. We actually went to the UFC's doctor and told them. They checked me, everything was good, all the functions were good, it had nothing to do with my heart. So we went into the locker room, started to warm up, everything went well. Then I went into the bathroom and I was just walking back and forth, and the tension just became more and more out of nowhere. It was incredible, something I've never experienced. And I just fell over onto a bucket of ice against the wall.
"I was really ashamed," Struve continued. "I didn't really know what happened. I didn't know what to make of it.
"And of course the first thing, I thought it was my heart because I went through so much with my heart, and of course when that happened my heart started pounding like crazy. I lost control of my breathing, and when the UFC came in and told me that they'd cancelled the fight, they couldn't let me fight like that, of course it got even worse."
Struve was ultimately transported to the hospital that night for precautionary reasons, while UFC President Dana White expressed concern for the Dutchman's future in the sport. Since then, Struve and his team has taken several months to reevaluate the situation, and in a strange way, Struve is almost glad to have done so.
"The night after, my team went to sit down to talk about everything that happened," he said. "They came across a couple people they knew from Holland, and one of them told them that he was using the same medication as me. Then he told us that he had to stop with it because he got into a depression because of it. The medication was messing with his head big-time, especially when something stressful would come up. He was getting very emotional, mood swings and all of that. And then the next day, I heard a similar story from one of my teammates who knows someone also who used to fight MMA in Holland who is also using that same medication, or used to use that medication, and he told him a while back that I should be very careful with that medication because he had some serious trouble with it too.
"Your heart cannot cause something like that out of nowhere," Struve continued, referring to the locker room incident. "There's needs to be something wrong with your heart, in a way that it stops, or that blood flow to your head stops. But it wasn't that. It was the medication messing up my head, and my head messing up my body. It had absolutely nothing to do with my heart. The doctor from the UFC and from the state commission immediately came in and checked all my vitals, everything was good. My heart rate was a little high, of course, I had lost control of my breathing because it scared me that I just dropped down like that.
"I was just oversensitive to some of the ingredients of the pill that I used to take. With the medication I'm taking right now, I just feel a lot better. I have a lot more joy in life. I was really... I had lost a lot of joy in life. I didn't feel like doing anything a lot of days, or going somewhere, looking forward to doing something, and my mood would change when I was driving over in the car. It was crazy."
Struve elaborated by explaining that other than the obvious side effects -- mood swings, a dry cough that last upwards of six months -- the medication he relied on to control his blood pressure for nearly a year would afflict him the most when the 26-year-old placed himself in stressful environments, sometimes even leading to week-long bouts of bed sickness. And of course, few careers are as stressful as a professional fighter's on fight night.
Struve said that, even though he didn't realize it at the time, the medication was slowly eroding his life. It all culminated in the moment the mental pressure became uncontrollable, when his body froze and toppled over inside that locker room, and for one brief second, Struve thought that his fighting career was over.
"I didn't know what was going on. I wasn't able to really think about it the way I've done right now," he reflected. "The only thing I thought was: ‘I just dropped. I was out with a heart issue. Nobody's going to want me to fight again, no matter what. This is it. I'm not ever going to fight again after all I've been through, after fighting so hard to get to a point where I'm at right now.
"‘I don't want this to end right now because of something like this, something I cannot control.' I didn't know what to think. I was really devastated and emotional, and also even more emotional because of the medication, which really can strengthen emotions. It was just a really bad experience, but also something I really learned from."
In the months since, Struve has successfully switched medications and received clearance from both his and the UFC's doctors to resume his professional fighting career. He's working with a "mental coach" ahead of his scheduled fight against Alistair Overeem on December 13th at UFC on FOX 13 as well, all in the hopes that the winter brings with it the bright new chapter that summer never did.
"It really sucked, that day," Struve said. "We took a good look at everything that happened, and I think we figured it all out. I can't wait to fight December 13th and close this book full of bad things happening to me."