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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Prague

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Prague-Struve vs de Lima Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

When Stefan Struve arrived in the UFC 10 years ago, there were thoughts that he could be a future heavyweight champion.

He was 16-2 and only 20 years old when he first signed with UFC. Even though his debut was inauspicious — he was knocked out quickly by Junior dos Santos — that was when dos Santos was one of the top level heavyweights in the world.

The obvious attributes were height and reach, coupled with youth, as you’d see few fighters of that age, let alone heavyweights, with that kind of experience, and already in the UFC being matched with the top of the division. At the time he was a shade under 7-feet tall and still growing. He was thin, but had a frame that you could see on him would probably carry 280 pounds once he matured a little more. But the key is this wasn’t a tall guy whose only attribute was his height. His ground game was already strong, as he entered the UFC having submitted 10 of his previous 12 opponents.

The idea of a guy that size with that kind of submission skill looked like a winner because he was also coordinated as a striker. In theory, once he learned how to utilize his height and reach, that would give him a huge advantage in the stand-up game. Kickboxing was coming off the domination period of Semmy Schilt, who possessed similar physical characteristics and was able to use his length to keep the best strikers in the world at his distance and be a puzzle they couldn’t solve.

But that never fully materialized. He had the reach, but was never able to fully utilize it. Hard punchers were able to get inside and hurt him. Going into Saturday’s fight with Marcos Rogerio de Lima, his UFC record was 12-9. He had been knocked out several times, not just by dos Santos, but by much shorter power punchers like Mark Hunt and Roy Nelson. Even Saturday with de Lima, he was nearly finished on the first punch of he fight. Struve showed flashes of brilliance in a 2012 fight where he knocked out future champion Stipe Miocic in the second round, handing Miocic his first career loss.

A few years back he was battling a heart issue with a leaking aortic valve. The story was he had been training and fighting with that condition and it had robbed him of aspects of conditioning. The idea is he’d have far more energy in training and fighting once that cleared up.

In addition, the heavyweight division was aging. The top fighters in the division were heading into their mid-30s, and some were past 40. At the time, Struve was still in his late 20s and there was nobody in his age bracket consistently among the top ranks. When the likes of dos Santos, Cain Velasquez, Miocic, Mirko Cro Cop, Roy Nelson, Hunt, Josh Barnett, Frank Mir, Alistair Overeem, Matt Mitrione and others would fall by the wayside, Struve would be in his prime and on top, with a combination of size, skill and experience.

But after the Miocic win, it was Miocic’s career that ended up skyrocketing. Struve was knocked out in his next two fights, with Hunt and Overeem. And then he won some and lost some. Between the Hunt and the Overeem fight came the career-threatening heart ailment. At first there were questions about his career, but then the hope was that they had cleared up the problem, he’d have far more energy and it would improve his fighting. But he then won only three of his next eight fights.

Struve took his gloves off and left them on the canvas on Saturday in Prague, Czech Republic, after finishing de Lima on he ground with an arm-triangle submission. He didn’t outright say he was retiring at the age of 31, but certainly gave off the impression that he’s given it a lot of thought and was strongly leaning in that direction.

At this point the results speak for themselves. Struve wasn’t even ranked in the top 15 anymore, and new prospects have come along like Tai Tuivasa, Francis Ngannou and Curtis Blaydes in what is still an aging division. But at this point, nobody has talked about Struve, who still has his submission skill and he’s still the tallest fighter on the roster, as the guy to eventually inherit the top spot.

Let’s look at how fortunes changed for five stars of Saturday’s show.

THIAGO SANTOS - In finishing Jan Blachowicz, Thiago Santos (21-6) has won eight out of nine, and has three straight knockout stoppages since he moved from up from middleweight. He showed more patience on Saturday than the far more aggressive style he showed in wins over Jimi Manuwa and Eryk Anders. He also has a second-round knockout of Anthony Smith, last year when both were fighting at middleweight. Smith is the man challenging Jon Jones for the title on Saturday in Las Vegas.

The light heavyweight division is also lacking depth right now, but whether Jon Jones wins as expected, or Smith pulls off what would be one of the greatest upsets in MMA history, Santos should be the next title challenger.

JAN BLACHOWICZ - Because of the timing within the division, Blachowicz’s loss on Saturday was devastating to his career trajectory. He could have been in consideration for title contention, but now he’s going to have to work his way back. At 23-8, he can best be used to test whether Jim Crute (10-0) can be a top contender, or face Ilir Latifi (14-6), who he defeated via first-round finish in 2014.

LIZ CARMOUCHE - Still best known for her loss to Ronda Rousey six years ago, Carmouche (13-6) came into her fight with local favorite Lucie Pudilova (8-4) as the No. 6 contender at flyweight.

Carmouche won by a close decision that the local crowd booed heavily. Still, all three judges had it for Carmouche as did 73 percent of reporters in the MMA Decisions listings.

Jessica Eye has been talked of as getting the next shot at champion Valentina Shevchenko. For Carmouche, the next opponent could either be Joanne Calderwood (13-3) or the winner of the March 23 fight between Alexis Davis (19-8) and Jennifer Maia (15-5-1). But with another win or two in the relatively new division, Carmouche should be in the conversation for a title shot.

PETR YAN - The fight on Saturday between Yan (12-1) and John Dodson (20-11) was really the test to see how Yan, who had looked impressive in his three previous UFC fights, would fare against a higher level of competition. He passed the test with flying colors. He now looks to be ready to face just about anyone.

Raphael Assuncao (27-6), coming off a loss to Marlon Moraes, or Jimmie Rivera (22-3), coming off losses to Moraes and Aljamain Sterling, could be next. He also could be booked against either Cody Garbrandt (10-2) or Pedro Munhoz (17-3), two fighters competing against one another this weekend. That winner is more likely going to face a higher ranked fighter, but Yan could face the loser. A win over any of those fighters would propel Yan into the title picture.

JOHN DODSON - Now 34, the two-time flyweight title contender has lost three of four at bantamweight. At this stage, his role is going to be to test guys on the way up to see if they can hang at the top level. A good next opponent would be Ricky Simon (16-1).