For the better part of the last 15 years, Stefan Struve has dedicated his life to mixed martial arts but now he knows without a doubt it’s time to let his body rest.
The 24-fight UFC veteran announced his retirement from the sport earlier this week while revealing a health issue that ultimately cemented the decision for him.
According to Struve, he had already come to the conclusion that his career was coming to an end back in 2019 but an offer to re-up his contract from the UFC convinced him to return to action. Unfortunately, a condition known as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) struck the Dutch heavyweight out of nowhere prior to his last fight and that’s when he realized this was the beginning of the end for him.
“Last year in May, my ear popped in the morning. I couldn’t hear much with it,” Struve described when speaking to MMA Fighting. “It felt like I was coming off a plane or something like that. I tried to yawn and it didn’t pop right away but I didn’t really think much of it. Later in the day, I made an appointment to get it cleaned cause I thought it was blockage or something like that. I was a little disoriented. I didn’t really think much of it.
“I went to bed, woke up a couple hours later and I was nauseous and a little dizzy, not too bad, but I went to the bathroom and threw up. I went back to bed and everybody’s been through it. You lay in bed as motionless as possible to not let it happen again and it came up again. I sat up and everything started spinning. Not just dizzy but the whole room was spinning, like upside down craziness. I had to hold onto my bed because I didn’t know what was happening.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine describes BPPV as an issue in the inner ear that can result in extreme bouts of vertigo caused when “tiny calcium crystals called otoconia come loose from their normal location on the utricle, a sensory organ in the inner ear.”
Vertigo is the most common symptom of BPPV where a person can experience a spinning sensation any time there’s a positional change of their head. Balance is affected and something as simple as tilting the head forward or back can cause serious issues including falling as well as nausea and vomiting.
Still, once Struve was diagnosed with BPPV, doctors told him it was likely only a matter of time before the symptoms passed and he should return to full health.
“Things got better in a couple weeks,” Struve revealed. “Training helped, movement helped but I still had some minor issues. The doctors told me it would go away and I was feeling better so I told myself just ignore it and in a little bit it will be gone completely. We got offered a fight, we did a training camp as best we could because we were already in lockdown at that point but everybody had the same issues. I hadn’t fought all year, my wife was due in September, they offered the fight in October so it made perfect sense. I accepted the fight and in the fight, after a minute or minute and a half, Tai [Tuivasa] landed a punch flush to my ear and normally it should not be an issue.
“If you watch the fight, you don’t really see that it hurts me but he hit me in the ear and when all this happened, I had a loud ringing noise in my ear, which got better eventually, but he hit me in the ear and that ring came back right away. It’s like the communication between your vestibular system and your brain’s not right anymore. It feels like you’re not completely in control. I was not completely focused on the fight anymore. Luckily, I didn’t get seriously hurt but it was very frustrating. After the fight, I had more issues with my ear and balance and stuff. Doctors lined up more tests.”
Because of the lockdown in Holland due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it took Struve quite some time to receive additional testing. He finally got the results back within the past few weeks and that was the final domino that fell into place to convince him to retire from active competition.
“They saw that the vestibular system in my right ear isn’t really responding anymore so it’s either not working anymore or working for a very small percentage,” Struve said. “I kind of already figured out myself, did the research online to know what was going on.
“I had some time after the fight, taking care of the little one and just thinking about it and then last week the UFC asked me when I would like to fight again. That’s when we decided it was time to make the announcement.”
Fatherhood already had Struve thinking more and more about the future but after a past heart ailment nearly derailed his career a few years ago now coupled with this inner ear problem, he knew it was time to call it a career.
“When I’m doing my day-to-day things, I barely notice anything,” Struve said. “With certain fast head movements, I have some issues with balance but it’s no big deal. The ringing noise, I still have in my ear. It gets louder every now and then and I have some damage on the nerve so my hearing in my right ear isn’t as good anymore. Some high noises, I don’t hear at all anymore. But that’s about it. Everybody knows, I already had the heart issues. I already felt it got harder and harder to compete with other top fighters in the gym. That along with the issue with the ear, it’s just time.
“I cannot do this anymore. Physically, I cannot get ready for a fight the way I want anymore. The way I need to get ready and mentally that has become really tough. But as I said, I’m really looking forward to starting a new chapter. I’ve been doing this since I was 17 years old and I never tried something different so I’m looking forward to starting something new. Become successful with that.”
At 33, Struve is considerably younger than many of his contemporaries still competing in the UFC but he’s also been fighting since he was a teenager.
That made the decision to retire a little easier because Struve has done so much when he looks back at his entire body of work that there’s no shame whatsoever walking away now to preserve his overall health.
“It was a tough journey,” Struve said. “I had to dig really deep, not just in the fights but outside the fights, I had to dig really deep just to keep going. After a rough loss or after the health issues, it was a tough journey but to be honest with you, I wouldn’t change a thing.
“It happens with the way it happens. I’m really happy with the way things have gone. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
As far as highlights from his career where he spent the past 11 years competing in the UFC, Struve has plenty of favorite memories but it’s nearly impossible to narrow it down to just one or two that stand out ahead of the rest.
“Just making it to the UFC. I was 20 years old when I signed to the UFC, it was a huge thing,” Struve said. “At that time, I fought in the Netherlands and of course we are known for the kickboxing but we didn’t really have great [Brazilian jiu-jitsu] training, great wrestling training so it was a big deal to get signed for someone out of the Netherlands, especially for the UFC. It was a really big deal.
“Then my first win when I was all bloodied up against Denis Stojnic in Cologne, [Germany] to come back and win the fight like that, that’s one that sticks out. Then of course, the fight with Stipe [Miocic]. That was a huge one for me, especially looking at where he’s at now. It was my first main event. Then you win a big fight against the best heavyweight to have ever done it at least in the UFC. One last one, when the UFC went to the Netherlands for the first time when I fought [Antonio] ‘Bigfoot’ Silva and I knocked him out in 16 seconds. The crowd reaction, it was just madness. The whole arena just erupted. Those moments all stick out to me.”
Now that he’s putting fighting behind him, Struve says he has several projects in the works as far as what he’ll do next but more than anything right now he’s just happy being a dad to his son.
Struve promises that he’ll still be around the sport in some capacity, whether that’s helping certain fighters in the gym or possibly commentating in the future, but he is looking forward to a small break from MMA.
“I’m not going to say goodbye to MMA all together,” Struve said. “Just enough to keep it fun for me because the last 16 or 17 years of my life has been MMA. Everything was focused on me and my career.”
Of course, Struve also knows the old adage that fighters are only as retired as the next best offer that’s made to them but he promises those days are behind him.
He’s completely devoted to his family and that matters more to him than any momentary sensation he’d ever feel by setting foot inside the octagon again.
“You’re never going to see me in a cage again,” Struve said. “I’m not going to fight anymore. I made that decision and everything always revolved around me and now I have my little man to worry about. I want him to grow up with a dad. I already have some issues, which I’m perfectly able to live with. I can do everything I want. I can still train, just at a lower level.
“But if I keep going and ask the extreme things of my body that I’ve asked it to do for the last 15, 16, 17 years, I’m going to ask for real trouble. I really want to be healthy and just live a good life. Fighting on the highest level just can’t be a part of that anymore unfortunately. I’m happy with what I achieved in my career.”