Fighting rising heavyweight star Stefan Struve is sort of like facing the same dilemma Luke Skywalker and his buddies dealt with when trying to take out the Death Star in Star Wars. You’ve got a small window of opportunity, so you’d better strike fast and strike accurately. Otherwise, you’re in trouble.
It worked for Skywalker, along with real-life heavies Junior dos Santos and Roy Nelson. But if you don’t catch the “Skyscraper” early, odds are that you’re going to go home with a loss, and Struve’s resilience has become almost as much of a story as his frame (6-foot-11) and his age (he turned 23 in February). What about those slow starts though?
“To tell you the truth, the fight gets easier after some exchanges,” he said. “When you feel some power from him and you hit him a few times, then the fight gets easier, that’s true. You really need to get into the fight and take a couple shots and give a couple shots. After that, I’m really in the fight and when I get through the first seconds, I get comfortable in there.”
So when Denis Stojnic opened up his forehead, Christian Morecraft battered him for nearly five minutes, and Sean McCorkle almost submitted him, Struve didn’t panic. He was just getting warmed up.
All in a day’s work.
“It’s just in you,” said Struve. “My trainer (PRIDE vet Bob Schrijber) is one of the best, and if you look at his fights, and his wife’s (Irma Verhoeff) as well, it’s the same thing, and I think it’s the way we train. We all have that same thing, that same will to win, and we all want to win no matter what. I want it really, really bad. I know this is a big opportunity for me and I’m really thankful for the opportunity I’m getting from the UFC and I’m really happy with the way my career and life are going right now. I want to win the fight no matter what, so I don’t care if I’m cut open or whatever, I want to win.”
That mindset, his size, his growing skill set, and his age have combined to mark the Beverwijk native as one of the brightest prospects in the sport for future world title honors. This Saturday night at UFC 130, he will take the next step on that road against unbeaten Travis Browne, who has made plenty of noise himself after stopping James McSweeney in his UFC debut and then pushing veteran contender Cheick Kongo to a three round draw.
Browne, while respectful of Struve’s game, also believes that at 28, his life experiences will give him an edge over his younger foe’s fight experience. Struve doesn’t buy into that.
“There’s been 25 people who have thought that since I was 17, that they would kick my ass because they were a little older, and they made a big mistake with that,” he said. “Of course you get wiser when you get older and you learn things, but this is gonna be my 30th pro fight and my eighth fight for the UFC, so I think I’ve got a lot of experience in there and it’s not gonna be a big factor. The way my age plays out, I think in five years I’m going to be bigger, stronger, and better, but right now, I’m good enough to beat his ass.”
Struve laughs, comfortable in the role he’s been thrust into over the last year. No longer a shy kid navigating shark infested waters. The Netherlands product has become a natural in the spotlight.
“It’s starting to get normal for me, just like it was normal for me when I fought all over Europe on the big shows, and that’s good,” he said.
He’s also been able to keep focused and on the straight and narrow, not always a given when dealing with athletes in their early twenties. Then again, Struve has been training since the age of 14, fighting since 17, and he’s got an old school no-nonsense trainer and a rock-solid management team backing him. Want more proof? There aren’t any Ferraris in his driveway, but he does now own a driveway.
“I just bought a house and I’m only 23 years old,” he said proudly. “To buy a house when you’re 23 years old in Holland, and especially the kind of house I bought, that’s the reward so far. Plus there’s the appreciation you get from the fans from your fights, and that’s really good too. So I wouldn’t do anything different.”
He doesn’t even lose sleep over his two UFC losses. Instead, he looks back at them as learning lessons, content in knowing that he wouldn’t deliver the same performances a second time if the Struve of today fought those fights.
“You can never say anything about results because anything can happen in a fight, but I’m a totally different fighter from a year ago, and I fought Junior almost two and a half years ago,” he said. “Back then I wasn’t ready for a guy like Junior. I had just turned 21 two days before the fight, and with Roy some things happened the day of the fight, so things didn’t go to plan, but it happened, it made me stronger, and I’m a totally different fighter now.”
That could end up being bad news for Travis Browne. As for the elite of the heavyweight division, Struve has some plans for them too in the coming years.
“I feel good, and I feel like I’ve got at least 15 years ahead of me in this sport,” he said. “Of course I’ve got a lot of growing to do and I need to get a lot better at everything, but I don’t really consider myself a prospect anymore. This is going to be my 30th pro fight, and people still see me that way, but there’s no pressure and it’s gonna be an awesome fight. We set a goal and in six or seven years I want to have the belt. If it comes faster, that’s good too, but we’ll see what happens.”
Stefan Struve - The Fast Rise of a Slow Starter
“There’s been 25 people who have thought that since I was 17, that they would kick my ass because they were a little older, and they made a big mistake with that.” - Stefan Struve