411 Fighter Profile 05.27.11: Stefan Struve
Posted by Jon Butterfield on 05.27.2011
At UFC 130, Stefan Struve will looking for his third straight win in the octagon against Travis Browne and the chance to take a step closer to the UFC Heavyweight title! Will he get the job done? 411's Jon Butterfield takes a look!
Nickname: Skyscraper Record: 21-4 Weight: 253 lbs Height: 6'11 Hometown: Beverwijk, Netherlands Ranking:15th in the Heavyweight Rankings Association: Team Schrijber Organizations: UFC
Where Do We Stand?
At just 23 years old, 6'11 Stefan "Skyscraper" Struve is one of the most promising prospects on the Heavyweight scene today. With a record of 21 wins from 25 fights already at such a young age, it is easy to see why the MMA world expects such big things from this colossus of a man. Capable of finishing fights on the feet or on the ground, Struve is well-rounded, rangy, and incredibly difficult to submit; a nightmare to prepare for. What's more, only one opponent has ever managed to go the distance with him; and only six have made it out of the first round.
A natural born finisher, Struve's arsenal centres around a triangle choke capable of ending the most talented fighter's night. Having notched up 8 victims with the hold so far, one could be forgiven for thinking Struve might be a one-trick pony. He ain't. With 5 TKO's to his name, as well as a variety of alternative fight-ending holds, Struve can end a fight anywhere, at any time – and what's more, he's more than capable of picking up the kind of scintillating come-from-behind victories fighters dream of.
A man who should never be counted out, the ever-improving skills and ever-expanding frame of the young Dutchman will make for a formidable obstacle in the undefeated Travis Browne's path to the top. 6'7 himself, Browne is a huge man possessing devastating power. With over half his fights concluded inside the first minute, this isn't one that looks likely to last the course. There should be a finish. The question is, who will get it?
Playing Catch Up
Debuting at the age of just 17, Stefan followed in the footsteps of his older brother Nick and made his professional MMA bow on March 19, 2005. With Nick picking up a win in the main event that night, it was only fitting that Stefan set the ball rolling for the Struve family with a first round armbar submission of John de Wilde – a man who would go on to amass an unimpressive record of 2-13 in the following years. Still, at that age, a win is a win, especially on the professional circuit. Not that it went to Stefan's head.
"I just really liked the sport and I still love it," he tells me, "For me it was weird, you know, people were saying [you're only] 17 years old why don't you wait for a little while [to make your pro debut], but I just wanted to fight you know. For me it was nothing special, for me it was just doing what I liked and I still like."
But how did Struve get into the business in the first place?
"Well to be honest, the trainers I'm with right now had a gym in my home town where I still live, and my brother was already training with them for about three or four years. I watched tapes with them and I liked [what I saw,] but I never trained. When I was 14 I went along with him to the gym one day and I didn't leave after that."
Hovering somewhere between the 185-205 pound marks at the time, Struve was a genuine beanpole of a fighter back then (not that that has changed entirely even to this day!). Competing in the light heavyweight division made a lot of sense; however, his second fight against Latvian wrestler Romualds Garkulis (2-5-1), a stocky 5'9 powerhouse of a man, saw him significantly outweighed. Of the fight, Struve says:
"It was my second pro fight, and he was a big heavyweight. I weighed in at about 205 pounds and he weighed in a lot more. It was my second pro fight, I didn't have a lot of experience, and he hit me in the eye with the tip of his glove… My eye swelled up really bad, and after the first round they didn't let me continue, so that's all."
With the disappointment of his first defeat behind him and a record of 1-1, the young Struve's resolve strengthened rather than crumbled. Embarking upon a run of ten straight wins, Stefan started out with a first round KO of Emir Smajlovic (1-2). Debutant Murat Bourekba would then find himself disqualified for ‘fishooking', and before long the list of viable opponents in his native Netherlands (particularly at 205) would start to dry up. With a lack of challenges on the cards and with his body undergoing a natural ‘filling out' process, Struve knew his future lay at heavyweight. He also knew that to find more competition, he would have to travel. Luckily, that suited the big man just fine.
First stop: The United States. Powerful Texan Marcus Sursa (2-1), whose sole lose came against Alan "The Talent" Belcher, would meet Struve in June 2006. A highly rated fighter who currently plies his trade under the tutelage of Greg Jackson, Sursa was, for Struve, his "first big win". What's more, there was the added satisfaction of defeating him in his homeland – something that would become a staple of Struve's excellent run. Sursa tapped to a triangle choke (the first of Struve's pro career) in 3:01 of the first round.
At 4-1, then, Struve next defeated German rookie Florian Muller, a fighter who would retire in early 2008 with a record of 6-2, his only other loss coming against fellow UFC contender Alexander Gustafsson. A gifted fighter, Muller laid into Struve early on, hitting him with some solid shots against the fence before taking him down aggressively. Keeping the giant Struve down, however, would prove a near impossible task. Reversing positions easily on the ground, Struve set about controlling his opponent until a short-lived moment on the feet saw another takedown completed by Muller, with Florian winding up on top once more. Struve threatened from his back, but Muller would refuse to be caught. Similarly, Struve refused to take his opponents ground and pound without a fight. A back and forth first round eventually concluded with Muller perhaps getting the better of the exchanges.
The momentum would shift in the second. Using his huge range advantage to good effect, Struve also started out stuffing the German's takedowns. After winding up on top and exchanging dominant positions once more, Struve eventually brought the fight to the fight and connected with a series of hard shots with his 80+ inch reach. They took their toll. Muller staggered back against the cage, and as Struve looked to rain down more shots, the referee called the fight off. A good fight, it was the first time Stefan had been taken beyond the first round. It wouldn't happen against for almost a full 12 months.
Defeating Finnish fighter Atte Backman (8-6) by first round triangle in Helsinki, Stefan continued to play the spoiler before returning to the Netherlands, beating Croat Marko Sintic (3-3) in Emmen with the very same hold. Perhaps Dennis Komkin (7-3) was aware of the danger Struve's triangle presented, then, when he entertained Struve on home soil in Bratsk, Russia; then again, the Dutchman's game was ever evolving. If Komkin was ready for it, Struve had far more aces up his sleeve than that! This time a rear naked choke would earn the win, once more in the very first round.
On great form, the 8-1 Struve was then invited for a fight in Liverpool, England. Tom Blackledge (8-4) wanted Stefan on home soil. Stefan reminisces, "They asked me to fight him about a week and a half before the fight, and I said ‘yeah sure, we'll come to Liverpool and I'll fight you' and actually I triangled him [early in] the fight, so that was good for me." He wasn't lying. The fight took just 2:14. Blackledge, who recently appeared in the UFC himself, was well and truly humbled.
21 days later, Struve was in action again, this time in Munich, Germany. Romanian-born fighter Tomek Smykowski (0-3), fresh off a defeat to Goran Reljic, was no match for the lanky Dutchman. Submitted by armbar in the first round, this was just another markin Struve's ever-expanding win column. An invitation to compete in a tournament in the Ukraine, however, would prove far, far tougher…
After disposing of native Sergey Danish (1-1) in the second stanza of a first round match competed in a ropeless ring, Struve moved on to face unbeaten French ground expert Christian M'Pumbu (9-0) in the semis. If "Tonton" had seen the way Struve had seamlessly transitioned from ground and pound into an armbar, and then again into a triangle against Danish, then he knew he was up against someone with a similar level of expertise on the mat. Though Struve's win was recorded as a TKO after the Ukrainian fighter's corner called for a stoppage, the fight was, for all intents and purposes, ended by a slick submission hold his opponent simply could not get out of. But M'Pumbu, a recent Bellator Grand Prix winner, would not be toppled in similar fashion…
Stefan Struve vs. Christian M'Pumbu
Taking down Struve early, M'Pumbu displayed the kind of chops on the mat most fighters would kill for. They would also see him progress to the finals and, ultimately, win the entire tournament with a further win over soon-to-retire Russian Denis Sobolev. While Struve threatened with his unorthodox submission attempts early, M'Pumbu became the first opponent to effectively stifle the Dutchman with solid defence and effective ground and pound. Locking in a D'Arce choke at 2:05, M'Pumbu also became the only fighter to ever tap Stefan. It was impressive, and for Struve, there was no shame in losing to the talented Frenchman, particularly at that stage of his career. Of the fight, Stefan says:
"I had to fight him in the semi-finals and I had a small injury in my ribs from the first fight. It was a good lesson, he's really good at jiu-jitsu, he's just won the Bellator finals, so no shame in losing to him when you're 19 years old. He hadn't lost a fight before that, he was 8-0 [prior to the start of the tournament], he was doing really good, [and] it was a good lesson for me and I only got better from it. It made me tougher, made me come back stronger from it, and like I said, it's cool to see him now winning the Bellator finals."
With his record now standing at 11-2, Stefan would return to Holland once more to defeat Dutchman Ralf Wonnink (3-4) with a first round rear naked choke, before a call came in from England with upstart promotion Cage Gladiators looking to bolster their heavyweight roster. Their plan was to stage a huge tussle at CG 8 between Struve and recent UFC addition, Rob "The Bear" Broughton.
It never happened. Unable to compete at the event, Broughton was replaced by fellow Brit and former UFC fighter Colin Robinson (9-6) instead. Struve comments: "[I had a fight] with Colin Robinson and I believe I was 20 years old, and they told me they had signed him to fight me because Rob Broughton got injured. So I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, bring it on', it was cool to fight a UFC fighter and I was sure that I could beat him, and I beat him pretty much with ease. I basically destroyed the guy, ground and pounded him, [and] triangled him." In the process, Struve also picked up the CG Heavyweight title, a belt he would defend once later on before moving to the UFC.
Could Korean Yuji Sakuragi [9-12-1] do any better in his homeland?
Stefan Struve vs. Yuji Sakuragi
The answer? No. Despite taking Struve down and force-feeding the Dutchman a few short-arm shots to the face, Stefan had too many tricks on the mat to go easily into the night. Catching his opponent in a fight-finishing triangle early on, it was just a matter of time before Sakuragi tapped. One quick application of leverage later, and it was all over. Struve had once again beaten a foreign fighter in his homeland. It was becoming something of a regular occurrence.
Then came Struve's first rematch. Ralf Wonnink (4-5), submitted quickly 8 months previous demanded a second bite at the cherry in October 2008. Rather than avenging his defeat, Wonnink was once again subbed in the first, this time by an armbar. The loss effectively retired Wonnink, who has not been seen since. Struve now boasted a record of 15-2. What's more, he held wins in three separate continents and eight different countries. Something of an international starlet, then, it wouldn't be long before 21 year old Stefan Struve would be signed by a major company. His last fight, it turned out, beyond the walls of the big leagues came against talented ground specialist, the former UFC competitor and high level jiu-jitsu black belt, Mario Neto (8-5) in Cage Gladiators. Struve would defend his title for the first (and only) time.
Stefan Struve vs. Mario Neto
"The fight with Mario Neto was the last fight before the UFC picked me up. We knew [at the time] that DREAM was following me, UFC was following me, so if I was to have a good performance there then I would secure myself a deal with a big promotion, so I had to do good. Mario's an excellent fighter, he's got a really good ground game, he took me down but I fought him off on the ground [then] I choked him out in the second round, so that was a big win. The feeling I had when I choked him out, you know, he's a really good Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, one of the best there is I believe, so that was a huge win for me. I was just 20 years old."
It was a fact that had not escaped the likes of Dana White and Joe Silva. They were only too aware of the ability of the European prospect.
At UFC 95, then, Struve found himself matched up with a man with a record of 7-1. That man, a Brazilian, was averaging 2-3 fights a year and had shared a win apiece with BJJ practitioner Alexandre Ferreira. He was the man who upset Fabricio Werdum in his UFC debut. He was, however, still relatively unknown and, for the time being at least, underappreciated. He was Junior dos Santos.
"There wasn't a lot of people who knew Junior back then," Struve points out, "He beat Werdum you know, but it was his only big win, and I came in there and trained really hard, I had a really good feeling in the training camp and everything went really [well], but the whole thing of the fans, the media, the weigh ins and the big stage, basically everything that has to do with the UFC, [it] overwhelmed me a little bit. When I got in there I basically jammed and didn't know what to do, and it didn't go so well, but I learned from it and again I came back stronger."
And at 16-3 and with a loss in his UFC debut, Struve was only too aware of the importance of moving on and getting back on track in his next fight. Bosnian Denis Stojnic (5-2) stood in his way in a fight at UFC 99 in Germany. Was it good to return to Europe, then?
"It was nice, there were a lot of friends and family from Holland [which is] nearby, it's 2 and a half hour driving, and it was good to fight there. I knew what was waiting for me [this time] with the media and the fans so I had a lot better feeling, but I lost my first fight in the UFC so I had to win my second to be sure I wasn't gonna get cut. That gave me some tension and pressure, [and] the fight didn't go that good in the first round, he cut me open big time and I came back in the second and choked him out, so it was just one of [my favourite] fights I've had, and the feeling I had when I choked him out was indescribable, my first UFC win, it was awesome!"
Awesome it was! And with Struve back on track, he gained the confidence to go forward, allow himself to relax more in his fights, and get back to enjoying what he was doing. Bad news for his opponents – in particular, Chase Gormley (6-0).
A powerful wrestler, Gormley took Struve down quickly, slamming him on the mat again for good measure early on. Using good elbows, he looked to soften up the Dutchman – but as was quickly becoming clear, there are few tougher than the 6'11 "Skyscraper". He absorbed them and rolled for a leglock. As the two tussled for a superior position, Stefan eventually wound up on top as Gormley himself looked to return the favour, attempting to hyperextend Struve's knee. He stuck doggedly at the task even in the face of some damaging hammerfists. His single-mindedness cost him. Struve reverted to his favoured hold, the triangle. Locking it on from the top, Stefan simply had to roll to his back to force the tap. It was beautiful, it was effective, and it was clinical. He was now 2-1 in the UFC.
"[The triangle is] the submission I submitted the most guys with. I used it a lot because of my long legs, and I know [how] to lock it up fast and I can do it with my eyes closed in a fight. I just [get a] feeling when to throw it up and lock it up." His bread and butter it may be, but this time there was an added bonus. A huge added bonus. "Yeah, getting that $60,000 submission of the night bonus, I was like ‘woah'! I was just 21 years old. Fighting in Europe got me like 2,500 Euros a fight, and then in the UFC you get your fight bonus, your fight check, you get your win bonus, you get your submission of the night bonus, you get your sponsor money, and I was like damn, that's a lot of money! So that was really good."
It would get better with a win over veteran Paul Buentello (27-10). An extremely tough veteran, was Buentello a kind of acid test for Struve in his UFC run? "Yeah, of course, he's fought for a UFC title before that, he's had a lot of fights and [has] lots of experience and he knows what to do in there. It was a good fight, and although I took that at short notice too, four or five weeks before the fight, I didn't have too much time to train, it was fun to go in there and just show a little bit more of my stand up. People love the fight because it was a really good brawl, it was a really fun fight."
Indeed less than two months after submitting Gormley, Buentello and Struve put on a scintillating performance that woke the crowd up in Memphis, Tennessee. After winning the first, Struve dropped the second – and lost a piece of tooth along the way. The third would be crucial. After a spirited final five minutes with many an exchange, Struve picked up the win on the judges scorecard. It was huge.
But in March 2010, Struve dropped a fight to Roy Nelson (14-4) in just 39 seconds. Much like in the dos Santos fight, the Dutchman was dropped abrasively with a solid strike. Nelson followed up and picked up the win. The loss was all part of the learning curve for Struve. He jokes, "[It taught me] don't go and stand still in front of the guys ‘cause they will knock you out, you know! [So after that], I worked a lot on everything, I've got bigger, stronger, better at everything… I worked a lot to use my reach, and because I'm bigger and stronger it's easier to use [it] as well because there's a lot more power in my punches and kicks." That power was evident in Struve's next fight.
Overwhelmed by the first of three successive 6'7, 250+ pound powerhouses, Struve suffered a terrible first round against Christian Morecraft (6-0), pounded on in a round so dominant most scored it 10-8 in favour of the UFC newcomer. His indisputable toughness, however, saw him pull through. Surely it was only a matter of time before Morecraft won, though…
… not when you've got the "Skyscraper's" heart! A hot exchange early in the second saw Struve throw a powerful combo, flattening Morecraft and allowing him the opening he needed! Pounding on his opponent, Struve did enough in 22 seconds to convince the referee the contest was done! It was a sensational come-from-behind victory the likes of which he was now starting to define him as a fighter! Never count this man out!
One thing's for sure – Sean McCorkle (10-0) certainly won't either! Having hyper-extended Mark Hunt's arm in his UFC debut, McCorkle was a difficult fighter to place at the time. He was either pretty damn awesome, or just pretty damn powerful. Either way, Struve couldn't let the trash-talking American a single opportunity or he'd potentially break his arm too!
At first, McCorkle looked every bit the high-level talent he'd made himself out to be; but his braggadocios ways had raised the ire of Struve to a whole new level. Visibly burnt up coming into the fight, a cherry-red Struve had a grit and determination about him rarely seen in a fighter so ostensibly laid back. When McCorkle took him down on locked on a kimura that looked true, there was a sense that there was no way Struve would ever tap. Not now. Not to this man. He didn't. He weathered the storm and shortly after McCorkle looked alarmingly gassed out. Struve got on top of his man and rained down a barrage of ground and pound that ended the fight. He had done it. He was now 21-4.
Where Are We Now?
Stefan Struve doesn't lose often. Travis Browne has never lost. Struve has finished all bit one of the 21 opponents he's defeated. Browne has ended nine of his ten. This isn't a fight that will go fifteen minutes. If it does, something is probably wrong!
At UFC 130, we're looking at a potential sleeper; and the winner could well be the next prospect in line for a run at the UFC title. At 29, Browne is a good age to make that run. At 23, Struve is still relatively young. Could he follow in the footsteps of freak athlete Jon "Bones" Jones and become the youngest ever UFC Heavyweight Champion? Or is there still some way to go?
For Stefan, a man with his feet planted firmly on the ground, he's happy to take things one step at a time. Racking up the wins, he is right when he says he has the time still to fight everyone on the heavyweight roster… but one gets the impression that if he can overcome a major hurdle – someone akin to his conquerors, a dos Santos or a Nelson – in the next couple of years, he could climb far faster than most anticipate. And who couldn't root for a guy as modest as Struve? When asked if he's in any danger of letting his success go to his head, he says: "Not for me, no. I just do my thing… I'll always stay myself, you know."
And who can argue with that?
Don't forget to follow all the action with 411mania's LIVE round-by-round coverage – and don't miss Jon Butterfield's debut appearance on this Sunday's always-excellent 411mania.com Ground ‘n' Pound radio show!