Reach for the Sky

(Originally published in UFC Magazine.)

Stefan Struve is ready to hit the pool.

It’s almost five o’clock on a sweltering July afternoon and the UFC’s annual fighter summit has just ended at the Red Rocks Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. As far as the company’s two hundred-plus employees are concerned, school’s out for summer. All day Struve has been cooped up in a stuffy hotel conference room listening to strangers lecture him about the virtues and perils of being a professional fighter. Before that, he spent roughly half of the previous 24 hours in the air, all six-foot-11 ½ inches of him folded into an airplane seat like a piece of human origami for the marathon trip from Amsterdam to LAX to Vegas.

To top it off, the city is caught in the throes a record-breaking heat wave – temperatures cresting an astonishing 114 degrees, according to local reports – and everyone who knows what’s good for them is out finding ways to cool off. It’d be hard to blame Struve right now if all he wanted to do was get outside and see the sun. Dip his feet in the water. Maybe even have something cool to drink.

Unfortunately, that’s not the plan. Not quite yet. “The Skyscraper” still has work to do.

“We were in the classroom most of the day and now we’ve got to do some interviews,” Struve says during a pit stop in his hotel room between the fighter summit and his final responsibilities of the day. “I don’t like classrooms, but it’s OK. It’s all part of the job.”

‘The job’ has consumed his life these past few years. Take this week for example: Struve arrived in Las Vegas just last night, but already his time here draws short. Technically, he’s been at work all day and now he’s going to do some overtime cutting interviews for the media. When it’s all done, he’ll have just a few scant hours to unwind before he has to catch a flight to Calgary for several more days of press and public appearances in support of the upcoming UFC 149 card. After that, he’ll fly back to Los Angeles to meet up with MMA veteran Antoni Hardonk and resume training in earnest for the first main event fight of his UFC career, against Stipe Miocic on Sept. 29 in London.

All that travel must wear on a guy, right? Any other any red-blooded 24-year-old male might find himself getting distracted about now. A less dedicated professional might even be feeling the urge to chuck it all and bolt for the Red Rock’s sprawling three-acre pool complex, its handful of private cabanas and its poolside bar.

Not Stefan Struve.

To the list of things you already know about Struve – that he’s the tallest man ever to fight in the UFC, that he’s currently the youngest contender in the heavyweight landscape, that he’s already on the verge of his twelfth appearance in the Octagon – add this factoid:

Stefan Struve is a professional.

Stefan Struve is about his business.

Since making his UFC debut in a loss to a relatively unknown fighter named Junior dos Santos back in 2009, Struve has gone on to stake his claim as one of the company’s most exciting young prospects. Three years removed from that first Octagon loss he’s become a mainstay in the 265-pound division, is on the verge of appearing in his thirtieth professional fight and is still five months removed from his twenty-fifth birthday.

If things go according to plan, Struve might fight for the UFC heavyweight title before he turns twenty-six. When you think about it that way, a few hours of fun at the Red Rock pool starts to seem a lot less important.

If nothing else, Stefan Struve is about his priorities.

“For being the youngest veteran in the UFC, Stefan doesn’t get caught up in all the stuff on the periphery,” says Nima Safapour, general counsel for Alchemist Management and the man who will be the fighter’s near constant companion as they jet set around North America this week. “The night life, the money, the temptations that come along with this industry, he’s actually not even interested in it to be quite honest. Stefan’s interested in having a good lifestyle. He’s interested in having a good life.”

Life has indeed been pretty good for Struve lately. Riding high on a three-fight win streak during 2011-12, he finally appears to be fulfilling the potential so evident in his near seven-foot frame, his 84.5-inch reach and his never-say-die attitude. Struve is the first to admit that there have been setbacks, that his march to UFC contender status has been a process, but all the hard work now seems to be paying off for him.

That means he’s away from home a lot more these days. It means the hours are long and the schedule is hectic. It means the pool at the Red Rock will have to wait, at least for a few more minutes.

“It’s crazy, man,” Struve says. “I’m flying to the US a lot and I’m getting a lot of attention from the fans and the media. It still amazes me, but I love my job and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I wouldn’t have a clue what to do if I wasn’t a professional fighter.”


Stefan Struve is about family.

It’s a word that comes up often in conversation with him, his training partners and his management team. In a business where people always seem to be at each other’s throats, where the only constants appear to be conflict and change, Struve is a relationship builder. He was among the first fighters to sign with Alchemist when the company was founded in 2010 and when he journeys to L.A. next week to train at Hardonk’s gym, he’ll spend three weeks bunking in Safapour’s spare room.

“He’s like my big little brother in a lot of ways …,” Safapour says, “and family never stays in a hotel.”

It was family that brought Struve to combat sports in the first place some ten years ago and family is the reason he’s still making the eleven hour flight from his native Holland to the United States for most of his fights, whenever he wants to supplement his training schedule or when the UFC calls upon him to do some press. All the travel – he’s still not flying first class, he admits – has prompted him to consider moving to the US, but Struve can’t seem to bring himself to leave the comfort and support he feels at home.

“I’ve thought about it, but I’ve got everything in Holland,” he says. “My family is there, my girl is there. My brother has three little ones and I want to see them grow up. I’ve got my whole training team in Holland. I’ve got some of the best coaches in the world. There’s really no reason to relocate.”

It’s always been this way for him. Struve was just a kid when his older brother Nick introduced him to MMA by bringing home DVDs of Pride Fighting Championships. At 14, he decided to tag along to watch one of Nick’s martial arts classes at the gym of three-time Pride veteran and renowned trainer Bob Schrijber.

A decade later, Struve’s still there.

Schrijber and his wife, former professional fighter Irma Verhoeff, are still his primary coaches and Struve says he’ll keep it that way until he retires.

“They’re like my second parents,” he says, noting that the Schrijbers and brother Nick still work his corner for every fight. “I see them every day of the week, I come to their house multiple times a week, we do all the training sessions together [and] usually if I go somewhere else to train, they go with me. It’s so relaxed and it feels so natural to have them in my corner. To know they have my back in a fight, it gives me the best feeling possible.”

When he was 16, Struve made his MMA debut by filling in on five days’ notice at small card in his hometown. He won by head kick knockout – “I went nuts,” he remembers – and there was no looking back. In 2006, when he was 18 and in the midst taking a year off after high school to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, he got the chance to come to America to fight on a show alongside other future stars like Alan Belcher and Gina Carano. Struve won his bout via triangle choke three minutes into the first round and the experience changed his life.

“When I won that fight, I decided to see how far I could go in the sport,” he says. “It turned out, I could go pretty far.”


Stefan Struve is about the future.

He was already 16-3 the first time he entered the Octagon and says he’d “pretty much beat everybody in the heavyweight division outside of the UFC, all over Europe.” Still, the learning curve proved steep enough. During his first eight UFC appearances, Struve suffered three knockout losses – one against dos Santos, another to Roy Nelson at a 2010 Fight Night event marred by a lengthy power outage (Struve says he also had food poisoning that night) and another via superman punch to Travis Browne last year at UFC 130.

His initial victories were equally hard fought. Struve bounced back following a tough and bloody opening round to submit Denis Stojnic and capture his first UFC win four months after the dos Santos loss. He tapped Chase Gormley off his back at UFC 104 and eked out a majority decision over Paul Buentello at UFC 107. The damage Christian Morecraft inflicted to his lower lip early in their fight at UFC 117 will probably make highlight tapes for the rest of his career, but Struve bounced back to score the KO just 22 seconds into the next round.

That penchant for back-and-forth slugfests established him as a fan favorite and lined his pockets with bonus money, but Struve aspired to something better. More recently he says he’s added coaches to his staff – including Hardonk – who are shoring up his technique and teaching him better ways to use his natural physical attributes to his advantage.

“I was a little wild most of the time, just getting in there and going after the other guy, trying to brawl,” he says. “Outside of the UFC, when the guys weren’t as good as they are here, that brought me success. Out here where everybody can fight? It’s not the best option to fight like that with my body type.”

The proof, he says, is in his last three fights, where he’s notched consecutive stoppage victories over Pat Barry, Dave Herman and Lavar Johnson without taking much abuse. At least some of the changes have involved the towering Struve learning to fight as tall as he stands. Instead of letting his opponents sucker him in close, he’s learning to use his footwork and massive reach to control the action while keeping himself out of danger.

“He has such long arms and he doesn’t always use them,” says Hardonk, himself a noted kickboxer who stands six-foot-four. “Sometimes he’s fighting at someone else’s range. If he starts developing his own range, then no one can touch him.”

In a heavyweight division that’s as deep and competitive as it’s ever been, Struve is certainly not the only guy with big plans. He does, however, have some obvious advantages. Considering unique physical gifts, his tireless work ethic and the considerable time he has left to reach his full potential, it’s hard to blame him if he’s feeling more confident than ever about his path to the top.

“I’ve got all of the tools a lot of guys dream about,” Struve says. “Just the mentality and the heart to never give up, and I have one of the best training teams in the world teaching me all the things I need to know to go in there and just destroy everybody.”

Stefan Struve may well be about to blow up.

First though, it’s time to check out that pool.