Stefan Struve has finished four consecutive opponents. | Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
Sometime between May and September, Stefan Struve officially joined the ranks of the 7-foot club.
It is a fairly exclusive group, with membership generally reserved for men with lucrative shoe contracts and solid back-to-the-basket skills. In the MMA world, however, width, not height, is the most respected currency. That is why massive, thickly muscled heavyweights such as Alistair Overeem and Brock Lesnar have been so easily able to capture the fight fan’s imagination.
When a lanky athlete such as Struve enters the arena, he is often quickly labeled as little more than a sideshow. Early on in the Dutchman’s career, he did little to dispel the notion. Junior dos Santos, Roy Nelson and Travis Browne added Struve to their personal highlight reels, and even in victory he often absorbed tremendous amounts of punishment. Rarely was Struve in a boring fight, but rarely did he win convincingly enough to inspire confidence that a future contender was lurking inside his beanpole frame.
It became easy to dismiss Struve against any foe with dangerous power, and in the heavyweight division, that type of opposition is plentiful. The man with the moniker of “Skyscraper” worked diligently to shift perceptions. Wins over Pat Barry, Dave Herman and Lavar Johnson showed Struve was resourceful and tough, but he still took his share of licks. Despite incremental improvements, it appeared that Struve’s best game plan was to eat strikes, pull guard and hope for a Hail Mary submission. When he was paired with the up-and-coming Stipe Miocic at UFC on Fuel TV 5 on Saturday in Nottingham, England, it looked like the Team Schrijber member’s modest winning streak had reached its end.
Miocic could box and wrestle, and besides, was not Struve long overdue to hit the canvas in spectacular fashion once again? This was supposed to be the bout where Struve resumed his role as entertaining gatekeeper and paved the way for Miocic’s arrival into the division’s Top 10. Someone forgot to alert the Dutchman that this was the plan, as Struve gave arguably the finest performance of his career in a second-round stoppage of Miocic.
“I heard some complaints about my power in the past, but I think they might change their opinion right now,” Struve said. “I need to work on using my reach better. Some moments were pretty good, some weren’t so good, but I think I showed I have a good chin. I’ve got four wins in a row with four finishes, and [UFC President] Dana [White] said I’m about Top 5 in the world now, so I’m pretty proud as a 24-year-old.”
When Struve approached the Octagon at the Capital FM Arena, Fuel TV analyst Kenny Florian remarked that the young heavyweight added something new to his game each time out. I chuckled to myself, wondering if Florian had ever heard Struve say he needed to learn how to better use his reach before, oh, practically every one of his fights. I smugly sat through round one, nodding knowingly as Miocic consistently got inside of Struve’s considerable range, landing multiple punches to the head and body of his opponent.
“Same old Struve,” I thought to myself, as I awaited the inevitable knockout. Well, it came, but it was Struve who delivered it. Buoyed by a far more aggressive approach than he demonstrated in the opening period, Struve had Miocic reeling with uppercuts and hooks in round two.
There would be no need for a white-knuckle comeback on this night, as referee Herb Dean rushed in to save Miocic before Struve could inflict any more damage at the 3:50 mark. It was not Struve’s first knockout victory, but it was his most significant. On the very same week that “Skyscraper” revealed that he is indeed seven feet tall, he also showed the world that he is much more than a curiosity. Calling him a Top 5 contender is a stretch at this point, but give Struve credit for shining on the grandest stage of his career to date.
“You know, I think I showed that I am still getting better, stronger in every fight. I am getting more powerful in every shot,” he said.
Struve may never have Jon Jones’ mastery of reach and distance -- few do -- but maybe he can remain relevant without it. Since he is not yet 25 years old, there is still plenty of time for development. After Saturday’s victory, Struve planted the seed for a potential showdown with Fabricio Werdum.
“I think it would be an awesome fight, and he is one of the best fighters in the world,” Struve said. “I think I can rock him on the ground and I can beat him.”
The general consensus is that, in some order, dos Santos, Cain Velasquez, Overeem, Werdum and Daniel Cormier are the five best heavyweights on the planet. After that, the picture becomes murkier, with veterans like Frank Mir, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Josh Barnett dotting the landscape.
At the moment, it is hard to put Struve above any of those men, but at least he is in the discussion. That is better than the position he was in a little more than a year ago, when “Travis Browne” and “Superman punch” were the words most commonly associated with his name.
A little bit wiser. A little bit stronger. A little bit taller. It finally looks as though Struve is ready to reach new heights in his MMA career.