Stefan Struve: The best is yet to come
Jul 1, 2014 at 11:30a ET
When Stefan Struve stepped into the cage to face Mark Hunt in March 2013 he was dealing with cold like symptoms, but nothing he hadn't felt before and was completely confident he'd come away with a win. But by the third round, Struve's body felt weak, his breath was short and he just couldn't swing punches or grapple the way he had done for the previous 10 minutes and there was undoubtedly something wrong.
Struve was knocked out 1:44 into the third round and ultimately he chalked it up to a bad performance and the misfortune of fighting while under the weather.
It wasn't until five months later when Struve had tests done to figure out exactly what was wrong with his body as he still felt sluggish in training, which is something he's never really dealt with too much before during his career. Remember, this is a fighter who has been competing since his teenage years and was 13 fights into his UFC career so he was pretty aware of how his body should react.
The tests came back and it was the worst possible news Struve could receive.
He was diagnosed with a leaking aortic valve and an enlarged heart, in part due to Struve having bicuspid aortic valve, which basically means his heart wasn't pumping the blood necessary and he was only getting about 70-percent of the blood he needed at the time. The condition was not only life threatening if not repaired, but on paper it appeared as if the seven-foot fighter's career was dangling by a very thin thread.
"I was born with this but they just found it at a real late age," Struve explained when he spoke to FOX Sports recently. "Normally they find this when you're really young. But even now when a doctor listens to my heart, because normally hear a slight murmur, but even now when a doctor listens you really, really need to pay attention (to hear it). The thing is back when they found it, my heart was enlarged. The chamber which is connected to the aorta, in between the aortic valve, and that's the entire problem the aortic valve is different than a normal one.
"So that chamber was bigger and if that chamber is bigger, the opening where the valve is in is bigger. Opening of the valve was bigger and the opening normally stretches with the chamber, but in my case the valve isn't complete or there's a hole and it's not working the way it should be so there is something there malfunctions. So when it got bigger, the valve got bigger and there was more leakage back into the chamber."
As awful as it was to experience a loss that night to Hunt, in reality the fight and the way Struve felt during those 10-plus minutes in the cage gave him pause that something might be wrong, and when it didn't better weeks after the fight, it was time to find out what was going on.
"The thing is I never really felt much until the fight with Hunt. I never really thought it would be something wrong with the heart. The fight with Hunt, I was sick, and when you get sick with this condition then that together that's just killer. My heart was functioning at like 60-percent around that time," Struve revealed. "When you get sick and your body needs to deal with a virus and the heart leakage, it gets really tough for you."
This was not the kind of disease Struve could gloss over or just hope would get better. He had to receive treatment immediately, and then on top of this personal turmoil already going on in his life things only compounded when the Dutch fighter found out some more bad news back at home.
Struve's father was ill and his health was failing, which meant things were getting dire and the UFC heavyweight had to be at home with his family while trying to keep his mind away from thoughts like his career in the UFC might just be over. Unlike a fight in a cage where Struve could see an opponent standing straight in front of him, these were silent killers that stalked his body and the life of his father like thieves in the night.
Through it all, Struve kept a hopeful outlook both for his father's health and for his own return to the sport he loved. It would have been very easy for him to sink into a depression and let rage and profound sadness wash over him like a wave in the ocean, but instead he was determined to stay focused on the good things to help get through the bad times. Instead of mourning for his father, Struve remembered the best moments they shared together. Instead of thinking about what comes after fighting, he fought, scratched and clawed to find a way to get back in the Octagon again.
"I always stayed positive and I was also dealing with my dad being very sick at the time. He passed away in October, but the only thing you can do is to be positive. Take all the positives, even if it's the smallest things in the world. Hold onto those," Struve said.
"It's crazy because I should have been focused on myself of course with the recovery, but his illness took away a lot of the attention from what I had, and maybe in one way that's good because I wasn't thinking of it too much, stressing out about it too much and maybe about my dad. It's been a really crazy year for me."
Doctors decided to treat Struve's condition with medication to see if it would slow down the leakage and the hole in his heart to allow blood flow to return to normal. It wasn't an overnight effect where Struve was able to see the results, but as time passed through the hour glass he started to feel better and his heart was getting healthier.
Struve continued to workout everyday, or at least as much as the doctors would allow him to push without putting strain on his heart. Months went by and each time he visited his physician, Struve anxiously awaited the day he would get the news he had so longed to hear -- it's time to return to fighting.
The moment if finally happened was like a massive weight lifted up off his chest, and there were no words to describe the amount of happiness Struve felt to get his life back on track after nearly losing everything just months earlier.
"There was a big burden on my shoulder that was just taken off by the doctor," Struve said. "The thing is I was already feeling really good after being treated with the medication. So the way I felt, the way I measured things with my blood pressure and my heart rate, especially the heart rate, my heart rate has dropped about 20 beats per minute since they found (the problem). The last time I checked it, it was 47 beats per minute and that's really good for an athlete my size.
"Now they treated me with blood pressure lowerers, and that has reduced the size of the left chamber. They reduced the size of the chamber, reduced the size of the valve and reduced the leakage so right now they just need to monitor it really close and as it stands right now, it's still getting better every single day."
Less than a year ago, Struve was told this condition could develop into full blown heart failure. Now, he's training for a fight at UFC 175 against Matt Mitrione and thankful to have his career back after nearly being forced into retirement at the tender age of 26.
"I feel great. I've been training pretty much the entire year I was out. I always train. I feel really good and I feel really rested and really energetic and that was something that was missing in the past," Struve said.
While he's still an open book when it comes to his heart ailment because Struve knows everyone is curious how he's been doing and how this affects him going forward, the Dutch fighter is mostly ready to answer some fight questions again. For the last year, almost every time somebody addressed him, the genesis of the conversation started with 'so how is your recovery going and will you be able to come back?". They were logical questions really and not done with any malicious intent, but now Struve can talk about his career moving forward and the guys in the heavyweight division he wants to tackle.
In other words, Struve would like to put a giant calendar up on a dry erase board and just wipe out everything back to September 2012 when he knocked out Stipe Miocic to win his fourth fight in a row as he climbed higher in the heavyweight rankings.
In other words, Struve is ready to fight again instead of talking about fighting again
"I can't wait to get back in there healthy and show how good I really am because in my opinion, I should not have lost that last fight. I should have been on a five-fight win streak now. It is what it is, I cannot change anything about it. The only thing I can do is make sure things go my way in July. We're doing everything we can to make that happen. I just don't see any way he's going to take that from me," Struve said.
"I want to pick up where I left when I beat (Stipe) Miocic. I want to continue my streak. Really in my opinion, I should be able walk through everybody up until the top five and I should be able to be competitive in the top five and win fights there, too. My best years are coming up. I've been in the UFC since my early 20's so far, and heavyweights don't peak until they're 30 or in their 30's so my best years are coming up."