What's it like to be one of MMA's and Europe's top heavyweight prospects being thrown into the deep end in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) when you're 21 years old? If you're Stefan Struve, it's the only life he knows.
The UFC heavyweight was thrown to the wolves, having to face Junior dos Santos in his UFC debut at UFC 95. He was stopped early in the first round with punishing strikes, a quick notice to Struve that he wasn't in fighting in the local European circuit anymore.
And while Struve also suffered a loss to Roy Nelson early in 2010, the 6'11" powerhouse from Holland knows he's got two things on his side. One, he's young, now only 23 years old. Two, he's able to make key changes to his body and skill set to be able to contend with the upper echelons of the division. Oh yeah, he's also accrued five wins in the UFC, adding experience to his developing body and technical prowess.
According to Struve, he hasn't been idle in his off time. Since punishing Sean McCorkle at UFC 124, Struve has been on a tormenting strength and conditioning program to add bulk to his giant frame. He's also worked tirelessly at expanding his attacks from open guard as well as making better use of his considerable reach and size in striking by working with kickboxing's Daniel Ghita.
Through it all, though, Struve remains completely unfazed. Tough losses be damned, the Dutch man isn't looking back. I spoke to Struve recently on MMA Nation on 106.7 The Fan. In this exclusive interview, Struve talks about swimming with the sharks in the UFC, adding nearly 30lbs of muscle to his frame, his complete lack of reluctance in fighting teammates and how he plans to unload newfound punching power on Travis Browne. Full audio below:
Luke: Stefan, how are you sir?
Stefan: Doing good, just finished training, I'm back home and everything is going good. I can't wait for 130, I'm in shape, that's for sure.
Luke: We'll get to your big fight coming up in just a minute, I wanted to ask you about this UFC insurance policy cause it's kinda funny. It's a world wide policy, but you live in Holland and they have a form of mandatory insurance, does this thing, what the UFC is doing, impact you at all?
Stefan: I haven't thought about it yet, but I think what you said is that it's world wide, so it's the same for me as all the fighters. What they're doing is awesome, it's really good. You're training for a big fight and if you get injured during training for your fight, you can't get paid in another way. So what the UFC does, it's one of the best things that could have happened to us fighters.
Luke: Living in Holland, do you have insurance?
Stefan: Yeah, medical insurance. I pay about $170/month for my medical insurance.
Luke: Does it cover a cold? What does it not cover?
Stefan: Oh it's just medical insurance. If I get injured in training and I need to go to the hospital, the bill will get paid.
Stefan: I know he's 6'7", just like my last two opponents. I know he's undefeated, just like my last two opponents and I've beat my last two opponents by knockout. I think this is gonna be one helluva fight for the fans, two big guys who aren't afraid to exchange punches. I think I'm the better fighter, both on the feet and on the ground and I'm planning to show that at UFC 130.
Luke: I've watched some training video on you recently and there was a lot of use of the push kick. Going forward, you're 6'11", is using your length more of a priority now?
Stefan: Yeah, of course. I've been trying to use it for a while now. I wasn't that heavy for my frame, I wasn't a huge guy. I've been putting a lot of muscle on lately, it was kind of hard to use the distance and technique properly. If I use my reach now with the muscle on and the weight I put on, it's easy to keep distance because everything is harder. My punches are harder. My kicks are harder. It's easier to keep someone at bay.
Luke: Ah, I see what you're saying your jab and your push kick have a little bit more force now.
Stefan: I'm more confident to use it because I know if I hit someone with it, its got a bit more force to it.
Luke: I saw an interview where you said you were afraid to go full force because you were afraid of turning the lights out on your partners. Was that when you were 20 or was that a case of the last year? When did it turn the corner that you couldn't really open up on sparring partners for fear of knocking them out?
Stefan: Especially in the last couple of months, I put a lot of weight on and a lot of muscle on my frame. I've been hitting guys in training the last couple months. I've seen the effects of that. I've rocked a couple guys in training so I became a little afraid of hitting them with full power because they're my friends as well you know? I don't want to hurt them. I want to keep them intact for the next day. For my fight it won't be a problem, it'll be awesome to see how much power I've gained and how much effect it'll have in my fight.
Luke: I guess I'm curious about that then. You obviously know you can hit harder because of all that muscle but you don't know how much harder or how much more of an effect it will have until you can go live with Travis Browne, is that what you're saying?
Stefan: I know how much power I have. I use it on the pads in training and on the heavy bag of course. But a fight is different. A heavy bag doesn't punch back. My trainer tries to ground me but it's not a fight. So it'll be interesting to see how it plays out in fights.
Luke: You're 6'11", which is gigantic for anybody, but even for the heavyweights, you're taller than most. I wouldn't say there are a ton of heavyweights like there are a ton of lightweights who can wrestle, but there are a fair number of heavyweights who can really wrestle. Your height, do you see that as a disadvantage? How do you view the strength and control of all the wrestlers who compete in the UFC's heavyweight division?
Stefan: You need to know how to counter that in my opinion. If a guy like Brock or Velasquez wants to take you down, you're going down, not matter what. So you gotta make sure your guard is really good. So for the last couple of months, I've had a new BJJ coach for this camp. We've been working on open guard and all the things you can do with open guard. I think if you have a really good open guard and you can play with your guard, I think that the wrestling those guys have can be countered.
Luke: So you would disagree with someone like John Fitch who said that the guard is largely dead in MMA?
Stefan: He said the closed guard was mostly dead in MMA. Closing your legs when you're taken down is mostly dead. And yeah, I think he's right. Especially when you're fighting a wrestler, you don't wan to close your legs cause when you close your legs that means you're keeping him on top of you. You want to open your guard and start working on his hips and with your own hips and create space or set something up.
Luke: I think some footage alluded to that you're training with Daniel Ghita, how did that happen? How'd you get hooked up with Daniel Ghita?
Stefan: I've been working with Daniel for about two years now. The Netherlands isn't a big country, you can drive from North to South in three hours. Since there are so many K-1 fighters now, and they don't spar with each other and they're searching for sparring partners. But because there are so many guys, it's hard. I'm a big guy and I fight in the UFC. I'm the only UFC fighter in Holland so there's no competition. Our trainers know each other and he's a really good sparring partner. We spar really well with each other.
Luke: What about Alistair Overeem? What is your relationship with the Golden Glory team?
Stefan: I have no relationship at all with Golden Glory. We don't train with them or anything, but that's mostly because we don't see them that much. I have my own team and they have their own team. Golden Glory isn't really a gym, it's more a team of people based all over the Netherlands.
Luke: So there would be no issue, if Overeem came to the UFC, you would have no issue fighting him?
Stefan: Fighting him? No, there wouldn't be any problem fighting him. I have no problem fighting anybody, even if it was a teammate, I get paid to fight.
Luke: So you would fight a teammate then?
Stefan: Yeah, no problem.
Luke: Why is it that the Dutch guys have no problem fighting their teammate? Alistair Overeem, at the Fedor vs Silva press conference, said he would fight his own brother. Why is it that the American guys are so against it and the Dutch guys don't seem to be bothered by it at all?
Stefan: I don't know man. Maybe some guys see it too much as fighting? I see it more as a sport. Of course it's fighting and you're trying to win a fight but I don't know. It's competition and you want to be the best. You get paid to fight. I can understand some guys having issue with fighting training partners, but for me, I don't have a training partner in my own weight class in the UFC. Maybe I'd think differently if that was the case but no, I don't think that'd be a big issue right now.
Luke: Alright, you've talked about strength and conditioning and how much weight you've put on. Let's break this down, when you entered the UFC first fight, how much did you weigh?
Stefan: I believe I was 239. That was on a good day, that was a heavy day. I was between 235 and 240 during that period.
Luke: So what are you walking around at today?
Stefan: I weighed in this morning and I weighed 118 kilograms, that's about 262 pounds I believe.
Luke: So has this been a gradual shift of 22 pounds? How long has this taken? Did you put this on in the past year or has it been the progress for the past couple of years? Talk to me about how you've put on this weight.
Stefan: I got a little heavy after the Dos Santos fight because after that fight I figured I needed more muscle on my frame. I got a little heavier for the fight with Morecraft, I got a little heavier after the fight with McCorkle. After the fight with Travis I think I'll finally have to start cutting weight.
Luke: How do you feel about cutting weight? Are you nervous at all about it?
Stefan: No, it's not a big issue for me. I've got a really good strength and conditioning coach who knows everything nutrition and knows everything about the human body. So he's gonna support me with that, I'm gonna figure it out in training how to do it best and I don't think it'll be a big issue because I'm a really big guy, you know? So a couple pounds to get under the 265 limit, it's just a couple pounds of fluid, so that won't be that hard for me.
Luke: Frank Mir, when he was trying to put on weight for Brock Lesnar, he made a point and I'm wondering if this applies to you. But he made a point that he knew there was a point where he couldn't put on more weight than that because he knew it would slow him down. What is the most amount of weight you think you can carry without losing speed and explosion?
Stefan: The difference between Frank and Me is about six or seven inches, you know? I can carry a lot more weight than him. I think if I can go up to 280 or 290, I think that will be my best weight. I think that will be my strongest weight.
Luke: When do you expect to get there? Cause 260 to 280, you can't put that on overnight. That takes what? Another year?
Stefan: A year and a half, two years maybe. There's no rush. I just turned 23 a couple months ago so there's no rush but with that being said, if I get that big and I learn more and keep getting better, the future is looking good.
Luke: It's hard to believe you're 23. You were 20 when you entered the UFC?
Stefan: I signed the contract with the UFC when I was 20 and three days after my 21st birthday I fought Junior Dos Santos.
Luke: Looking back now, obviously you've gotten better as a fighter and you've gotten bigger as a person, has the UFC process of preparing for these world class opponents: doing the media, dieting, training, living this really dedicated life. Do you feel that its matured you as well?
Stefan: It may sound a little bit weird, but it became normal for me when I was fighting before the UFC on the big shows in Europe. I was used to that since I had 22 pro fights when the UFC signed me so every time we go to the UFC now, it's normal. We know the routine, we know how everything works, we know how fans react, it's become normal, so that's good.
Luke: Before I let you go, do us the honor of giving your predictions for the rest of the card. Rampage vs Matt Hamill, who do you like in that fight?
Stefan: I'm curious to see what kinda shape Rampage comes in. If he comes in like the best Rampage we've seen, he's gonna win the fight. Hamill's got good takedowns, but I don't think he takes Rampage down that easily and I think that Rampage will have the better stand up, so I'm picking Rampage.
Luke: In the co-Main Event, it's one guy you've already faced who I'm sure you want a rematch against, Roy Nelson and Frank Mir. That's a real interesting fight, who do you like to win?
Stefan: As you said, it's real interesting, really evenly matched, you know? Frank's got some good stand up and some good power in his fists and Roy's got his overhand right. Both are really good on the ground so it's going to be interesting to see how it plays out. I don't want to do a prediction for that since I don't know who's gonna win.
Luke: I like Roy Nelson for what it's worth. Alright man, how can people get at you on twitter? What's your twitter handle?
Stefan: Just my name, @StefanStruve. I have a contest going on, the last time it was a photoshop contest with Sean McCorkle. This time with my management team, we have a contest with "Stefan Stuve is so tall..." to make a funny sentence. The best one gets a trip to either LA or the Netherlands and a hotel, we'll pay for that, a package from Alchemist Clothing, they get my walkout t-shirt, a signed picture, and a day of training with me. I don't know how fun that is cause I'm gonna kick your ass...
Luke: Are you gonna open up on those poor bastards?
Stefan: I don't know, it depends on how much fun they make of me.