Mixed martial arts is a sport filled with uncertainties and few are more familiar with this reality than Stefan Struve.
Five years ago, the rangy Dutchmen came to the UFC and quickly established himself as a fighter of potential and promise in the heavyweight ranks—a division in desperate need of young talent. While there were setbacks along the way, "The Skyscraper" proved there was legitimacy behind the expectation, as he bounced back strong time and time again.
It didn't take long for Struve to become a staple on the heavyweight scene and 2012 came to a close with the 26-year-old on an impressive run where he had collected four consecutive victories, all coming by way of the finish. There was no doubting that Struve was a man on fire and winning six out of seven showings had him positioned for much bigger things.
As the Beverwijk-native set out to begin his 2013 campaign, there was talk of title contention, which signaled the talented young prospect had finally made good on his transition to become a championship contender. The only thing standing between him and a coveted spot in the divisional upper tier was one of the premier knockout artists in the fight game and it was a challenge Struve looked forward to.
He would step in against Mark Hunt in what would be a memorable tilt at UFC on Fuel TV—and despite everything that seemed tangible on the road just beyond the "Super Samoan"—the aftermath of that night in the Japan would see his entire world flipped upside down.
While the broken jaw Struve suffered at the end of a brutal left hand from Hunt took some time to recover from, things would take a much drastic turn later that year when doctor's discovered he was suffering from a heart condition. The news stopped the surging heavyweight in his tracks as everything he'd worked and sacrificed toward, was in jeopardy of being over. News of Struve's condition shocked the MMA community as his health—not his ability to fight—swept across the sport's landscape.
In one quick turn, everything Struve knew was unsettled and he found himself fighting a much different type of opponent.
"It was a little overwhelming," Struve told Bleacher Report. "I was not only busy with that, but a lot of other things too that took my attention off it. I just went with what the doctors told me and I told them from the very beginning this was not going to be the end of my career. This is something I've been doing and working hard at for so long and I wasn't going to have it taken away from me. It wasn't going to be the end for me. I told them to find a way and we were going to make it happen. And that's basically what I did.
"Going through that situation only made me better and makes me more comfortable going into this fight. Going through what I went through last year makes three five-minute rounds not look like much. It's just another fight and I do this every single day in the gym. I'm ready to do this."
Nevertheless, Struve remained positive throughout and an improving condition continued to feed his hope of returning to the Octagon. That hope turned to full-fledged motivation in April of this year as his doctors signed off on a full bill of health and he was cleared to resume his training regimen. It was the news waiting patiently to hear—and once back inside the gym—Struve immediately set his sights on regaining his footing in the heavyweight ranks.
As he returned to sharpening his skills inside the gym, the love he received during his time away became fuel of a different variety.
"It felt really good to get so much support and to see how many people appreciated the work I do," Struve said. "Not only were people telling me how much they loved my fights, but people reached out to tell me they thought I was an awesome person as well. That really meant a lot because it showed how much the things you do mean to people. It showed me that people appreciate what I do and that I had taken the right direction with my life."
The opportunity he's been waiting for will come this Saturday night when the resurgent striker squares off with Matt Mitrione at UFC 175. When Struve steps into the Octagon in Las Vegas, 17 months will have passed since he last stood under the bright lights, and he doesn't plan on wasting a single minute on getting back to business.
"I have let my opponents get comfortable and maybe do their thing a little too much in the first round, but by the second round, they don't really know what happened because I took over," Struve said. "That's what I need to do in this fight. I need to fight at the level I'm capable of fighting from the start. He's going to break and I'm going to win.
"I think I have the advantage wherever the fight goes. I think I'm better than him on the feet. He may be a little stronger, but I think I'm better than him on the ground as well. If he wants to turn this thing into a wrestling match by coming into the clinch with me, that might not be the smartest thing for him to do. I think I'm better than him anywhere this fight goes and I really need to push myself to fight at a higher level than I did in the past.
"I lost that fight against Mark Hunt but I lost more to myself than I did to Mark," he added. "My body just wasn't able to do what it should have been able to do. If I had been 100 percent, I do believe I would have won that fight and finished it in the first round, but my body shut down. It was at point where it's telling me it won't go any further than this—and if I did—bad sh** was going to happen. I want to pick up where I left off when I beat Stipe Miocic. I want to start winning fights and finishing my opponents again."
While Struve and Mitrione will battle to determine who rises and falls in the heavyweight picture, their meeting will come on with a tinge of animosity between the two fighters. Shortly after the bout was announced in early May, Struve did an interview with MMA Weekly where he explained the curious manner in which the heavyweight tilt came together.
In the interview, Struve blasted Mitrione for specifically asking matchmaker Joe Silva for the fight, even though he had yet to be cleared for the heart condition that had sidelined him for more than year. Struve deemed The Ultimate Fighter alum's methods to be of the shady variety, but he is no longer concerned with how things came to be.
The only thing he's focused on is giving Mitrione what he asked for and he plans to do that in a big way on Saturday night.
"I'll explain what happened with that situation," Struve recalled. "I wasn't even cleared yet and I talked to Matt a couple of months before that. I explained everything I was going through and told him things were going good, but I still needed to get cleared. I had been out with a heart condition for over a year and I'm finally in L.A. in the doctor's office ready to get checked out and cleared, and Joe Silva calls my manager Nima asking if I want to fight Matt Mitrione. I told him I would fight him and anyone they wanted me to, and Joe said that Matt specifically asked for me. I thought that was a little weird.
"With me being gone for so long, why would he ask for a fight like that? I was asked about what went down in an interview I did, they made headlines out of it, and to be honest with you....I couldn't care less if he called me out. I just found it a little odd. Like I said, I couldn't care less. I'm going to try to hurt his feelings this Saturday and he's going to try to hurt mine. I don't give a sh**."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.