Even though he always maintained a goal of resuming his professional mixed martial arts career, Stefan Struve admits there were days he had his doubts.
Doctors told Struve in August he had a bicuspid aortic valve that potentially could jeopardize his ability to fight.
The condition, which he was born with, restricted the flow of blood and oxygen between his heart and aorta. He was told he might need surgery, but doctors decided to try to treat the condition with medication.
That doesn’t mean it was a quick fix. Struve said there were times he would get dizzy as his body adjusted to the pills, and he didn’t know if he would make it back into the cage.
Struve also had to get past the fear that every twinge he felt during a training session was related to his heart.
“Some days, I was just really questioning everything,” he said. “But it became less and less the closer I got to getting cleared to return.”
Now cleared, the 26-year-old will fight again Saturday when he meets Matt Mitrione at UFC 175 at Mandalay Bay. The fight will be his first since March 3, 2013, when he lost to Mark Hunt.
“I get four checkups a year,” Struve said. “Two from my doctor in Holland, and two from my doctor in Los Angeles. Two of the best cardiologists in the world. They check my heart and for signs they know of that are dangerous, and everything’s good. Right now, I’ve got nothing to worry about. They take my health before my career every single time. If there is the slightest risk, they would have told me that.”
Struve said he thinks his best days are ahead of him. Before being treated, he tired easily, even though he was in peak condition. Now that the blood flow to his heart is more regulated, Struve says he notices the difference.
“I sleep so much better,” he said. “I have so much more energy all the time. I feel great. There were definitely days in training before where I just couldn’t do it or something just wasn’t right. I would be tired and just didn’t know why.
“That’s all gone. I just can’t wait for Saturday to showcase my full abilities. It feels so much better now when I put my foot down after a combination; I’m ready to throw the next one instead of having to gasp for breath for a couple seconds.”
Despite the ailment, Struve has had his share of success. The heavyweight, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s tallest fighter at 7 feet, is 9-4 in the organization, with eight of the victories by knockout or submission. He’s excited to see how much better he can be operating at full capacity.
Struve had won four straight fights and was on the verge of title contention before losing to Hunt. He had success early in the fight, but appeared to tire and was knocked out in the third round.
Looking back, he said he thinks his condition had a lot to do with the loss. He said there was a point in the first round at which his body didn’t want to push ahead.
“It’s been very annoying looking back being out for so long with the last fight on my record being a loss, and in my opinion a loss that should have been a win,” Struve said. “But I’m going to take out that frustration on Saturday.”
He also remembers looking back on those scary days in August when his future was in limbo.
“When they find it, you’re like, ‘Why? I’m a professional athlete. Why does this have to happen to me?’ ” Struve said. “Questions go through your mind, but you have to learn to deal with it, because it’s not going to change. It’s not going to magically get fixed, so deal with it and come back stronger.
“I found out it’s true that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Struve doesn’t foresee any complications and said the medication is making his heart stronger every day. But he also knows nothing is guaranteed and is prepared for what could happen down the road.
Surgery still would be an option for a permanent fix if the treatment doesn’t continue to work. Should that happen, Struve said he would quit fighting.
It’s a reality he has prepared himself for with the belief he can do anything.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking,” he said. “There’s so many other things I can do. I wanted to be successful in (MMA) since I was 17, 18 years old. I decided to see how far I could go, and look how successful I’ve been already. I think if I find another passion I really love and put all my energy into that, I could be successful at that, too. I just don’t want to think about anything else right now.”
■ NOTE — Shoulder and spine injuries have forced featherweight champion Jose Aldo to pull out of his UFC 176 title defense against Chad Mendes on Aug. 2 in Los Angeles. No replacement opponent, or main event, has been named.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.