Stefan Struve typically doesn’t get a chance to truly throw a straight punch at a sparring partner.
At 7 feet the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s tallest fighter, Struve rarely encounters anyone near his height, much less in the gym.
So even though the heavyweight didn’t actually throw any real strikes during five days of two-a-day workouts, Struve was excited to participate with several of his fellow UFC fighters when the Detroit Pistons came to Las Vegas recently to go through mixed martial arts training that was designed as a team bonding exercise.
Struve said even he was shocked at the size of the NBA players.
“When I walk into that room, even though they’re the same height as me, they still look really tall,” he said. “I’m just not used to seeing other people my size in the gym.”
Former UNLV center Joel Anthony was one of the 12 Pistons who attended the sessions. He said that while few of the skills the players were learning inside the facility where “The Ultimate Fighter” is filmed will translate to the basketball court, the experience will benefit the team.
“It’s been a lot of fun getting an opportunity to bond with our teammates but also get a different type of training,” he said. “When it’s all basketball all the time, sometimes you want to do something a little bit different and outside the box, and this is something very different and very new to us. We’re enjoying it.”
So was Struve, who surprisingly for someone his size never has played basketball.
The sport was nothing more than an afterthought when he was growing up in Holland. Instead, he played soccer and eventually started training in MMA.
UFC Hall of Famer Forrest Griffin, on the other hand, was a decent basketball player in high school.
The former light heavyweight champion showed impressive skills on the court when he was a coach on “The Ultimate Fighter,” even throwing down a dunk during a game of H.O.R.S.E. on the show.
Those skills have deteriorated, according to Griffin.
He had traveled with several other fighters to the Pistons facility in August to go through basketball workouts before the players’ trip to Las Vegas.
It didn’t go so well.
“It’s funny, the further away my day gets, the better I was,” Griffin said. “In 10 more years, I’ll have been in the NBA. I’ll be like, ‘If it weren’t for the MMA stuff, I’d have been in the NBA.’ I’ll just keep getting better and better. In 1997, I was decent. That’s when I peaked.
“It was horrible. If you were ever decent at something and then try to revisit it 10 years later with no knees, you realize you’re horrible at this and you’ve been telling people your whole life, ‘You know, I was pretty good,’ then you know the feeling. The thing is, by the end of the week, wrestlers were beating me at basketball. I knew the terms. I had done the drills before. That was it.”
Griffin said the Pistons were faring much better in the cage than he was on the court. He cited Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as a standout performer, though Griffin may have been bias in the selection.
“My guy from Georgia is a hard worker,” said Griffin, a University of Georgia alumnus. “Fellow UGA guy. I liked him. He was getting after it.”
So was Stanley Johnson, a rookie from Arizona who was selected No. 8 in this year’s NBA Draft. Though he said almost nothing of what he learned in the drills translates to basketball, he enjoyed his days in the gym.
“I love watching the fights,” Johnson said. “I’m just a fan of the sport, and I never knew how hard it was to actually train in it. As a team bonding thing, it’s pretty uncomfortable for us to be out here, but I think what we can take from it is how to get comfortable being in uncomfortable situations. All the great teams can do that.”
The Pistons have not been in that company for some time. One of the players’ main goals was to begin the process of jelling a roster that saw heavy turnover this offseason prompted by a seventh straight losing season.
Of course, a trip to Las Vegas can help with that. But the training sessions were challenging enough to help get the players in shape with training camp set to open Sept. 29.
To that end, the trip appeared to be a success.
“You’re definitely getting some good work in,” said Anthony, who still follows the UNLV program and is particularly proud of all the recent recruits from his native Canada. “Your body definitely feels it. You’re definitely not going to be out of shape doing these workouts.”
Griffin, as the leader of the sessions, was keenly aware the season is just around the corner.
“Goal No. 1 was to not get anyone hurt,” he said. “Goal No. 2 was to see goal No. 1. Goal No. 3 was just to get these guys a couple good workouts and get them out of their comfort zone, break a good sweat, work muscles they don’t usually work. It was a team building exercise. You kind of bond together and figure out how to handle being uncomfortable together.”
Griffin raved about the athleticism of his pupils and joked that with two more days of training, he could have produced a potential champion.
While Anthony, Johnson and Andre Drummond chose themselves when asked to pick which member of the Pistons would fare best in the UFC, none of them said they had the urge to compete in a sanctioned fight.
Struve isn’t surprised.
“With what they’re making and how tough MMA is,” he said, “I don’t think they’re going to be doing anything other than training with us a little bit.”
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.