Stefan Struve is perhaps one of the most exciting fighters in the heavyweight division to watch because unlike other heavyweights, he has the fortitude and conditioning to last more than two rounds.
Furthermore, in a division of emotionally fragile giants, Struve has the durability and maturity to take a beating and still pull out the win late in the fight. This is such a rare quality at heavyweight, where fights can be won or lost in a single punch but more often than not, losses can be attributed to a lack of conditioning or heart.
Today we are going to consider the elements of Struve's game which are really of note. These will be his:
- Remarkable guard game
- Refusal to use his reach
- Technical errors in striking
Remarkable Guard Game
What separates Struve from the rest of the division in which he competes is his ability to turn a fight around after being beaten from pillar to post for one or two rounds. A great deal of this stems from his excellent conditioning for a heavyweight, but also a great deal comes from his excellent guard game.
Perhaps the most important part of playing guard in MMA is to remain aggressive at least in attitude, so many fighters are happy to try to break their opponent's posture and hope for a referee stand up as they hold and prevent action. Struve is the type of opportunist who doesn't pass up a single opportunity on a winded, lazy or careless opponent.
I have stated before that in striking ,everyone, even the best fighter in the world, is making mistakes all the time. The genius is in exploiting an opponent's mistakes brutally while hiding or baiting with one's own errors.
On the ground, it might seem like fewer opportunities and errors are made, but the success of Struve, almost entirely as an opportunistic guard player, rather than one with a thousand great set ups, certainly points to how often opponents can forget themselves while in his guard.
Refusal to use reach
Now of course, this is an area in which I can be a bit more critical of Struve's game. Almost all of Struve's losses and a great many of his comebacks has seen Struve struggling on the feet.
Why should a man with an 84" reach struggle on the feet? A good number of technical shortcomings are brought to the fore by Struve's inability to fight to his physical advantages. Jon Jones is not a great striker, he is a very disciplined striker who does what he is taught to or told to and makes maximum use of his reach.
Struve, on the other hand, will run in to swing hooks at an opponent with little chance of connecting and will allow the opponent to step in and tag him or take him down.
A classic example of this which I often use is Struve's attempt to run in and throw a right hook at Sean McCorkle when he had McCorkle reeling from a previous punch along the fence.
Instead of standing back and placing a long right straight on McCorkle, Struve decided to run in with a wide swing which was incredibly easy for the hurt McCorkle to duck inside of and hoist Struve up into the air.
Rather than learn to use his jab effectively or use long kicks and combinations, Struve is instead content to throw high kicks without set up and then look to land a long right uppercut without set up. Now Struve's uppercut is excellent; it's powerful, it's relatively fast and it punishes his shorter opponents (which is all of his opponents).
The uppercut is certainly one of the best punches that a tall fighter can have in his arsenal because it can seriously hurt a shorter opponent any time they rush in. Unfortunately, every other punch is lacking polish in Struve's arsenal and the two most important punches for a tall fighter, the jab and the rear straight, are both rarely used by Struve.
Where his countryman of similar build, Semmy Schilt, has practised his jab to the point where he can knock his opponents out with it through 10-ounce gloves, any time Struve pushes his lead hand out it lacks power and accuracy, and really only serves to give an opponent a chance to slip it and get close to him.
Against Stipe Miocic, Struve's jab was rarely used and completely ineffectual when it appeared, allowing Miocic to get right on top of him, the exact thing which the jab exists to prevent.
Not only does Struve lack polish on his long strikes, he actively chooses to attempt shorter ones. For instance, his attempts to constantly land the stepping knee. Against Stipe Miocic, it got him taken down, and against Travis Browne he stepped right into a superman punch.
Something you will notice about the few Nak Muay and kickboxers who have excellent stepping knees, or even on the UFC's own Lyoto Machida's trademark skipping knee strike - none of them drop their hands when they step in with their knee. In fact, the majority of them will stretch their hands out to check their opponent's hands.
The less said about Struve's flying knee, which he still throws routinely, the better.
The two cardinal sins which Struve commits defensively are covering up, and backing straight up in response to his opponent's attacks. The former is a great way to let his opponents simply tee off on him, and the latter is simply doing the opponent's job for him when your back hits the fence.
Covering up in MMA is generally a bad idea because the size of the gloves affords little protection to take the brunt of the opponent's punches. In boxing, nowadays at any rate, when covering up it is possible to take away a great many of the opponent's options, with the elbows flush to the ribs and the gloves against the head.
Without 8-to-10-ounce gloves to hide behind the clinch, head movement and footwork are far more important, and indeed that is how boxing used to be when it was fought with 4-ounce gloves. Take a look at the film of defensive genius Jack Johnson on YouTube and count the number of times he covers up.
Covering up in MMA simply leaves so many holes, particularly for a man with levers the length of Struve's. Watching Junior dos Santos vs. Stefan Struve, JDS takes a far more aggressive approach than usual simply because he realises that Struve isn't going to fire back and plenty of Cigano's own punches are sneak through the gaps in Struve's defence.
Against Stipe Miocic, Struve kept covering up but Miocic stuck too rigidly to his principles of getting in and getting out, when in fact he could simply have stayed in range and swung at Struve until something telling connected just as Dos Santos did.
There was no magic in Dos Santos' destruction of Struve, he was just gifted no resistance and poor defence by Struve.
The final great flaw in Struve's game, backing straight up, is a gift against a grappler or a striker. Against a striker, it places a fighter on the fence, where many offensive strikers do their best work such as Anthony Pettis and Junior dos Santos.
It is also where a great many wrestlers want to place their opponent so that they can begin to grind their opponent down in the clinch or drop for their legs.
It may seem as though I am being incredibly critical of Stefan Struve but this flaw in particular is one which a great many mixed martial artists suffer from. Martin Kampmann is a great example of someone who will back straight up until he hits the cage.
In conclusion, the later this fight goes the better it becomes for Struve on paper at least. He struggles against big punchers who crowd him but as the fight goes on his opponents often tire and he has a better chance of luring them into his dangerous guard or catching them with his Hail Mary uppercut.
It is just hard to see Struve working his way into the elite of the division until he can stop fighting like a 5'9" fighter with 6'11" of target.
For more of my analysis, check out my Mark Hunt piece.