Stefan Struve, the No. 12-ranked contender in the heavyweight division, will return to action on Saturday after a health scare.
The 7-footer is coming back after more than a year. He was sidelined with a leaking aortic valve, via MMAFighting.com. He takes on Matt Mitrione in an attempt to become a feel-good story and begin working his way back up the UFC rankings.
The question is: Can he become a top-five level fighter?
I believe so.
|Champion||Cain Velasquez||13-1||Def. Junior dos Santos|
|1||Fabricio Werdum||18-5-1||Def. Travis Browne|
|2||Junior dos Santos||16-3||Loss to Velasquez|
|3||Travis Browne||16-2-1||Loss to Werdum|
|4||Antonio Silva||18-5 (1 NC)||No-contest vs. Mark Hunt|
|5||Josh Barnett||33-7||Loss to Browne|
Let's start with his skills. Struve is a talented grappler who has developed his striking. His jiu-jitsu is good with his long limbs being a valuable asset. His striking has evolved, and he has shown the ability to utilize his reach effectively.
He has four submissions inside the Octagon to his credit, but his most notable win to date is a TKO victory over Stipe Miocic. Since losing that fight, Miocic has reeled off three straight wins and is currently ranked as the No. 6 contender in the division.
The biggest reason Struve can make his way up the heavyweight ladder and re-institute himself as a top contender is that the division lacks depth.
Fighters who are well past their prime and are on skids are still ranked in the Top 15. Frank Mir, Alistair Overeem and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira still have a presence in the rankings. Only Nogueira is ranked below Struve. Josh Barnett is ranked as the No. 5 contender.
It is not an indictment that the division is weak but that it is stagnant with the same fighters of yesteryear.
Counting down the days! Knees, shins, elbows and knuckles are sharpened and ready to do damage! pic.twitter.com/yecVClYbUi— Stefan Struve (@StefanStruve) June 27, 2014
If Struve can return with a win against Mitrione, it will put him back in the win column and make him a winner of five of his last six bouts. It would be hard to deny he is a Top 10 heavyweight even with a year away from the sport.
With a thin division, it provides fighters with a quicker path up the rankings, and they can shift dramatically with topnotch performances.
Struve is still only 26 years of age. He is a young fighter who has been developing his skills. His five years as a UFC fighter may make it seem like he is an aging veteran, but he is not. There is still a lot of upside for the rangy fighter.
If the heavyweight division was littered with athletes like featherweight and lightweight, it may be harder for Struve to crack the Top Five, but many fighters in the division are lumbering heavy-hitters with not much more to offer. Struve is an athlete who can make noise.
If he hopes to make a run, he will have to show it on Saturday.
How does he look following the health scare, and how much have his skills sharpened while he was away? Those are the two biggest questions for Struve to answer at UFC 175. If he is able to put Mitrione away efficiently, he will re-open the eyes of the voters.
Can Struve make a run up the ladder? Absolutely he can.