The Trouble with Stefan Struve
Stefan Struve is an exciting prospect in the heavyweight division, in many ways reminiscent of a young Alistair Overeem; Struve is gangly and lacks bulk, his record is hit and miss but he's fought some great fighters, he's always exciting, and despite constantly being credited as a kickboxer it is his submission skills that bring home the bacon when he is inevitably getting beaten up on the feet. Just as Alistair Overeem began competing with the best in the world under the PRIDE FC banner at the age of nineteen, Struve was thrown in against Junior Dos Santos (who was coming off a knockout over a top ten heavyweight at the time) in his UFC debut at the tender age of twenty years old. His career still very much in it's infancy, Struve has plenty of time to turn himself into a consistent winning machine as Overeem has, the question is how many hard shots he will eat along the way.
Just as many other kickboxers have before him, Struve has a misplaced confidence in his stand up. It seems as though he believes that the mere fact that he has competed as a professional kickboxer will win him the striking portion of a match - and this same overconfidence has cost him greatly against Junior Dos Santos, Roy Nelson and Travis Browne.
Struve's terrific ground game is not in doubt, his sweep of Sean McCorkle, a powerful top player, and his escape from Pat Barry's side control right into a triangle choke was a thing of beauty. The Dutchman's long frame enables him to sneak in chokes with his arms and legs easier than most fighters, particularly at heavyweight where a great guard game is a rare commodity. This is not to say that Struve's ground excellence is entirely a result of his frame, to say that would be to grossly under-appreciate his technique and timing. His basic hip bump sweep on Sean McCorkle, a powerful top player, completely turned the tide of their match and led to a ground and pound TKO for Struve. It is rare that you see such a basic technique used to such effect against a fighter with the size and experience of McCorkle. Despite his status as a "Dutch Kickboxer", 15 of Struve's 22 wins have come by way of submission while only 5 have come by knockout.
The true hole in Struve's game and what is stopping him from achieving greatness is his refusing to fight as tall on the feet as he does on the ground. Stefan Struve is not a small target, and while he possesses the joint longest reach in the UFC, he consistently fails to use it. A drought of strong jabs is not the only ailment in Struve's striking though; he over-commits when he gets any attack going. Just look at Jon Jones - he is NOT a great striker - but he uses his reach in a way that he can attempt almost any striking technique and rarely be punished for it. Jones uses push kicks to the legs (similar to those Condit used to stifle Hardy and Diaz), biting low kicks to the inside and outside of the thigh, and long straight punches from range to keep his opponents off of him, while moving backwards much of the time.
Struve's desire to constantly walk in is not the way a man with an 84 inch reach should fight, he smothers his punches and exposes himself. In the moments of offence he found against McCorkle on the feet, he backed the stockier man against the cage with a hard straight right, then ran in on top of him, exposing his hips to a massive takedown - when he should have stayed back at range so as not to muffle his punches or lose his reach advantage and looked to land another long right hand or jab. His desire to keep moving his feet forward left him right on top of McCorkle for the easiest takedown of McCorkle's life from a position where he should have been in trouble.
Against better punchers, Struve's inability to use his reach has proven more costly to his career and his cognitive faculties. Now heavyweight champion, Junior dos Santos is a puncher who does not typically use his jab all that well (excluding his match with Carwin) and prefers to throw thudding straight rights, left hooks and right uppercut. He should have found a nightmare in Struve's reach and ground wizardry, but instead was allowed to walk in on the big Dutchman and throw his hands comfortably. It is one thing to excuse this loss as Junior Dos Santos is now the heavyweight champion - but there is nothing magical about Dos Santos that allows him to wade through the gulf of distance in which Struve's reach can hit him but he cannot hit Struve. Struggling under pressure in the stand up as he often does, rather than attempt to tie up, Struve made the mistake of attempting to cover up. In 4oz gloves covering up is not a great move anyway, but Struve's long arms work against him as he covers up, it is almost impossible or a man of Struve's length to put his gloves on his head without bowing his elbows out a foot in front of him and allowing punches looping around behind them.
Roy Nelson, a much worse striker whose only trick on the feet is his powerful overhand right, found one of the best knockouts of his career against Struve, who on paper is a much better striker, just by crowding him and throwing the overhand repeatedly. In situations when he is being crowded Struve is still of the mindset to cover and up and weather the storm, when he is not built to do this. Instead Struve should be looking to utilize the Thai neck clinch or "Plumm" when his back is to the fence - he has no fear of being put on his back most of the time due to his brilliant submission game, and his length would provide him great leverage from this position. Fabricio Werdum most recently showed how Nelson's crowding style could be countered with a neck clinch. If Struve does not want to utilize the Thai Plumm, he should at least get comfortable tying opponents up in an over under clinch, then work at range once the referee has broken them.
The last fault in Struve's stand up game is his seemingly unavoidable habit of leaving himself wide open when he is feeling confident. His failed flying knee against Paul Buentello is now infamous, as he was knocked down in mid-air by his much shorter opponent; yet Struve has attempted that same technique with his hands down by his waist multiple times since - most recently against Travis Browne. Browne went on to knock him out with a spectacular superman punch, but examining the replays it is quite clear that Browne's set up didn't cause the knockout. Struve is lunging for a stepping knee strike (a great technique for taller strikers) and once again has his hands nowhere near his suspect chin, it is more coincidence than anything that Browne was throwing his punch at this moment, but Stefan leaves himself open so routinely that he could have been knocked out the same way if the first one hadn't left him unconscious.
Stefan Struve is not a bad fighter, in fact far from it - he possesses enough submission skills to make the few other competent guard players in the division pay attention, he has decent power in his hands, athleticism, and the perfect build for a world beating striker. It is only his technical flaws that let him down when combined with his somewhat misplaced sense of confidence on the feet based on his physical statistics and kickboxing record alone. If he can learn to maintain distance when on offence, tie his opponent up when in trouble, and keep his hands up when he is attacking, Struve will be a force in the division one day in just the same way that we never expected Overeem to.
Jack Slack now blogs at his brand new website www.fightsgoneby.com
He can also be found on Twitter @JackSlackMMA
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