Stefan Struve: A monster in the making?

A funny thing happened to Stefan Struve on Saturday en route to his second-round TKO victory over Stipe Miocic at UFC on Fuel TV.

After an uneasy first round where Struve ate a succession of overhand rights and hard body shots while looking poised to do what he seemingly always does -- fight small -- he suddenly started acting like a genuine 7-foot giant.

Struve’s first really good jab snapped Miocic’s head back with 3:48 left in the second and it appeared to burst whatever psychological block had been inhibiting his offense in the early going. He landed another, then another, lashing his much smaller opponent with exactly the kind of go-go-Gadget strikes that ought to be the calling card of the tallest fighter in UFC history.

It was as if each long-distance punch further convinced him of what we’d all been thinking (and in some cases shouting at our televisions) during the first three-plus years of his career in the big show: that if he ever learned how to properly use his height, he could be a monster.

With the jab finally working, Struve opened up with a series of uppercuts, one of which sent Miocic stumbling and slipping into the laser right hand that signaled his demise. Roughly two minutes after the “Skyscraper” began living up to his nickname, he was jogging across the cage in celebration, leaving Miocic to do a weird zombie tango in the arms of Herb Dean.

This made it an even dozen fights in the Octagon for the 24-year-old Dutchman, an almost unthinkable number for someone so young and still such a work in progress. The win over Miocic was Struve’s fourth in a row, pushed him to 9-3 in the UFC and should comfortably ensconce him in the lower half of the heavyweight top 10.

Whether it signals some greater epiphany for him very much remains to be seen.

The popular narrative on Struve has always been one of untapped potential. He has been good, but not great so far in the UFC, struggling at times to cash in on the obvious advantage of his outlandish stature. Too often, he gets suckered into playing the shorter man’s game and the first round of this latest outing was no different.

The second round? That was more like it.

After oddsmakers saw fit to install him as an underdog to the undefeated but inexperienced Miocic -- a talented prospect who fits the mold of the smallish, athletic heavyweights who’ve thus far ruled the post-Lesnar era -- this was probably the defining victory of Struve’s career to date.

Then again, it’s only one win. It could be a sign of things to come or it could just be the high watermark for a fighter who will continue to be one of the sport’s most frustrating projects. Doubly frustrating because we won’t know anything definitive for some time to come.

After it was all over, Struve said his slow start here was by design, that he wanted to pace himself during the first five-round fight of his life. If that’s true, it was a dangerous strategy and one that only forced him to reaffirm his reputation as an exciting fighter who can take a beating and still battle back to win.

Fact is though, Struve knows that’s not the kind of fighter he should ultimately be. His mix of solid striking, submissions, fitness and heart make for a potent skill set in a division that hasn’t exactly been synonymous with well-rounded cardio machines in the past. Couple all that with his size and reach and it’s clear he shouldn’t have to play the role of comeback kid.

This is something both he and his team have talked about at length (no pun intended) throughout his UFC stint: that he ought to be dominating people, smothering them from a mile away. That when he reaches out and touches someone, they shouldn’t be able to touch him back. That when he leaves the cage, the only scratches on him ought to be on his knuckles.

Saturday’s win was a good start, but Struve’s not quite there yet. Luckily for him, at his age he’s still got time to grow.