Late on a spring North Carolina night, Roy Nelson thanked his lucky stars.
The fighter known as "Big Country" needed just 39 seconds to finish Stefan "Skyscraper" Struve with a monstrous right hook in their March 31, 2010 bout. But long after the fans had filed out of the Charlotte arena and gone home, Nelson shook his head and explained to a small gathering of reporters why he was glad he met the 6-foot-11 prodigy from the Netherlands when he did.
"That kid's going to be a monster some day," Nelson said. "He just turned 22. With his size and his reach, I'll tell you what, let's just say I'm glad I fought him now and not a few years down the road."
Just two and a half years later, it appears Nelson was on to something. Since that flash loss, Struve has won five of six fights. Now he's in the final stages of preparation for his first UFC main event, as Struve is set to headline Saturday's nationally televised event from Nottingham, England against undefeated heavyweight prospect Stipe Miocic.
"It's been a long time coming to this point," Struve said in a telephone interview Wednesday from Nottingham. "But I'm ready. This is my 12th UFC fight and I know I've earned my way to this position."
Struve began fighting professionally at age 17. He had the good fortune of gaining notoriety on the European circuit during the height of the MMA boom. By age 20, with 10 submission victories during an 12-fight stretch during which he went 11-1, a bidding war erupted for his services. The Japanese promotion Dream, money mark promoter wannabes Affliction, and the UFC all vied for his services.
It was heady times for a fighter who was too young to legally drink in the United States, who eventually chose the UFC.
"It was an honor just to be with the UFC," Struve said. "Maybe I was young and maybe I really didn't know anything, but I did know that UFC was the place to go if I wanted to test myself against the best fighters."
And test himself Struve did. His company debut came at UFC 95 in 2009 against Junior dos Santos, who was coming off what was then considered an upset knockout of Fabricio Werdum in dos Santos' UFC debut.
Dos Santos finished Struve in just 51 seconds. The loss doesn't look so bad in retrospect, given that the former was just beginning a rampage across the heavyweight division which took him to the UFC heavyweight title. Struve admits he fell victim to a condition which seems to vex many first-time UFC fighters.
"I've never been afraid to fight anyone," said Struve. "Doesn't matter if it's Roy Nelson, Junior dos Santos, whoever the UFC wants me to face. But that night, I just froze. You've heard about the UFC jitters? Its true. I just froze and then next thing I knew the fight was over."
By the time Struve lost to Nelson, it was clear where Struve stood in the heavyweight pecking order. He was a tantalizing prospect with an unmatched size and reach advantage with an ever-improving ground game. But he was also one who had to work on the holes in his standup game.
The way Struve sees things, it all came down to putting together the pieces.
"It's a matter of experience and a matter of confidence," said Struve. "I actively worked to improve my training, bring in better training partners, to travel and learn wherever I can. I've got eight UFC wins, I'm comfortable in the octagon and I'm confident when I fight."
Which brings us to Saturday's main event. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why the UFC put this bout together, as Miocic and Struve offer one another solid tests. Miocic is an unbeaten striker with a Golden Gloves boxing background. Seven of his nine career wins have come by way of KO or TKO. So this provides Struve an opportunity to show what he can do with an accomplished standup fighter.
"I want to show everyone what I can do on my feet," said Struve (24-5), who spent a month training in Los Angeles for the bout at UFC veteran Antoni Hardonk's Dynamix gym. "I want to show that I know how to make use of my reach advantage and that I have finishing power. I want to show that I've put it all together and show everyone I've become a complete fighter."
By a similar token, the fight offers Miocic, a native of Independence, Ohio who wrestled at Cleveland State, a chance to showcase his skills. Miocic has looked impressive in winning each of his first three UFC bouts, including a stoppage of previously unbeaten Shane Del Rosario at UFC 146 in May. But Miocic is aware Struve represents a big leap in competition.
"This is a big fight for me, my first main event and first five-round fight," said Miocic. "Struve is a very big guy with long reach and great BJJ and is always dangerous. ... I know I can get past Struve's reach and land my punches. I expect a tough fight, there's a lot on the line for both of us."
If Struve can pass this test Saturday, he'll go a long way toward proving Nelson's words in the empty Charlotte Coliseum prophetic. And who knows? Maybe one day, Struve will get another crack at Dos Santos. While nearly every fighter will tell you that they're only thinking about the opponent in their immediate future, Struve isn't afraid to admit that he wouldn't mind another go at the current champ.
"Of course I want to fight Junior again," Struve said. "Who wouldn't? When you're a fighter you want to avenge all your losses, and Junior's the guy to beat. But that doesn't matter if I don't win on Saturday."