Last we saw of seven-foot-tall Dutch heavyweight Stefan Struve, he was sent crumpling to the canvas by a vicious Mark Hunt left hook, suffering a broken jaw in the process. Struve was immediately sidelined, expecting a five-month layoff to recuperate, but in August 2013, while still recovering from a fractured mandible, Struve received a devastating diagnosis. He was suffering from athletic heart syndrome (AHS), also known as athlete’s heart, a condition where the heart is enlarged, as well as a leaking aortic valve, putting the future of his MMA career in jeopardy.
Now, just 16 months after the loss to Hunt, and 11 months since the diagnosis, Struve, 26, who has received medical clearance to compete, is set to return to the Octagon at UFC 175 against Matt Mitrione. And while there are still plenty of questions regarding Struve’s condition, his comeback marks a notable advancement in cardiology and medical science.
For the majority of the last decade, sports medicine research has primarily focused its efforts on head trauma, due, in no small part, to the rise of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and a series of suicides by NFL veterans like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, both of whom suffered from the degenerative brain disease. Professional Wrestling was also rocked by a high profile head trauma-related scandal, when, in 2007, WWE star Chris Benoit, whose brain was later revealed to show signs of CTE, murdered his wife and son, before taking his own life.
30 years since Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, on account of repeated and sustained head trauma, doctors have tirelessly searched for cures and treatments for concussions, while sports leagues and organizations have altered their rule sets to minimize risk. And despite these efforts, science appears no closer to finding a cure for brain-related injuries; however, the same cannot be said of cardiology research, which has experienced notable breakthroughs, paving the way for Struve to make a comeback.
Congenital heart disease and sports, of course, have a long and fatal history. In 1990, NCAA basketball standout Hank Gathers tragically collapsed on the court, dying moments later due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, while Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis expired three years later during practice as a result of the same ailment.
But medical science has come a long way in the last twenty years, allowing top-level athletes the means to safely return to action. In 2012, at the London Olympic Games, American swimmer Dana Vollmer, who suffers from Long QT Syndrome, a rare condition that involves a form of irregular heartbeat, captured a gold medal, and in the process set the 100-meter butterfly world record.
Vollmer’s miraculous comeback, while remarkable, is still an unproven paradigm across all sports, as the comparisons between swimming and mixed martial arts, where the stakes are much higher, are minimal, save the importance placed on cardiovascular conditioning. And although athletes figuratively thrive on heart, there is no guarantee that Struve, or any athlete for that matter, will experience a physical resurgence comparable to Vollmer. But at least Struve will have the opportunity to test his merits.
Just last week, former Baylor University standout Isaiah Austin was ruled ineligible for the NBA draft due to the discovery of Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects heart valves and aorta, most commonly found in tall, long-limbed individuals. Named an honorary draftee by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Austin is one of millions who suffer from ischemic heart disease (a generic classification of various heart, coronary, and hypertensive ailments), the leading cause of death worldwide, as per World Health Organization statistics.
Austin, like Struve, stands seven feet tall, but his genetic heart defect sits at the opposite end of the scientific spectrum, with no medication readily available to treat his disease. Struve, on the other hand, was prescribed non-performance-enhancing drugs to improve his condition, which should allow his heart to pump blood fully into the aorta—his diagnosis revealed that, previously, his heart only pumped 70-percent of his blood properly.
Stefan Struve is, by all accounts, already a winner inside the Octagon and in sports medicine, and when he steps into the Octagon at UFC 175, he will join Vollmer as a living emblem of the advancement of cardiology. And having found resolve in a life complicated by serious heart disease, he is now a beacon of hope for athletes like Austin and countless others who suffer from athlete’s heart.
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