Recovery can be defined in many different ways. It can be the act or process of becoming healthy after an illness or injury. It can be the act or process of returning to a normal state after a period of difficulty. It can be the return of something that has been lost or stolen. In daily life, sometimes recovery could come from a great meal and a good night’s sleep. For a recovering addict, it could be getting that six-month mark after an overdose. For former members of the military, it could be the transition back to civilian life. For an athlete, it’s getting well enough to perform on the highest level possible. For Bellator MMA’s former featherweight champion Daniel Straus, recovery was a life-changing event.
In November 2015, Straus was coming off one of the greatest performances of his career. He had recaptured his featherweight belt from one of his biggest rivals and was atop the division once more. Unfortunately, Straus broke his hand in his title-winning bid. He came back 17 months later, but he was defeated in back-to-back fights for the first time in his career. It was a career low for Straus, but it was about to get far worse. On Dec. 17, 2017, Straus was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident that left him unconscious. It seemed that his fighting career was over.
“Definitely never fight,” Straus told Combat Press of the news his doctors gave him. “It’s possible about walking, but I definitely wouldn’t be fighting again. It’s crazy. After the accident, I had some central cord compression. So that kind of shut down the right side of my body, and rehabbing it wasn’t really on the doctor’s mind. It was something where I had to have the surgery, and I opted out. Without doing the surgery, it wasn’t looking good, but I just stuck to my guns and just continued to work.”
The Bellator veteran’s decision to opt out of the surgery shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“To be honest with you, it was a couple of things,” said Straus. “I [could not] pay for a fucking surgery right [then]. I cannot afford that. And then, even after thinking about that, I thought about the surgery that I had just did. You know, I was just out with my hand surgery — I was out a year and a half for that — so instantly I’m like, ‘I can’t do a surgery. I can’t get back to fighting soon enough.’ In my head, I was going to be back to fighting in a few months. Whether I did the surgery or not, I figured it’d be about the same amount of time, possibly longer. But at the time, I was thinking this was an accident. I could rehab, and I could be back in the next six months. If I do the surgery, I’ll be out for a year. So, that was a majority of my thinking at the time.
“I didn’t like my choices, so I made my own. It just has to be that way. Not everyone is that type of person. Not everyone can think that way. Not everyone can drive that way. But for me, I just couldn’t. I know my predicament, what I’m going into, and what I’m leaving with. So, me not giving it a try is not really an option. Just put me in, coach. I don’t care which position. Just put me in the game.”
There’s only one way to describe Straus’s mentality through all of this. He really has a fighting spirit. It was so much more than just a recovery process for Straus. He had been through it before with his hand, but when people use the phrase “to start from scratch,” it gave it a whole new meaning for Straus.
“It’s not kinda starting from scratch; it really is starting from scratch,” said Straus. “I have started from scratch. I didn’t kinda. Here’s the thing that people don’t really understand. I didn’t really want to make this — the whole accident — I didn’t want anybody to know, and I don’t wanna blow it up, and I didn’t want it to be headlines, and I didn’t want people to really have to worry. But what people don’t really understand is that I had no movement. I lost tons of fucking just movement [and] flexibility. Nerves had died. I lost feeling. A ton of shit. So, it wasn’t just like, ‘Alright, wake up, throw a punch.’ It was none of that. It was, first, learn to pull up your pants. Learn to tie your shoe. Learn to snap a finger. Learn to hold a cup. Hold a spoon. Eat. Gradually, to throwing a punch. Try to do a pullup. Try to pull some rope. So, it wasn’t like I could just wake up and be like, ‘Alright, I’m cool. My neck’s fucked up, but I can still throw.’ It was none of that shit.
”It’s been a fucking mission — and that’s another thing. I didn’t want to post all this sentimental, sad shit. That’s never been my thing. Yeah, I’m getting better, but I was never trying to, like, keep in people’s minds or be in the spotlight. I’m grinding out here. I’m literally fighting to keep my head up. When I got out of the hospital, I started therapy four days later with no help whatsoever, as far as getting to therapy [while] living at home. I had no one at the house. I can’t move my fucking neck. I can’t move my right side. I have to drive myself all the way down [to therapy]. It was crazy. This isn’t a kinda thing for me at all. It’s literally waking up knowing that you have to start from ground zero — boxing, understanding MMA, understanding positions. There’s things that I see all day, but then my body wouldn’t react. Why? Because it wasn’t there. I had to learn it again.
“You tell a grown man that one day he’s fine, then the next day he doesn’t know how to tie his shoes — not that I didn’t know how to tie my shoes. I knew how to tie my shoe, but I physically just… My fingers did not work to tie my shoe. I still have problems tying. I can tie now. You can bend down and tie your shoe and do it in a heartbeat. It still takes me like 30 seconds to get it done.
“It’s crazy, man. I really just couldn’t do it. The mental [part] was tough, and just having everyone support me and remind me not to give up. Just thinking about getting back and everything. It’s a blessing to be here. It’s gonna be a good one.”
Just take a moment to really evaluate how far Straus has come since 2015. The hand break? That was a minor setback. The motorcycle accident nearly ended his life. Yet, on Friday, Straus steps back inside the cage. This time, he’s fighting as a lightweight. His opponent is Shane Kruchten.
“I was supposed to be fighting at featherweight,” Straus revealed. “The guy that I’m fighting didn’t want to fight at featherweight. So, we ran it at 150 [pounds], and he bitched about how he didn’t wanna cut to 150, so I’m just like, ‘Fuck it.’ Everybody knows. You put a contract in front of me, I’m gonna sign it, no matter what it says. I’m gonna sign it, and I’m gonna get to work. I don’t negotiate nothing. I don’t try to barter. I go in there, and I do what I gotta do.
“This is a great fight for me, because he’s weak. Starting in, if you can’t even make a weight class that you fight in, fuck it. I can’t say that. He might just be a big guy. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I can only assume. Only thing I can assume is why he won’t fight at 145. But he didn’t want to fight at 45. He wanted to fight at lightweight, so I obliged him.”
In 2012, Straus won the Bellator season-six featherweight tournament and was slated to take on champion Pat Curran. Instead of waiting for his title bout, Straus took a fight against Royce Gracie black belt Alvin Robinson. Straus submitted Robinson before finally getting his chance at redemption against Curran in 2013.
“I can’t speak for other people. I just know, for me, that’s what I need to do,” Straus explained. “I need to put myself in the spot. Fight out of my body and do what the fuck I gotta do.”
Over the next four years, Straus went on to capture the featherweight title twice while dropping fights to Curran, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire (twice) and Emmanuel Sanchez. Before his days in Bellator, and once while he was with the organization, Straus competed as a lightweight. Could this be his new home?
“I’ll always consider,” Straus said. “I’ve always been like, ‘If I ever get a call back up to 55, that’s fine.’ I’d be ready, because I’ve fought there before. It’s what it is. It’s not like I got Smaller. Well, it’s not like I’m blown out of the weight class. I figured I would probably fight here again at some point, and it’s just now. I don’t really know if I plan on staying here, but I definitely don’t mind having fights here. I don’t mind at all. I hear they have a featherweight tournament. I would love to get in that. If I’m unable to, then, shit, I would love to jump in the lightweight [tournament]. Either one of those would be fine with me.”
Straus really is jumping into the deep end when he enters one of Bellator’s toughest divisions and attempts to earn his way back into title contention, whether it be at featherweight or lightweight. With this extended layoff and extensive recovery, it’s easy to see that doubt is lingering in his mind. Most fighters would say that they are stronger and better than ever. Straus has a different perspective.
“It’s just even scarier,” he said of his impending return. “Now I know I have to go back and fight a ton of dogs, and I’m not even the person that I once was. Now I’m just like, ‘Do I keep up?’ or, ‘Am I still that good?’ So it’s all just a learning process still. I don’t really know where I fit in. I’m just here to show up, show what the fuck I’ve got, and prove to people that I can still be the best fighter over at Bellator. I feel like I can.”
Like with many fighters nowadays, necessity breeds change for Straus. His accident prompted a change of scenery, which brought him across the country to the city that never sleeps: Las Vegas.
“I’m in Vegas right now. I’m training in Vegas,” said Straus. “I’m actually training at OneKicks with Dewey Cooper. I’ve just been moving around a little bit here and there. The reason why I came out here was essentially because of my neck. I started in about June, July-ish, and I left Florida, and I was, like, really at that point I knew I needed to see another doctor. I had seen a doctor. They weren’t clearing me, so I figured my last shot was to find a doctor that knew more about the neck and what I needed and do surgery. I know Tito [Ortiz] got his neck done out here. There’s a few other people I looked up. I was originally just coming to get the surgery, but I did just a couple more months of waiting, and before going for the surgery, I went to the doctor to see if maybe I was healthy enough [and] he agreed with what was going on with what I had. So, that’s how I got out here. [I] just kept working and getting in where I could and getting in with the people wherever I could and continue to grow a little bit.
“Everyone I have met out here has been great. I’ve been to different gyms. When I first got out here, I was over at Xtreme’s. I’ve got to train a little bit over at Syndicate. Every now and then I go over to 10th Planet. Every one of those gyms and people in those gyms that helped me and welcomed me with open arms knows the situations and wished me the best and everything. So I have a lot of love for all those people over there, but I needed to slow down a little bit. I think, with my injury, I wasn’t comfortable with being around… Being in a tank with a bunch of killers is great, but I had to build back up to that. It was hard for me to hang. I wasn’t able to — I was jumping in the deep end without being able to swim. So, I linked up with Dewey and gradually we just started to grow. That’s why I’m with Dewey. I love working with Dewey and the guys over at One Kicks. It’s just been a journey. That’s what this is. It’s a journey.
“There’s a lot more that I wanna do with fighting. There’s a lot more I want to do in life. I’ve reached the top of the top, and I’ve fell to the bottom of the bottom, and I know what it feels like to be on both. Like I said, I still have goals I wanna reach and I still have things I want to do. I just can’t stop right now. I had a lot of personal issues going on. It’s just been a rough two years, you know? Longer than that.”
Bellator touches down in Temecula, Calif., for Bellator 219 this week. Straus and Kruchten are part of the main card, which airs live on the Paramount Network on March 29.
“Watch out for me,” said Straus. “We about to turn this shit out. We about to really have some fun.”
Straus would like to thank all his fans, friends and family that have been supporting him. He would also like to thank his teammates, Dewey Cooper and everybody at One Kicks, Nick [Blomgren], and 10th Planet. He would also like to thank Bellator for always believing in him and helping and pushing him.