Daniel Straus knows what it is to struggle. He grew up largely on his own, without a father figure in his life, with a mother who wasn't around much to teach him right from wrong.
He left home after his junior year at Sycamore High School in Cincinnati, learning to fend for himself. He had his share of troubles along the way, because anyone growing up amid the circumstances of his youth would find trouble.
Straus searched for years for a stable family life, for a job that would allow him to take care of his loved ones. After being imprisoned for three years on robbery charges, Straus was released from jail in 2007 and vowed to take the right path.
Everything he's searched for is now right at his fingertips. The Bellator featherweight contender is on the verge of a championship that could bring long-term stability and the ability to give his young family the things he didn't have growing up.
Yet, Straus is unhappy. He's not pleased with the perception created of him after an incident earlier this year, and what it has done to his reputation.
With his professional salvation so close, Straus is still stung by the wounds inflicted in his personal life.
Talk to him for 10 minutes and you'll understand: He's not a thug. He's not a bad guy.
He's a 29-year-old man trying as best he can to provide a better quality of life for his family than he had growing up.
Straus left home after his junior year at Sycamore High School and learned to fend for himself.
He didn't know what he wanted to do for a living, and the last thing he ever thought he'd become would be a professional fighter. As a result of several chance meetings with a long-lost friend, that's exactly what happened.
Straus was working at Steak & Shake, a job he hated and one with little future, when he ran into an old wrestling buddy. The guy told Straus he had a mixed martial arts fight scheduled, and urged Straus to try the sport.
"You'd be good at it," the man said.
A week later, Straus ran into his friend again. His fight had fallen through, but he once again urged Straus to give MMA a try.
Straus wasn't interested. But then after another week, he met the same guy and heard the same story.
"I didn't want to do this, but you know how it is when someone is so insistent that you do something, and you don't want to do it, and you just say, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' to kind of end the conversation," Straus said. "But after listening and thinking about it, I thought, 'Well, let me go see what this is about.' "
It turns out that Straus was so good at fighting that it soon became obvious that this was his way out, the road toward salvation he'd been looking for.
But now, just a few days before he challenges Pat Curran on Nov. 2 in Long Beach, Calif., for the Bellator featherweight title, Strauss feels as if he has to explain himself.
It's sad to listen to him have to say that just because he has dreadlocks, just because he has tattoos, and just because he's black is not reason enough to assume he's a bad person.
But he has to explain it to go over why he missed a year of his career in his prime when everything was seemingly going perfectly.
He'd suffered a broken hand that forced him to pull out of a title fight against Curran at Bellator 95 earlier this year; his fight with Curran next month will be his first in more than a year, since an Oct. 26 win over Alvin Robinson.
"I've always wanted to say this, and I never had the opportunity to say it before, but don't let my appearance fool you; I'm highly intelligent," Straus said. "Highly intelligent."
Straus sighs. This is difficult ground to cover, and he knows no matter what he might say, there are going to be a lot of people who don't believe him.
But he's won five fights in a row, has a championship fight scheduled, and has been victorious in 17 of his last 18. He's thankful to have found MMA, and eager to reach new heights.
He's been on the brink of failure before, and doesn't want to go back. So, hurt as it might, he forces himself to explain. He did nothing wrong, he said, and was essentially profiled because of his appearance.
It put everything he'd worked for in grave jeopardy.
"I have tattoos, and I do have dreads, but I'm not some thug selling drugs on the street, and I'm not kidnapping kids for ransom, or any goofy-ass [expletive] that people might think," he said. "I ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people, and that's what hurts me.
"People have a perception of people like me: 'Oh, he thinks he's a thug. He's trying to sell drugs,' or, 'He's trying to do this and he's trying to do that.' But in reality, all I'm trying to do is train and fight for a world title. I don't care about no drugs. I don't give a [expletive] about what this guy is doing over here. My trouble has passed me. I am almost 30 years old and I want to do good. But it sucks I had to be there."
The "there" Straus refers to was in his car in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on March 2, 2013. He was arrested and charged with driving with a suspended license, possession of over 20 grams of cannabis or three grams of synthetic cannabis, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of Ecstasy.
Straus had a checkered past, and had been in and out of trouble frequently until he found MMA. He was on his own in high school and got into trouble plenty of times as a young man, but he had seemingly turned it all around in the last five years.
Once he found MMA, he not only stayed out of trouble, he avoided even being around people he suspected might be trouble.
He had one slip, though, and it cost him.
He believes it was his race, and his appearance, that ultimately proved to be his undoing and almost stole everything that matters from him.
"I don't like to call race, and that is something I don't really do," Straus said. "But let's be clear and let's be honest here: A black guy with dreads driving around is going to get pulled over a lot more often than a white guy doing the same thing."
Straus admits a mistake, but not the mistake that many believe.
He was driving with two people he did not know, with nothing else to do other than cruise around late at night and talk. One of the passengers he barely knew, a friend of a friend. The other passenger, he had never met.
"I didn't know the first guy, but since he was a friend of a friend, I figured he was a friend of mine," Straus said. "I know now that was a mistake. But at the time, that's what I thought. We were cruising around and he asks me to pick up Guy 2. Guy 2, I do not know. I didn't know him from anything and it was my first time meeting him. I hadn't even heard of his name, and I didn't know a thing about him. But if he's a friend of a friend of a friend, you know how it goes."
The drive, though, turned into much more than a ride around town to chat and have fun. The second passenger, Straus said, had drugs, and dropped them in the back of Straus' car when the police pulled him over.
The police found the drugs, and because it was Straus' car, he was left to take the blame. He spent several nights in jail until bond was posted. He planned to go to court to fight the charges, but that's when he says the stories of the arresting officers began to change.
He said that when he said he wanted to go to trial, the officers then said that Straus admitted the drugs were his.
"A lot of people don't get this, but until you step into my shoes, you can never know," Straus said. "The story went from me driving the car to me telling the police officer that these were my drugs, which never happened. These are the facts that they're trying to tell a judge. There's no way I'm going to get off on that.
"So it was like, I agreed to plead out and I got probation. I didn't want to plead, but I didn't want to be out of a job the rest of my life because someone else was a fool."
He pleaded guilty to something he swears he didn't do to give himself the opportunity that has consumed him for the last five years.
Ever since he took up MMA knowing exactly zero about the sport, he's dreamed of making it to the top. It was to be his escape from trouble, from a no-hope life, and one that would secure his and his child's future.
"I'd been through so much in my life, and when I started this, I didn't have a choice but to be successful," he said. "It's not like I wanted to be a fighter to be a big deal or get on TV. It was because I had no choice. I had nothing else. I had to do this. I had to learn it. When I started, I didn't know what jiu-jitsu was. Are you [expletive] kidding me? Jiu-jitsu? I had no idea. But for me to be successful, I had to learn it. I had to learn everything."
He learned well enough to become one of the elite men in his division less than five years from the time he first walked into a gym to see what this MMA stuff was all about.
He's one step closer to his goal, even if he isn't happy about what he had to do to get here.
"It sucks, because I have this on my record, but it just makes me have to fight even harder," he said. "I don't have the opportunity to go get a desk job. My whole life is my fighting career and I have to get it done. I have no choice but to succeed, and I'm giving my entire life up to reaching that goal to become a success in this sport."