There was a time not so long ago where Dave Jansen measured his accomplishments a little differently. Working as a cook, there were no gold belts or rankings systems. No knockouts or submissions.
Jansen just had to appreciate the little, whimsical things. The kinds of things that just barely get you through the day.
"My fingers were just so calloused and desensitized that I could take a tater tot out of the fryer, just snatch it out without getting scalding, blistering burns," Jansen told MMAFighting.com with a laugh. "That was like grabbing a fly with chopsticks, I thought."
Jansen was an all-state wrestler in high school and earned a scholarship to the University of Oregon. That didn't work out. He became burnt out on wrestling and dropped out of college.
Jansen ended up doing some roofing and then he landed a job as a dishwasher. It was there, inside a kitchen, where he worked for seven years. From the dishes to the prep table to the grill and so on. Jansen figured that's where his future was, too. Besides wrestling, it was all he really knew.
"I was stuck in that role of food service," Jansen said. "It's all I had on my résumé and I hated it. It gave me no fulfillment."
Ironically, it was something named after a food that ended up saving him. A bartender at the restaurant Jansen was working at inside Portland International Airport noticed his cauliflower ears. That bartender happened to be UFC veteran Chris Wilson and he was the first person to introduce Jansen to MMA.
That was nearly a decade ago and Jansen's climb in the sport has been slow and steady. The 33-year-old has a chance to reach a top rung on the ladder with a title shot against lightweight champion Will Brooks on Friday night in the main event of Bellator 136 in Irvine, Calif.
The belt doesn't really mean a whole lot to Jansen (20-2), who has won seven straight in Bellator after a run in WEC. Of course, he wants to beat Brooks and he believes he will. But Jansen is in MMA for one reason: because he likes it. And, well, it's a hell of a lot better than flipping burgers.
"I'm not really in it for titles or accolades," Jansen said. "I'm in it to become a better person, to become a stronger version of myself with each fight. Recognition from fans or awards or trophies or belts, that's all fine, but that's not really what I'm after when it's all said and done."
Talk to Jansen for just a few minutes and you realize he's a different kind of guy. His motivations are not the same as your average MMA fighter. He drives an old pickup truck and owns a $25 flip phone. Jansen doesn't really have aspirations for much more besides the clothes he owns now, his girlfriend and his family. Unlike those days in the kitchen, he's content.
"It kind of seems meaningless to me at times, the whole fighting, the whole MMA," Jansen said. "But it's giving some people pleasure, giving some people entertainment and so that makes me feel good. And maybe, who knows, I'm probably inspiring some people out there to do what they want to do. This is just something that I wanted to do, I'm doing it and it's paying off for me."
Jansen enjoys training every day at Rose City FC. He's not necessarily a head coach or anything like that, but he takes pleasure in helping out some of the younger fighters -- whether it be imparting some of his wrestling knowledge or making them laugh while juggling in the corner.
That lightheartedness goes away once he's in the cage. Jansen might not be obsessed with the Bellator lightweight title, but winning fights gives him joy and that's perpetually what he's chasing.
"I approach him by being as mean as possible," Jansen said. "By just giving him no quarter, just showing the world, showing him that I got more grit. I think anyone who is paying close attention to the sport already knows that. Will Brooks knows that. I know it. That's it. I gotta take what he gives me and I gotta take what I want. So I'm just gonna respond with maximum force when the time is right."
Timing has indeed been his strength. It might have been a slow burn, slaving in sweaty kitchens in Portland, but Jansen is here now. And the callouses on his hands have healed much like the ones on his psyche. Jansen is a happy man.
"That's a little bit of an understatement," he said. "I'm ecstatic. I feel like it's just a weird feeling of destiny, just everything lining up like it should have."