One of the early memorable moments in UFC history was in the first round of the UFC 4 tournament in Tulsa, Okla., on Dec. 16, 1994, when 36-year-old Dan Severn got behind the much smaller Anthony Macias.
Severn, dressed in black trunks and boots like the pro wrestler that he was, sent Macias flying with three straight belly-to-back suplexes, before choking him out in 1:45.
Severn, who at the time was a part-time pro wrestler, was working as a caterer. But he was the first true world-class wrestler to compete in the UFC.
He went on that night to quickly submit Kung Fu master Marcus Bossett. This put him in the tournament finals against Royce Gracie, who by that time, after already winning two of the first three UFC tournaments, was the undisputed king of the sport.
That was also a classic match for its time as Severn immediately took down Gracie, who was nearly 60 pounds lighter, and pinned him to the ground for nearly 16 minutes. In his sport, wrestling, he won decisively, but this was a different game. Unlike his previous opponents, who put up little resistance to whatever rudimentary submissions Severn had, Gracie’s defensive guard was a different animal.
In those days, the show was billed as style vs. style. Severn’s mentality was he was coming in to use his style, wrestling, a rougher version and taking liberties with tactics he knew, such as a choke or arm triangles. He saw that as part of his game even if they weren’t legal in a wrestling match. Mentally, he found it difficult to start throwing punches, something he had little training in, and something he didn’t think represented his sport.
There was no such word as mixed martial arts, unless you were talking about Japanese pro wrestling. It was just Ultimate Fighting, an almost underground pay–per-view cult phenomenon that was starting to gain traction in the deepest corners of the sports shelves at Blockbuster Video stores.
That UFC was a melting pot where guys from different sports backgrounds would test their styles in almost-anything-goes combat. Matches were fast, basically kill or be killed. Aside from Gracie, who was way ahead of the curve since he was taught from birth by his father, nobody knew any defense.
There were no rounds, because there didn’t need to be when matches usually ended in two or three minutes. There were no gloves with the mentality being that it was supposed to replicate a real street fight. There were no time limits in matches, but there was no concern about the pay-per-view going long.
When Severn was still pinning Gracie, the show moved past the three-hour mark. For most of the 120,000 or so homes that purchased the event on pay-per-view, the screen suddenly went blank with the last vision being Severn still on top of Gracie.
Unless you knew a friend in one of the few cable companies where someone working for the company was actually watching the show, and made the adjustments to allow the show to continue until it was actually over, you likely would have assumed Severn ended up winning.
Gracie locked a triangle on Severn, who tapped out at 15:49. Without question, by surviving against a much bigger and stronger man, while on his back, it was the match that, more than any other, made Gracie’s legacy. After it was over, Gracie walked over to Severn, went to hug him, and whispered in his ear, "You’re the toughest man I’ve ever gone against."
"Through all the stuff I was doing with the Ultimate Fighting Championships, when I started it, I never knew how long it would last," said Severn. "I never looked at this like a career. I took one match at a time. If you told me then that I’d be doing this at 54, I’d say, 'You’re freaking nuts.’ But it worked out that way. The key is, I haven’t been seriously injured, and I haven’t been seriously damaged. I’ve got good health and been smart in my matches, and it let me go out on my own terms."
While Severn did lose to a smaller man, it was a lesson he learned from. At the next UFC show, on April 7, 1995, in Charlotte, Severn, now called "The Beast," tore his way through three competitors in nine minutes total time to win the next tournament on what was, at the time, the most successful non-boxing sports pay-per-view event of all-time.
That night solidified Severn was one of the sport’s big four early superstars. The other three were Gracie, Severn’s biggest rival Ken Shamrock, and the popular David "Tank" Abbott, who fans loved, but whose bark was far more dangerous than his bite.
But age was working against him. Severn was competing without an ACL in either knee, both done in by his amateur wrestling career that left him with bone chips, bone spurs, five knee surgeries and advanced arthritis in the joints. Given those issues, after that fight, he was only able to fight another, well, 17 years.
"My surgeon has photos of both of my knees on his wall, autographed," Severn joked. "He said that I shouldn’t even be walking, let alone competing."
He went on to have more success in UFC after winning the UFC 5 tournament. Relying on his wrestling base, as a superbly conditioned heavyweight, he fought 52 minutes in one night without tiring in winning three fights over Paul Varelans, Abbott and Oleg Taktarov to capture the 1995 Ultimate Ultimate tournament. At the time, it was the biggest tournament in the sport’s history.
He followed that by beating Shamrock in a fight that became legendary for how it was possible to have only two minutes of action in a 30-minute borefest. He became UFC’s second singles champion, the title that morphed into the current UFC heavyweight championship. Eventually, he was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, joining numerous other Halls of Fame he’s been inducted into between MMA, pro wrestling and for his exploits in amateur wrestling.
Severn publicly announced his retirement from MMA in an e-mail correspondence sent out as the clock struck midnight to end 2012. A year earlier, he had sent out a similar e-mail announcing that this was going to be his last year competing in the sport.
Severn hadn’t fought since April 28, when he defeated Alex Roxman by decision in Davenport, Iowa. He had no clue at the time it would be his last fight, but by October he had told those close to him that he realized it was.
It was listed as his 101st professional victory, although record keeping in the early days of the sport is hit-and-miss. His listed final career record is 101-19-7. Some of his listed wins may have been pro wrestling matches, and there are likely a dozen or two dozen wins, and possibly a loss or two, in fights that fell below the radar. He is believed to be in second place on the all-time wins list behind Travis Fulton, who is listed as having 247 wins in 307 fights.
"A conservative estimate is there are 15 to 20 wins that may not have been recorded," said Severn. "I was doing fights long before there was a Sherdog or Full Contact Fighter data base. One day, when I have nothing better to do, which I’m hoping doesn’t come until I’m 90 or 100, I may look back at my planner to see how many fights I really had and what my record really was. There were times when they had recorded losses in fights I didn’t lose. Maybe, because of my age, I’m not as in tuned to looking at web sites.
"Companies were contacting me from all over the place. I had a pager. I’d get calls and have to be ready with 24 hours notice to get to the airport, to a destination I’d just find out about, transported to a location to be determined, against an opponent I just found out, with a purse I just found out. They were almost all an underground type of thing.
"Once, I had an opportunity to fight in Mexico. It was in a cockfighting pit. The idea of the show was to start with rooster fights, then do dog fights, and finish as the main event with human beings. This organization wanted no rules at all, and you could wear jeans and cowboy boots. I turned that one down. I thought, 'I may win, but I may not get out alive.’"
Severn, who turns 55 on June 2nd, still hasn’t retired from competing and performing. He said he will do one more year of pro wrestling, and retire from that genre. Like what he just did, he’ll be likely sending out an e-mail at the close of this next year announcing his retirement to people in that world.
He has a son, now in seventh grade, competing in wrestling, so has considered the idea of training with him, and perhaps entering age group wrestling competition, given that competing in sports is something that he’s done since 1969 when he followed his older brother into wrestling.
But his immediate goals are to work both in the industry, whether it’s television commentary or as a commissioner. He’s putting together a reality show with young fighters in late February, and is looking to up his business training law enforcement personnel in ground fighting techniques.
"I’m taking the skills I acquired over all these years and using them in a different principle," he said, noting people can contact him at DanSevern.com for seminars and other work of this type. "All kinds of things are somehow related, motivational speaking, anti-bullying campaigns, different aspects of my career will come into play with stories I can tell and experiences I’ve had."
Severn has strong beliefs regarding how he was able to still compete. While a decade removed from facing "A" level competition, the ability to go on an 11-fight winning streak between the ages of 51 and 53, against competitors who weren’t even born when Severn targeted his first sports retirement date in 1984, is nothing to sneeze at.
If there is a secret, Severn noted that his mentality would be the opposite of that of Chuck Liddell, who he noted was a guy who had a lot of spectacular knockouts, and also got knocked out spectacularly on several occasions.
"To utilize an old saying, you live by the sword, you die by the sword," he said. "Liddell at one point was close to two records in UFC, knocking out the most people, and being knocked out the most. That’s not a dual record you want to have. Every time you get hit in the head, you will suffer some type of damage, even if it’s superficial. You can take blows to the body, but the head, no. The little piece of Jell-O called the brain isn’t meant too be jostled around like that."
Severn advocates doing something that many top fighters ike Liddell sneer at: when in trouble and getting punched in the head on the ground, instead of taking the extra blows and having the referee stop it, to tap first.
"There are guys 15 or 20 years my junior, and you try to have a conversation with them, and it’s almost inaudible. Some can’t even complete a sentence and make a point. It’s a tough conversation. In today’s mixed marital arts matches, you don’t see actual tap outs from punches. You see one athlete will turtle up, and the other guy on top is picking angles and choosing his shots until the referee stops it. The mentality is that it’s more honorable to have a referee stop the fight than tap out to strikes. I think if you take a half-dozen or a dozen unnecessary shots, the problems may not show up right way, but they will show up over time. Even the damage I’ve received, maybe five to 20 years down the line, it may come to the surface.
"The key to my success is the theory of 'duck,’" he said. "I haven’t really been hit that often in the course of my career. I did have a crazy number of matches but I wasn’t getting damaged."
In part two, we look back at Severn's amateur wrestling career, his foray into professional wrestling, getting into mixed martial arts and more.