To understand Dan Severn’s MMA career, you really have to go back to his amateur wrestling career. Growing up in Coldwater, Mich., he was part of a sports family. His father was a good athlete although he never wrestled. But he followed his older brother into the sport, and the Severn family may have been the only family where five brothers were all All-American wrestlers in both high school and college.
"We all did so well the coaches tried to recruit my sisters, who were big, strong farm girls, to go out for the wrestling team," he joked.
But Dan was the star, an absolute machine in high school. As a senior in 1976, he was national champion at 191.5 pounds in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. Long before the Junior Dan Hodge Trophy existed, he was named the Outstanding High School wrestler in the nation. Before his 18th birthday, he was already ranked top six in the nation in the open division and placed in the Olympic trials.
As a freshman at Arizona State University (ASU), he went 26-0, pinning five of six previous national place winners that he came across, and was ranked first in the nation when he suffered a torn ACL late in the season.
"I was setting the world on fire," he said, garnering far more media attention locally than amateur wrestlers in that era would normally get. "Every Tuesday morning, they would take me downtown to a press conference. That was standard for football players and basketball players, but not for a wrestler. I was 18 years old, and all these microphones would be shoved in my face. I wasn’t looking for attention. But I went to college for all the wrong reasons. I didn’t go for a degree. I was a high school wrestler who wanted to find out how I’d do at a Division I school. I didn’t think about school until I was injured and the surgeon said, 'You will never wrestle again.’"
He came back two years later minus one ACL. He was one of the best wrestlers in the country, but never fully regained the form he had at 18.
In 1980, he pinned three of four opponents in the NCAA tournament, before losing in overtime to Neil Lohan in the finals. He qualified for the finals of the Olympic trials, but with the U.S. boycotting, he didn’t compete because he wasn't interested in being a team member that would only be symbolic.
In 1981, he was part of one of the deepest heavyweight fields in NCAA tournament history, included future Olympic gold medalists Bruce Baumgartner and Lou Banach. Baumgartner was seeded first, Severn second and Banach third. Severn lost in a crazy semifinal, 20-10, and Banach then pinned Baumgartner to win the title. When he finished his career, his career pinning percentage was among the best in the history of college wrestling as it was when he was in high school.
Severn started coaching at ASU, preparing to end his career with a run for the 1984 Olympic team in the 220-pound weight class. Even decades later, those in amateur wrestling talk about what happened. With Severn, it led to a bitterness that wasn’t ever fully erased.
He still gets upset recounting it nearly 30 years later.
Severn and Banach were the top two wrestlers in the country at 220. After going through everyone else, they were scheduled to meet in a best-of-3 series to determine the U.S. rep in the Olympics. Banach won the first match, Severn the second.
In the third match, there was a point of controversy as Severn was in control and put Banach on his back.
"There were three referees, and they were conflicted," he said. "One thought I pinned him. One gave me points for back exposure. And one didn’t give me any points."
After an intense debate, the referee who decided he hadn’t scored any points won out. With 50 seconds left in the match, instead of being a few points up, he was a few points down, and never caught up. He filed a protest, hoping to at the very least get one last match to solve the controversy whether it was one more match, or simply have the event video reviewed to see if it should be re-scored. There was a precedent as several other protests from those trials led to single match wrestle-offs for the Olympic team berth.
But he was turned down. At the time, the feeling was that Banach was the country’s best hope for a gold medal even though, as the best-of-three series showed, in a match between the two of them there was no guarantee Banach would prevail.
"I would have retired in 1984 from competition had everything gone the way it should have gone," he said. "I should have been on the Olympic freestyle wrestling team and I should have won the gold medal. Instead, I went to Los Angeles as the alternate, and saw the guy I thought I beat win the gold medal. It was really tough for me to swallow that. That’s what kept me going on.
"Lou was very good," he points out, wanting to take nothing away from him or to assume anything. "Who is to say I would have won the third match, but if they scored the match correctly, I was winning at the time. Me, being a poor farm kid, I didn’t have the connections for attorneys. You kind of hate that in a sport you love so much that it would come down to politics, but that’s what it did."
The result was Severn was more determined than ever. He followed with the three strongest years of his career.
"Realistically, you’d have to call it Dan Severn residue," he said about himself at the age he entered the UFC, noting he was already eight years past his athletic prime. "If you wanted to see a real animal, you should have seen me between 1984 and 1986.
"I had issues from being screwed over, and I was never going to allow it to fall into the hands of officials again," he said. "I hurt a lot of people in matches. I wasn’t doing anything illegal, but I was being so intense. I was pinning people left and right. I ended a number of people’s careers with blown-out limbs."
He won a number of international tournaments and national titles over the next three years. In 1985, he placed sixth in the world championships. During his career, he won 13 different AAU national championships between freestyle and Greco-Roman.
In 1988, he tore his other ACL prior to the Olympics, but he proudly notes that from 1976 to 1992, he was always in the top six in the nation every Olympic year.
Severn entered pro wrestling before there was a UFC. As silly as this sounds, until the early 90s, if an amateur wrestler went into pro wrestling, they were considered a professional athlete and thus disqualified from eligibility. Severn had considered pro wrestling as a way to make money, but after 1987 ruling by the International Olympic Committee that barred Japan’s freestyle champion, Yoshiaki Yatsu (who later fought for Pride) from international competition due to his pro wrestling background, Severn nixed the idea because he still had the Olympic dream.
After the IOC reversed that position, Severn, who was still looking at doing one last Olympic run in 1996 until he became a UFC star, did some pro wrestling.
He became something of a name in Japan, working for a company called UWFI. They used a lot of American and Russian amateur stars doing a more believable style of worked pro wrestling. Severn actually appeared on UWFI pay-per-view events in the U.S. before he had ever heard of the UFC.
"In a lot of ways, it was a fluke," he noted about being the first world-class amateur wrestler to enter the UFC. "At the time, a buddy of mine watched some VHS tapes of the first two UFC’s. I was living in Coldwater, Mich. We didn’t even have pay-per-view capabilities. He brought over some old VHS tapes. I thought about doing it, but I saw people getting soccer kicked in the face and stomped. But then I saw Royce Gracie winning it as a grappler, and thought if I applied what I knew, I could use my skills to do well in this.
"In one of the martial arts magazines, UFC at that point in time was taking out full page ads asking people if they wanted to be a no-holds-barred fighter. So I filled out an application and sent it in."
He sent in his resume, which was impressive with all of his amateur wrestling championships. There were forces in the UFC at the time who weren’t keen about bring in big amateur wrestlers, but Severn, at his age, was thought to be past-his-prime. He arranged a meeting with then-UFC matchmaker Art Davie, who was based in Southern California.
"I was in Los Angeles, on a pro wrestling show, and wrestled Hawk (of the Road Warriors tag team, one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling of the time). Art Davie came out, interviewed me, watched me in a pro wrestling match, interviewed me again, and the first thing he said was, 'Do you realize what we do is real?’"
Severn found out about his first competition, in Tulsa, a few days beforehand. His training consisted of over the course of a few days, five 90-minute workouts in total, at the Lima, Ohio, pro wrestling school run by one of his buddies from that world, Al Snow. Snow and some of his proteges played a game called 'Let’s try to hit Dan.’
They were in a pro wrestling ring. Snow, who had a martial arts background, along with several of his pro wrestling students worked out with Severn. They had one pair of boxing gloves in the gym, so two of the guys would each get a glove. The pro wrestlers came at him from all angles, trying to punch and kick him. Severn’s only training was to learn to avoid getting hit before tying up and taking the guys down with his wrestling skill.
"I trained some amateur techniques and some illegal moves in amateur wrestling, but I was just a wrestler," he said about the first show. "It took me to the finals, but it cost me the championship. What I was doing wasn’t working on Royce Gracie. I kept thinking, `I’m going to have to hit this guy.’ I struggled more with my conscience than with my opponent. But it taught me a lesson when the match ended."
Eventually, before The Ultimate Ultimate show at the end of 1995, he spent five weeks in the most intense training camp of his life, getting down to 242 pounds enabling him to out wrestle and outlast everyone in the competition.
Severn avenged an earlier submission loss to Shamrock, winning the UFC singles championship on May 17, 1996, at the famed Cobo Arena in Detroit, in what in many ways was the most successful and biggest UFC event to date. They did 240,000 pay-per-view buys and sold out the arena with 11,000 fans.
Both men had a game plan of to wait for the other to make a move, and then counter. So they stood there. And stood there. Unless you saw it, you couldn’t even imagine a fight like this. They circled. And circled. Fans were furious, throwing things, chanting for the Red Wings, and booing loudly.
Finally Severn tried to shoot in, Shamrock countered, and was on top in a mount position for about 90 seconds. But he did no real damage while on top. Later, there was a second scramble, this time Severn was on top, in a guard, but threw down punches for about 30 seconds, busting Shamrock up, before Shamrock escaped and got back to his feet. There was no action the rest of the fight. Judges somehow had to try and pick a winner, and Severn got a split decision.
But he lost the title in his first defense, against the younger and stronger amateur wrestler, Mark Coleman, on Feb. 7, 1997.
Severn’s relations with UFC fell apart a few months later.
Kickboxer Maurice Smith had shocked the MMA world beating Coleman for the title, based more on superior conditioning than anything else. He was scheduled to make his first defense against Severn. Severn was the favorite, with the feeling he could take Smith down, and unlike Coleman, Severn at that time had an endless gas tank. The feeling was he'd be able to take Smith down, and Smith probably wouldn't be able to get up. And if he could, he’d be taken right back down. As it turned out, it was the exact strategy Randy Couture used on Smith to win his first UFC heavyweight title a few months later.
After agreeing to the title fight, in the days before exclusive contracts, Severn took a booking for the debut show of a fledgling Japanese organization, called Pride, which booked the Tokyo Dome for the biggest event of its kind up to that point in modern history of what would become MMA. Severn was booked against UFC star Kimo Leopoldo, as the No. 2 match on a show headlined by Rickson Gracie vs. Nobuhiko Takada, which drew more than 30,000 fans.
Severn’s goal was to make the big payday in Japan and avoid getting hurt, and he half succeeded. UFC wasn’t happy, but Severn, who had never been seriously hurt in an MMA fight, assured the company there was nothing to worry about. During the 30-minute fight with Leopoldo, he took so many low kicks that he was unable to face Smith. It wasn’t until three years later that UFC would book him again, as a late injury replacement against Pedro Rizzo, whose low kicks finished Severn quickly.
Severn continued to fight and do pro wrestling all over the world. He had a short run in the WWF, now WWE, and even wrestled current acting star Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson once on a pay-per-view show. He garnered more fame as a pro wrestler in Japan, where he once headlined a baseball stadium show in Kawasaki, Japan, that drew 28,000 fans.
After his success in the early UFCs, Severn became a very popular figure in the amateur wrestling world. When Brock Lesnar was still in high school in North Dakota, he became the hero to kids growing up in the sport. He was the guy who first showed the world that wrestlers were among the toughest, if not the toughest fighters. Older pro wrestlers who had nowhere to apply their skills to make money outside of pro wrestling also revered him. He was the guy who proved them right after lifetimes of arguing with people about how wrestling isn’t a real fighting skill.
"A guy like Lou Thesz (one of pro wrestling’s biggest stars in history), someone like him, he’d have done really well in this," said Severn. "There are a lot of guys in the circuit, Mike Rotunda, Kurt Angle, very successful amateur wrestlers. The guy who played at Oklahoma, Dr. Death (Steve Williams, who beat Severn in college and was a legend in Japan), he’s a tough guy all the way. Gary Albright, he was a collegiate wrestler from Nebraska. He was legit nasty kind of guy I think would have done very well at a different point in time. I think they all would have been successful at this in their younger and more competitive days."
Unlike many who were there from the start, Severn said he’s not surprised at the level of popularity the sport has reached in its current very different form.
"Literally, when I first saw it, I could see how big it could get," he said. "I was blown away that you could do this type of competition in the first place. After I got some old VHS tapes, I may have had it on and a friend would drop by, see it in the background, ask, `What are you watching,’ and I’d say, `This crazy thing called Ultimate Fighting, no holds barred.’ Usually they were just dropping by to say, `Hi,’ for a second. Two hours later, they’re still sitting on my couch.
"I was watching them more than I was watching the television. This happened repeatedly, the sport was so captivating. But it was a much different product than it is now. Now it’s been around long enough and people accept it as a sport. When it first began, it was more spectacle than sport. Today, you can see a lot of people don’t even know about this era of NHB. They just know the term MMA, and think it came from January 2005 when The Ultimate Fighter show debuted on Spike TV."
For the past half-dozen years, he’s tried to go out with nostalgia fights based on the early UFC days, against Coleman, Shamrock and Gracie, but they never materialized.
"I did actually meet and speak with Ken and Mark face-to-face because I wasn’t going to let it fall through. You learn as you go through life that you can handle things better yourself than going through managers and attorneys. I would have stopped a couple of years ago if we could have pulled those matches off, but it wasn’t meant to be."
He also notes that what’s important for the sport is having contrasting personalities, noting one of his favorite fighters is Georges St. Pierre, and he loves what he represents, but you can’t have a sport with nothing but GSP’s.
"I like the way Georges St-Pierre presents himself, the way his does his interviews, how he presents himself from a pure athletic standpoint. I love all the things he does and represents," said Severn. "But from a promoters’ perspective and a fans perspective, I don’t want everyone to be Georges St-Pierre or it might be boring to watch. You need Rashad Evans trash talking. You need Brock Lesnar frothing at the mouth. You need different characters. A lot of these guys are realizing this more-and-more.
"Rashad, when he came on the scene, he was as quiet as a church mouse. He wrestled at Michigan State and he came down to my place way back when. He did some matches with my promotion, Danger Zone. I helped him get his first pro fights and helped him get into The Ultimate Fighter show, and then he honed his skills more."
He also helped start out Don Frye, who followed him as one of the sport’s early stars.
"Don Frye was one of my wrestlers at Arizona State. Randy Couture was also wrestling when I was coaching. Don came to me after he had seen UFC, asking if I could help him get into it. I’ve helped a few people. I may have helped him get his foot in the door, but he’s fully to credit for his success. Don ended up having much more success in his run in Japan in Pride and pro wrestling."
Severn hopes to maintain an affiliation with the sport in a way that most of his contemporaries weren’t able to. He’s had limited interaction with UFC. He never worked for the current ownership group, and but made a few appearances, once for a Hall of Fame induction, and once when they went to honor the most popular fighters of the past.
"They’ve contacted me on a few occasions," he said. "They’ve let me know that if I’d be in attendance at shows, tickets will be waiting for me, and I’ve taken them up on it on a few occasions. Lorenzo (Fertitta) and Dana (White) went out of their way to shake my hand. Now that I’m past my era of competition and will still be involved in the sport, in a different type of capacity, I’ve always been a goodwill ambassador.
"I’ve lived a charmed life," he said. "I don’t look at this as sad. It’s tough for any athlete to be involved with something without having feelings about it. I’ve been very fortunate with my health. The way I’ve conducted myself, I’ve won over a lot of people. There were times after winning major events, e-mails and phone calls would come. That great positive support is something I’ll away cherish. Even in the last 10 years, the amount of positive e-mails have inspired me."