One of the more colorful fighters in the UFC’s short history was Dan Severn, a 6-foot-2, 250-pound construct who was split down the middle between menace and levity. He began wrestling in 1969, and won his first national title in 1972. Yet he’d never been in a street fight ahead of his first appearance in the Octagon in 1994, and to this day he’s never ingested a mind-altering chemical. Severn’s resume is teeming with such dissimilar feats.
In his glorious heyday, though, which began at the age of 36 at UFC 4 and raged on for well over a decade, Severn had a mustache that couldn’t be emulated at Hollywood’s best disguise shops, and an eccentric way of going about business. Still, in the prehistoric days of No Hold’s Barred fighting, when anarchy sold pay-per-views and ended up as VHS tapes, Severn lived up to his nickname of "The Beast" when the cage door locked behind him.
Through it all he had a lightness of being, which was never anything other than unnerving.
"The very first time I ever walked into the Octagon cage at UFC 4, referee John McCarthy had a set format, where he used to talk to the fighter first," Severn says. "And when he got to the end he’d always say, ‘are there any questions?’ He’d turn to you, then turn to your corner person. So, the very first time, he goes, are there any questions? I couldn’t think of anything. But as he’s turning away, I made the comment, ‘yeah, where did all that money go that my parents paid for piano lessons?’ And he said he heard it, but when he looked back at he thought it couldn’t have come from me because I had my game face on."
The next fight, just before he blew up Marcus Bossett, McCarthy did the same routine, and this time Severn muttered to McCarthy, "if you would only give me the winning lotto ticket numbers, I wouldn’t be doing this." McCarthy knew what he heard this time, and later would marvel at this kind of humor just before a potentially gruesome encounter.
"McCarthy said you’re the scariest cat of them all, because you’re out there farting around and these guys are trying to take your head off," Severn says. "And in those days, even with the two rules -- no eye-gouging and no biting -- if you really read the contract, it just said your purse would be fined, not truly disqualified."
By 1995, having been upset by Royce Gracie in the finals of UFC 4 after dominating 15 minutes of the less than 16-minute fight, Severn was a popular figure to the underground sphere of NHB. At UFC 5, he ran roughshod through Joe Charles, Oleg Taktarov and Dave Beneteau to win the tournament.
"For UFC 5, I took out 32 days of my life," he says. This would prove as historic as Severn’s legacy for joining the 100-fight club in 2007 against Dave Legeno in Cage Rage. Severn, in 127 pro MMA fights, only had two full training camps. The rest of he time he just taught classes. Ahead of UFC 4, he trained in a pro wrestling ring with pro wrestlers, and made up crude submissions by which he would relent only upon hearing them "scream or squawk."
Though he lost the "clash of the titans" fight with Ken Shamrock in Casper, Wyoming at UFC 6 -- a card that signaled the end times for the UFC’s puritanical detractors, selling over 240,000 PPVs -- Severn was at the height of his popularity heading into the Ultimate Ultimate in December of that year. That was the only other fight card he put in a training camp for, isolating himself from family and friends in remote Michigan for 35 days.
"Only until the Ultimate Ultimate did you know who your first opponent was going to be ahead of time," he says. "That was the first time they brought in judges…but there was no criteria for the judges. It was thumbs up, thumbs down...I don’t know what they were doing. To go back in time and look at what was going on then, people are right to be baffled as to what these guys were doing. I was doing battle with the Shamrocks and the Gracies and everything else, and there were no rules or regulations. I call it kind of like the Wild Wild West. Anything goes at that point in time.
"But I will say, my cardiovascular was off the hook at that point. Out of a two-hour PPV, in those three matches I was in the Octagon just over one hour."
The Ultimate Ultimate that cold night at the Mammoth Gardens in Denver was perhaps Severn’s opus, as the old stevedore went to work piling up bodies. First it was Paul Varelans, who was also known for his work in professional wrestling (much like Severn himself). Varelans went gently, succumbing to a triangle choke.
That brought up Tank Abbott, who back at UFC 5 had one of the most violent knockouts of the UFC’s first decade when he sent sumo John Matua into convulsions with a right hand. The pillager Abbott, ever goading and never short on words, was already dishing out lines of hysteria. He’d said that Severn looked "like Freddie Mercury on steroids," and that he "hit like a girl," none of which bothered Severn so much as the unnecessary shot following the coup de grâce that Abbott put on Matua a few months earlier.
"Tank was a character, and he was very brash to me," Severn says. "When he hit the 400-pound sumo again, as he was laying there stiffening up and basically his body going into convulsions, I was like, you bastard. If you would do that to a man who can’t defend himself, then when I face you, if I can hurt you, if I can injure you or end your career, I’m going to do it. I lost all respect for him."
Severn battered Abbott for 18 solid minutes.
"I basically embarrassed him out there with how many times I hit him, and how many different ways I hit him," he says. "I told my corner, keep me aware of time. When I heard them yell out three minutes, that’s when I allowed Abbott to get up to his feet. I had been on the ground the entire time punishing him, and I threw a lot of knees into his sciatic area because I wanted his knees to be wobbly as he stood.
"When my guys yelled out one minute, I tried to pry him off the cage wall because I was going to belly-to-back suplex him onto his head. It might not have ended the fight. He probably would have bounced once or twice and came up swinging or something like that, but I was going to entertain the crowd after going almost a 20-minute match. If done correctly, the belly-to-back suplex is actually quite devastating. And I tell you, if I could have pulled that off, the roof would have exploded off the place."
That set up a rematch with Taktarov, the Russian who had won the tournament at UFC 6 by taking out Tank Abbott as well.
"I already knew what the Russian mentality was, I’d been to Russia a few times," Severn says. "I knew I was going to have to half kill my opponent. And basically, I just about did that twice. I think I delivered well over 300 headbutts in that match against him. And 20 or 30 minutes after that match was done they rushed him off to the hospital because his skull was swelling. I popped two Ibuprofen and I was good to go."
Severn won the Ultimate Ultimate ’95, and avenged his loss to Ken Shamrock at UFC 9 the next spring. That was his eleventh pro fight, when he was 38 years old. He would go on to fight 116 more times, facing all of the 100-fight club members (which included Jeremy Horn, a marvel of existence himself). Only in January of 2013, at the refined age of 54, he did call it quits from MMA competition. He remains one of the fight game’s greatest characters.
And that mustache, just like Bert Sugar's hat and cigar, will follow him to Valhalla.