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For Dan Severn, Rematch With Royce Gracie Is a Long Shot He Can't Resist

Dan Severn has always been a believer in setting goals for himself. Even now the 52-year-old UFC Hall of Famer writes down in his daily planner what he wants to accomplish by the end of each year, then checks that list almost every day to see if he's on the right track.

But with an official record of 99-16-7 and a career that spans almost the entire history of MMA in North America, even Severn is running out of goals in the sport. There are only a few he'd still like to accomplish before he retires at the end of 2012, and the clock is running out.

For starters, he'd like to get to 100 wins. Since he already has three wins this year and two more fights scheduled before the end of May, that one seems perfectly feasible. But it's who he'd like to eventually beat that may prove more problematic.

"I really only have three matches that I was trying to accomplish," Severn told MMA Fighting. "That's one more match with Ken Shamrock, one more match with Mark Coleman, and one more match with Royce Gracie."

The first two he's pretty sure he can accomplish on his own, in one of the smaller MMA organizations. The third? For that one, Severn said, he may need the UFC's help, and this is where it gets tricky.

Ever since he heard rumors that Gracie might return to the Octagon at UFC 134 in Brazil this August, Severn has been campaigning to be his opponent. He's left phone messages and fired off emails to the UFC about it, but has heard nothing in response.

He knows it's a long shot. The two first met in a time before weight classes, but now several divisions and at least seventy pounds stand between them. There's also the fact that, according to UFC president Dana White, the organization has no intention of bringing Gracie back at all. But the way Severn sees it, he has nothing to lose by asking.

"As I always tell people, you can't read my mind, so I'm telling you. I have interest in doing this match," he said. "Will it happen? I don't know."

To understand Severn's dogged persistence in the young man's world of professional fighting, it helps to understand how he found his way here to begin with. The first time Severn punched another human being in the face, he said, was when he was in his thirties. Even then, it was only out of financial necessity.

In the early '90s the former All-American wrestler from Arizona State took what he thought was a stable, lucrative job in the automotive industry. In the span of two weeks he sold one house and bought another one closer to his new job in Coldwater, Michigan. Only by the end of those two weeks, he no longer had the job.

"The corporation's explanation was that the guy who hired me had overstepped his bounds," Severn said. "We were in one of the worst recessions we had been in, except for what we're in now, so for me to find another job was virtually impossible. I asked an attorney friend what I should do and he said, 'Dan, the first thing you need to do is go sign up for unemployment.' I said, 'I don't know how to do something like that. I've never been on unemployment in my entire life.'"

Severn spent his days looking for a job and his nights training to be a pro wrestler – a field some of his colleagues from the amateur wrestling ranks had gone into. One day he came across a flyer advertising a local toughman contest where the winner was promised one thousand dollars.

"All I knew was, I needed a thousand dollars," Severn said. "So I signed up and I went to it."

He sported a dark, bushy mustache and amateur wrestling singlet, which earned him some peculiar looks as the boxing gloves were laced onto his hands. The bouts consisted of three one-minute rounds, and there wasn't much technique on display, as Severn remembers it.

"It was kind of ugly, and we weren't exactly abiding by the Queensbury Rules. All I know is, two days later I walked out of there with a thousand dollars. ... I had to find a way to make some money in a really sh-tty economic time. So I made my money the old-fashioned way: I walked into a ring and I beat people up and I took it."

Severn was beginning to dip his toe into the prizefighting waters, but it wasn't until a friend showed him the first couple UFC events that he began to seriously consider getting in the cage. In Coldwater they didn't even get pay-per-view events, Severn said, and though he'd done one shootfighting event in Japan, he still knew little to nothing about the striking arts.

"It was a friend of mine in Detroit who watched the first couple and he made me copies of them on VHS tape and said, 'Hey, you ought to think about doing this.' I saw people getting kicked in the face and I thought, these are not exactly skills I possess. But then he said, 'Look at this skinny guy doing jiu-jitsu and beating everyone.' That skinny guy, of course, was Royce Gracie."

It seemed simple enough, so Severn signed up for UFC 4. At first, he thought the best chance he'd get would be as an alternate for the one-night tournament. Then, just days before the event in December of 1994, the UFC informed him that he was in.

"By the time I was given the nod, I was a last-minute fill-in. My training camp consisted of five days of training for an hour and a half each day. Then I walked into the world of no-holds-barred. I did not train a single strike. I did not train a single submission."

Severn also didn't tell his friends or family what he was up to. He thought it would be his little secret, but it just so happened that his uncles had ordered the pay-per-view. When they recognized their nephew on the TV screen, they wasted no time calling Severn's father and asking him if he knew where his boy Danny was that evening.

'He said, 'Well, isn't he in Coldwater?' They said, 'No he's about to fight in this cage here on TV,' Severn recalled. "I'm just shy of 37 years of age and my father ends up chewing me out after it was over."

His uncles called back after each round to update Severn's parents, and the news got better with each dispatch. On the strength of his athleticism and wrestling skills alone he breezed through the quarterfinals and semis. Every time he emerged for another walk to the Octagon, he wore the same gray t-shirt, darkened by just a little more sweat after each fight. This, Severn said, was by design.

"A lot of people asked me why I wore this plain gray t-shirt. Everyone who knows about university athletics knows that every athletic department will issue you your set of grays. I used to grade my workout by how many t-shirts I would sweat through. A standard practice for me was two shirts, and I mean soaked. You'd peel it off, throw it against the wall, and you'd hear a slop. A really good day? Three shirts. Standard was two."

It may have been the beginning of his MMA career, and he may have been in his mid-thirties, but he wanted to show that he was bringing the same work ethic to it that he had to college wrestling.

"This was my grassroots here," said Severn. "I've been issued my grays. Now I'm going to work."

It was smooth sailing until Severn met Gracie in the finals. Severn's size and strength advantage appeared to be ruling the day, but just under sixteen minutes into the fight he found himself caught in a triangle choke, which he had no idea how to escape from. Severn was forced to tap out, and only then did he realize how much he still had to learn about the new sport of MMA.

"Like they say, it's a physical chess match," Severn said. "It's just that checkmate hurts a little bit more."

Severn would go on to have a prolific career in the nascent sport, winning the UFC 5 tournament and the Ultimate Ultimate tournament. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he stayed active even as the sport changed around him, and he evolved along with it. Perhaps most impressively, his work ethic never flagged. The year he turned 49 he fought ten times, and that was just a tad more than normal for Severn.

Only now that the ride is coming to an end – or so he says – he knows it might not be so easy to finally give it up.

"There's not going to be any gum for me to chew or any patch for me to put on my arm, so yeah, it might be tough. But you'll never find another guy like me because of all the different interests I have. I look upon mixed martial arts as a hobby. It's been a well-paying hobby, but it's nothing that I do because I need the money."

A rematch with Gracie, who defeated him back when he was just a 36-year-old baby in the sport? That would be nice, but he's not going to lose sleep over it if it doesn't happen. It's just that, after a lifetime of setting goals and going after them, it's not in him to sit back and say nothing while a potential opportunity passes him by.

"Do I expect this match to really materialize?" Severn said. "I don't know. I think the weight thing will be the biggest barrier to it. But I have nothing to lose by at least saying, yeah, I'm willing to do this match. At least then my voice is heard."

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