Dan Severn: Avoid dementia, don’t take unnecessary punishment
This is number sixty-three in Jack Brown’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re honored to feature the UFC Hall-Of-Famer, Dan “The Beast” Severn. “Legendary” may be an overused term in the young sport of MMA, but not when it comes to one of the original pioneers, Dan Severn. The Beast, the UFC’s first dominant wrestler, burst onto the scene at UFC 4, at age 36. 101 victories later, with several championships along the way, Severn retired this past New Year’s Day, at age 54. Jack recently had the opportunity to catch up with Severn on Father’s Day. Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports, and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Dan Severn: When I first saw it for the very first time, a buddy of mine had watched the first two UFC’s and then copied them on a VHS tape and showed them to me. I was kind of blown away. I was like, “Can you really do this kind of competition here in the United States?” Then I looked at him and said that, “These are not exactly skills that I possess.” And he said, “Yeah, but look at this skinny guy doing Jiu-jitsu.” Of course he was referring to Royce Gracie. I’d really never been exposed to Jiu-jitsu before, but it kind of looked like wrestling to me. So I figured if a guy was close enough to throw down upon me, then I either create some distance and stay out of range or close in distance before they have an opportunity to get any real velocity on any kind of strikes. And, I hate to say it, but that little series right there kind of carried me through my entire career.
JB: Before that, you were an All-American, NCAA Division I, wrestler, at Arizona State University, and you were also a U.S. Olympic Team alternate throughout the 1980s. What was it about wrestling, growing up, that just suited you so well?
DS: I think just like any other kid when you’re growing up, you try all these various types of sports. I was a baseball player, a basketball player, football player, track and field. I did three sports through high school, between football in the fall, wrestling in the winter, and track and field. Just like any other person, I was trying all different sports. I really kind of took to wrestling starting in about that junior high range. I was first exposed to wrestling in my seventh grade year. From there, I guess, it just kind of snowballed. I got my very first amateur wrestling magazine in my ninth grade year and it really opened my eyes because this magazine had all these various articles about the aspects of wrestling. It talked about the weightlifting program. It talked about the psychological aspects. It talked about goals and things of this nature. It just really opened my eyes that there was so much more to a sport than what I was aware of at the time. And I set my very first goal to become the first freshman at my high school to make the varsity team. And from there it just kind of snowballed from the next thing to the next thing. I’ve lived a life of basically setting goals.
JB: What do you recall about your first professional MMA experience, your three historic fights at UFC 4 back in 1994, and how prepared do you feel you were to take on that level of talent?
DS: Really, I was not prepared at all. I was a last-minute fill-in. By the time I was contacted to be a part of the show, I only trained for five days, an hour and a half a day. The closest thing I could get to a cage was a professional wrestling ring. So I traveled from Coldwater, Michigan over to Lima, Ohio. There was a place where I did my training at with Al Snow of Bodyslammers. Between him and a few of his protégés, they’d use an old pair of boxing gloves that they’d share, and take turns trying to come in and punch and kick me. I kept with that same strategy of staying outside their ranges, closing distances, getting clinches, takedowns, throws, and then simply just slapping on amateur wrestling techniques. The amateur wrestling techniques were a way of creating leverage to turn your opponents and put them on their backs and stuff like that, but the same principles of that leverage induces pain. So literally I’d make my guys scream and squawk, and that was my training camp. I never trained a single strike. I never trained a legitimate submission technique. So when I walked into my very first UFC, and I told people what my martial arts background was, I said, “I’m a wrestler.” That was it. And I’ve been credited for being the guy that opened up the floodgates for all these other wrestlers around the United States and around the world.
JB: During your legendary, Hall of Fame, UFC career, you won the UFC 5 tournament, the Ultimate Ultimate 95 tournament, and the UFC 9 superfight championship. You even refereed fights in the UFC at one point. What are you most proud of from your time in the UFC?
DS: I stayed true to myself. I stayed true to my sport. I’ve been very successful, what I did in amateur wrestling, folkstyle, freestyle, Greco-Roman. I jumped into Judo. I jumped into Sambo. Even in professional wrestling, I stayed true to myself. The fact is I’m a lifetime chemical freak. You find another athlete that is going to have all the accomplishments that I have and claim that along with it. I’ve always been a big advocate of education. I have a teaching certificate from Arizona State University. I’ve been teaching wrestling since 1972, and so I’ve been putting my theory to work before I ever had a degree in teaching. I educated people. The last twenty plus years the number one email I get from fans is that I inspired them. They meet me, just like last night, just by doing a simple appearance at kind of a restaurant/sports bar. The pay-per-view was taking place. I had the belts there. I’m shaking hands, taking pictures, signing autographs. The owner was just really ecstatic. They couldn’t believe how easygoing I was and what I accomplished. I think they were even more surprised when they said, “Your ears look good. Why do your ears look so good?” They see all these other fighters with cauliflower ears and stuff like that. I use comedy a lot. But even in comedy, you get your points across. So I said, “I invested into this piece of training equipment called ‘headgear.’ For about twenty-five bucks, it was a great investment and it has done me well.” I’ll say stuff like that or I’ll say, “If I could ever find that woman that said, ‘Those Randy Couture looking ears really turn me on,’ or something like that.” I go, “I don’t think I’ll ever find that woman and if I did, it would probably scare me so far off that I’d be running the other way anyway.” I use comedy, but even in this comedy, you can get your point across.
I always knew that it was going to be just a portion of my career, and I wanted to be able to walk away from it and do other things. Even the very first UFC, I only ever planned on doing one because I did not know how things were going to go. I did not tell a single family member. My father found out through a couple uncles who simply just happened to stumble across it that evening and watched the very first one. And they were calling over to my parents’ home, and my father, his name was “Marvin.” They were like, “Marv, do you know where your boy’s at?” I have four other brothers so he said, “Well, which one are you talking about?” They said, “Danny. He’s about to climb into this cage and do this.” My dad was like, “What the hell?” After each match, my uncles were calling back and telling him that I did okay here, and then that I won this, and then I lost. Later, it was kind of ironic, there I was, 36 years of age, and I was getting yelled at by my father, making him nervous.
JB: After your last fight in the UFC, in 2000, at UFC 27, you continued to have professional MMA fights and you continued with professional wrestling as well. By the time of your retirement, on New Year’s Day earlier this year, you finished your professional MMA career with an astounding 101 victories. How, physically, and otherwise, were you able to keep competing for so long and what drove you to compete for so long?
DS: I would give a couple different aspects credit for that. You’ll notice that I utilize a great deal of clichés. And the cliché here is, “You live by the sword, you die by the sword.” Chuck Liddell almost held two records simultaneously, knocking out the most people and being knocked out the most. That’s because he was a stand-up striker. Now my strength was my wrestling. I would have never pursued a fighting career based upon boxing, kickboxing, or Muay Thai because I did not possess those skills. But that’s why it was called “Mixed Martial Arts.”
It was actually known as “No Holds Barred” at the beginning. I think the terminology was changed as of January, 2005, when The Ultimate Fighter Show debuted with that match between Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin. That was a big shot in the arm for that company and the industry.
But getting back to the actual question, the wrestling background, I stayed true to my sport. I utilized wrestling throughout all my fights. I learned to strike enough, or to defend enough from the strikes, to get to the standing clinches, takedowns, or jamming my opponent up against the cage wall. That’s the way that Randy Couture did what they always referred to as “dirty boxing.” It wasn’t dirty boxing. It was Greco-Roman wrestling. What he utilized was the sheer fact that he could strike on top of utilizing his Greco-Roman wrestling technique. So, as I said, I always stayed true to my sport. I’ve done lots of martial arts seminars across the United States and around the world and I keep saying that this was my successful foundation. I did not deviate from it. I just kept coming up with ways to add to it and to utilize my strengths. So I give a great deal of credit to that. Of course, I always tell people, again utilizing humor, that I’m a big advocate of the theory of “duck,” and staying out of harm’s way.
JB: Of all the legends and other tough competitors that you faced over the years, who were a few that stood out above the rest as men who really provided a challenge for you?
DS: Royce Gracie, Mark Coleman, Tank Abbott, those are just some of the names that some of the people will be familiar with. You know, it was just a different era. To have started in this No Holds Barred era, the people that will be listening to this or reading this material, they’re really in tune to Mixed Martial Arts. They see guys wearing gloves. They did not see guys wearing shoes. To go back to that No Holds Barred era, there were only two rules that the athletes had to abide by. Those were, “Do not bite the opponent,” and “Do not stick fingers in the eye sockets.” That was the end of the rules. Anything else you could possibly think of, let your imagination run wild, you were good to go. There were no weight classes. There were no time periods. It was bare-knuckled action and it was an eight-man tournament. You had to face and beat three opponents in a two-hour pay-per-view. That match with Royce Gracie, in a lot of parts of the country, it went off. The show actually got cut off. There were a lot of areas where the people did not see the finish. So I understand more and more, from a business perspective, why they had to come up with timetables. How much airtime does one by to air a show? So now the UFC is very streamlined operation/business where they have all these prelims matches taking place so that if you get into the actual pay-per-view promotion and some matches go short, you’ve got all kinds of filler now.
JB: You said that you watched UFC 161 last night. What do you think of what the sport has become?
DS: Two key people in that show were Rashad Evans and Dan Henderson. Rashad Evans and Dan Henderson were both former wrestlers themselves. Dan Henderson was a part of the Sunkist wrestling program. You’re speaking to the original Sunkist wrestler from 1976. I knew Dan when he was wrestling in college. I may not have met him in the last decade or so, but I still know who he is. I know what he accomplished as an amateur wrestler. And then Rashad Evans was a former Michigan State wrestler. He traveled down from East Lansing to Coldwater, Michigan, where I had my training facility. He started his MMA training down at my facility. The first of his amateur NHB/MMA matches was in my MMA fight company, Danger Zone. Basically, I helped him get into The Ultimate Fighter show.
But honestly, Jack, when I was watching way back in 1994, I kept thinking, “If this can survive.” It had an attraction, an appeal. I would have those VHS tapes around and one might be playing at the time when I’d have a buddy or two stop by to drop something off. And they’d be like, “What’s that?” They didn’t have the time to stop. They may have just stopped by to do something or to drop something off, but an hour or two later, there they were still sitting on the edge of my couch, screaming and hollering at the TV set. And I’m actually watching them more than I’m watching the TV set. I’m asking myself, “Are we just bloodthirsty? Are we going to the racetrack to see an accident?” It was the appeal that it had of gladiators stepping inside the caged arena regardless of what your martial arts or athletic background was. Regardless of how big or how small you were, it was a whole different era. It had that attraction. I support just about all the rule changes that have taken place because ultimately you’re looking at the safety of the athletes. It is a very, very competitive athletic sport now.
JB: How would you compare this current generation of fighters to your peers from the early days of the sport? And how do you feel that these fighters and today’s fans regard you?
DS: There are comments and compliments that I receive like, “You were the person who I was watching.” A lot of them are like, “My dad really liked you.” You know, I was amongst all these young people and most of them could be my kids there last night. They’re just saying that, “My dad and I used to watch all the UFCs and my dad would say that you were his favorite.” It makes you feel good to hear that, or when they say, “You’re the reason that I got into this sport, because of watching you and how you conducted yourself, being a class act,” and things of that nature. It’s a great thing to hear, and it’s humbling at the same time, and it makes you want to continue to do those same things.
JB: Who have been the people, personally or professionally, that have been the most supportive of you over the years?
DS: I would say that primarily it would be the workout partners. I kept my family in the dark with my matches. I just did not want them to worry. Whenever it would come up in conversation, I’d simply just say, “Rest assured that if things go bad, I will do the thing known as a tapout. I’ve done it before, so I’ll do it again. I’m not going to take unnecessary punishment. I know that this is a physical chess match. MMA does hurt, but I know when you’re caught. And if you’re caught and can’t get out of it, why take all that unnecessary punishment?” And I think that is something that has kept me head and shoulders above a lot of other competitors. And if you take the number of matches, and visibly see me, you would not think that I was a fighter at all. I’m not showing any physical damage.
The sport has been around long enough that you see certain characteristic traits, such as in boxing where people who have been in some wars or have stuck around in the sport a little too long get a little bit punch-drunk, speech is a little bit slurred, or you can just tell they took a little too much damage. The same thing is happening now in the sport of mixed martial arts. It’s the same way in the NFL, where they no longer want helmet to helmet, trying to prevent head trauma and things of that nature. Just watching, again, the matches last night, Roy Nelson, wow, the guy definitely deserves the Timex award for just taking a licking and keeping on ticking. I don’t mean to say that in a mean way. He just takes punishment like you just wouldn’t believe, and I don’t know if that’s a great quality to have. And the only way that you will find out is the test of time. You can look good superficially right now. Maybe a few weeks down the road, a few months, a few years, and then all the wiring starts coming loose on you. You see that with all the interior lineman, and how there are a great deal of suicides and things of that nature that take place. They say that is linked to the head trauma. There are similarities between all these different sports.
I set up most of my workouts and training camps myself. I just had good people that were around me and we had safe camps too. When you hear, or you read, about all these upcoming cards, how people are getting hurt and the change of opponents or scratch matches, a lot of it, I truly believe is because they do not know how to run a proper training camp. There’s no way that you can train 100% and still have workout partners. Or your workout partners will get so sick of becoming punching bags for you that, because they’re human beings, they’ll want to take it back out on you. It’s a give and take, and you have to know how to wear boxing gloves versus MMA gloves to work on certain techniques, to go into submission grappling with simulated striking to prevent injuries to you and/or your workout partner. I would have liked, I guess, at one point to have been a part of one of the upcoming Ultimate Fighter shows to showcase a few different unique skills and some unique drills that I have yet to see. It’s knowing that you can train hard and be cautious all at the same time, knowing that the fighter is not going to get hurt and also being kind to your workout partner on top of that. A lot of it boils down to having some camps where they’re thinking that, “Well, I’m paying this guy to be my workout partner anyways. So what if I treat him like a punching bag?” There are some guys that have that mentality. I’m not one of those guys.
JB: Last question, Dan, and it has been an honor. Thank you. You’ve already accomplished so much as an athlete and a pioneer in several sports. What plans or goals do you have for the future?
DS: I always tell people that I’ve only retired from mixed martial arts as a competitor. I’m still going to be involved behind the scenes. I’m doing more and more play-by-play and color commentating. I still have a training facility, trying to help athletes realize their dreams. I have a little bit more fun working with the amateur level athletes as opposed to the pro level athletes. So I’ll still be a part of this and helping it move on to the next level.
I think that you’ll see that in the next three to five years you’re going to see a whole new level of competitor because the sport has been around long enough to where it’s going to be young people today that get into the sport who have grown up with it their entire lives. They’ll be doing maybe a Judo class, a Jiu-jitsu class, a boxing class at an early age. So they’re literally at five years of age starting this. You can start wrestling competitively at age four. So they might start out as a wrestler, but they’ll also get into some Judo, Jiu-jitsu, and work some boxing in a little. They will be doing things utilizing that cage wall. When you look at what Jon Jones has done and what other fighters have done by using the springing action off of that cage wall, that’s only the cusp of how some of these guys are going to use that cage wall and using that mat surface. It is simply going to awe the people that are watching.
When you ask the question of how the sport has changed since it first began to what it is today, well, mixed martial arts truly did not exist when we were doing it. It was about the greatest areas of martial arts, I’ll say, because you had people like Bruce Lee that were blending arts, but when the Ultimate Fighting Championships first began, they categorized athletes from one of two categories. They either put you in a striking category, and a striker could have been anything from a boxer, kickboxer, Muay Thai, Karate, Kung Fu, or the category of being a grappler, and that could have been a wrestler, Judo, Jiu-jitsu, Sambo practitioner. To me, it was like that was how the sport truly started to evolve because we grapplers realized that this match was starting on our feet. I needed survival skills. As this guy is throwing these punches and these knees or these elbows, I need to know how to defend them or how to counter them so that I can get to my clinches, takedowns, or throws. The strikers realized, “Hey, while I’m on my feet, I have room to work my magic, but if this grappler should take me down, clinch me, or jam me into that cage wall, I’ve lost 90% of my arsenal.” So that’s how the sport truly started to evolve to where with the product today you have strikers that can grapple with the best grapplers and grapplers who can strike with the best strikers. So the sport has gone full circle, but in the next three to five years you’re going to see this new athlete, who will say things like, “I think I can take my opponent, and when he’s chasing me, I’m going to run, step on the cage, do a complete flip, hook him into a guillotine choke, and choke him out as I’m in mid-air.” I know I’m using kind of an extreme there, but the way I see them utilizing the cage walls now, and how they bounce off to throw elbows, that’s just the cusp of things to come.
Touch base with me about every six months, and I’ll let you know how things are from the rocking chair!
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