If one thing holds true when it comes to the history surrounding different subcultures,such as politics, art, music, and mixed martial arts, it’s that each niche has its under-appreciated legends—men who played pivotal roles in the formation of their respective crafts, but men who also fell victim to changing times and newer memories formed.
Thankfully, one of these men is still around to stoke the coals of his living legacy while it still burns. That man is 51-year-old Dan Severn.
“To this day, I’ve never called myself a fighter—I’m a competitor who tries to find the nicest way to terrorize someone in a not-so-nice sport,” says Severn, displaying an uncanny benevolence not usually found within the fight game. “Who really wins when two people truly fight?” he asks. “No one. Yet so many people only think of me as a fighter, and that is such a small portion of who I am and what I am about.”
The formation of this enigmatic man began to take shape in the 1960s in rural Michigan, where Severn spent much of his childhood working the family farm with his seven brothers and sisters. He tells the usual tale that accompanies a wrestler-to be developing discipline and a strong work ethic in his daily chores, but unlike most corn-fed grapplers, Severn happened upon his affinity for the mat not only at a late age, but also completely due to circumstance.
“I was on the junior high basketball team when a big flu epidemic came along and nearly caused the wrestling team to forfeit a meet because they were missing so many guys,” he says. “So a few of my buddies on the team asked me to fill in for a weight class … I was a big, strapping guy and decided I was going to show these boys something about wrestling.”. But the story that followed was anything but cliché for the future standout.
“I wrestled twice, and I lost twice. I definitely didn’t start my career out in a ball of fire or anything, and that’s something that I think is important to let especially kids know,” says Severn, who nowadays travels the country, motivating youngsters. “People see my accomplishments and think I must’ve been a success my whole life, but that’s not the case. I had to work hard, and I lost quite a few matches before I ever won one …I like to joke that I’m not sure if I won because I finally got better, or maybe I just found someone who was worse than me. Everyone knows how it feels to be no good at something, so it’s a comforting thing for people to hear.”
The years to come would fly by for Severn as he developed a knack for tossing his fellow competitor every which way, and after compiling a high school wrestling record of 100-0 in his junior and senior years, Severn earned an athletic scholarship to Arizona State University, where he would continue to wrestle and even become versed in the art of judo. Athletic competition was the driving pulse in the veins of Severn, but a knee injury would eventually force him to balance out his athletic identity by nourishing a budding intellect.
“I was in college for all the wrong reasons—I was an athlete and I had no Plan B, only Plan A,” he says. “That’s why nowadays I preach about the importance of education to all young athletes and aspiring fighters. You need to have a backup plan.” Fortunately, Dan Severn would be given a chance to develop such a plan by earning a degree in Industrial Technology with a minor in Education. His determination also saw him wrestling again, despite doctors’ prognoses that he would never again set foot on a mat.
Severn continued forward in his storied life, dabbling in coaching while continuing to flourish in national and international wrestling, and even in the professional wrestling circuit in Japan. Finally, he was made aware of a certain fighting contest that was taking the United States by storm.
“I had a friend in Michigan who brought me a tape of one of the UFCs, because pay-per-view didn’t reach out to rural America yet, and he told me I should really think about doing it,” says Severn. “And I’m watching these tapes of people getting their heads punched and stomped and I’m thinking, ‘These aren’t exactly skills I possess. I don’t think I want to do that to another person.’ But then I saw this little Brazilian guy, Royce Gracie, and what he was doing looked like wrestling to me.” It was all the justification Severn needed to jump into the roughest competition in the world, where he would eventually face that same little Brazilian.
That match with Gracie at UFC 4 would prove to be a long and troubling occurrence for Severn, but not simply because he was submitted by a triangle choke at just over 15 minutes into the fight. To this day, it remains a sore spot in his heart, a subject that the usually talkative competitor needs some goading to speak about.
“I had never seen [a triangle choke] before,” admits Severn, and he offers no excuses despite the fact that he was originally just an alternate at UFC 4, following an ill-equipped five day training camp. “I submitted, yes… but I was in there, and I know what went down … let’s leave it at that.”
In the silence that ensues, it’s easy to tell that Severn’s own words don’t sit well within his mind. He is a man carrying some baggage, and it’s apparent that he longs to get it off of his chest, even if only ambiguously. “Ok, ok, let me just share this,” he says with a sigh. “I don’t know how much time had elapsed after I took Royce down, but I was trying to end the fight with some crude and primitive submissions, you know, amateur wrestling moves that can be tweaked to make someone scream and squawk … I’m not trained to strike another human being … I hit him a little that night, but nothing straight on … I always tell people that I struggle more with my own conscience more than I’ve ever struggled with any human being.” Severn speaks slowly and deliberately, choosing his words carefully, maybe in an effort to avoid rocking the proverbial boat. He continues.
“During the course of the match, I looked down at Royce. And they say the eyes are the window to the soul …well I was piercing his soul that night. And he looks at his dad [Helio Gracie] on the outside of the cage and I can see exactly what’s going through his mind. He’s saying, ‘Dad, I’m hanging in here, but if you wanna throw in the towel I won’t hold it against you.’ I followed Royce’s eyes to his dad’s eyes outside of the cage, and he was holding the towel in his hands. [Helio Gracie] looked right at me, shook his head ‘no’ and crossed his arms over his chest.” Severn pauses. “And I’m thinking, ‘You old bastard. You’d let me kill your kid for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, wouldn’t you?’” As quickly as the saga is told, Severn’s lips are sealed once again. When asked if his inborn compassion had kept him from fully pulling the trigger that night, he gives a simple — possibly ashamed — “maybe,” as his answer. “No one knows what Dan Severn was actually capable of doing that night,” he later says.
The conversation naturally shifts to talks of rematches that Severn is confident will happen before his prospective retirement in 2012, which will cap off a career of over 115 recorded professional fights. Royce Gracie, Mark Coleman, and Ken Shamrock are all names that are mentioned, and perhaps it’s more than coincidence that each man is joined forever with Severn in the UFC Hall of Fame. He entertains the idea
of finishing out his fighting days within the organization, and he reveals that the possibility of tacking such an exclamation mark onto the end of his career is solely at the discretion of the UFC.
“I’ve made a few phone calls and written some emails to the UFC, but I haven’t heard anything—but maybe them not answering is an answer in itself,” he says with an honest outlook. “I can make these matches happen elsewhere, though. Maybe not as many people will know about it, but who am I doing this for in the first place? I’m doing it for me. But I’d be happy to fight [in the UFC] again.”
Although a farewell wave from inside the Octagon is currently looking bleak for Severn, perhaps there is still some promise for clamoring fans to cling to, illustrated by the past tendency of the UFC to look favorably upon those who served the organization well in the early years. Since 2006, Royce Gracie, Mark Coleman, and Ken Shamrock have all been invited back to the UFC at least once, despite varying periods of inactivity within the organization and speculation concerning their ages and abilities. Even so, Severn keeps a level head. “As far as I know, I’m still on good terms with the UFC, and I have made my presence and desire known to them,” he says. With a little luck, maybe The Beast will indeed be seen in the most famous cage of all, once again.
Above all, Severn insists that his career—something he takes pride in being “chemical-free” and based on his own natural ability—will be complete no matter where he finishes it. “Most of all, I want fans to remember me as a fierce competitor inside the cage, and as a gentleman and a scholar outside of the cage,” he says. “I’ll have plenty of things to keep me busy after I’m done fighting, and I’ll continue to inspire positive change in people’s lives wherever I can do it.” He pauses once more. “That’s just the type of person I am.”
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