Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC
With the sport still in its relative infancy, there are few figures to have made as big a splash on MMA as UFC Hall of Famer Dan Severn has, and that’s not mentioning the fact he was a stellar All American amateur wrestler during his time at Arizona State—an alternate for the US Olympic wrestling team on three occasions—as well as one of the longest-reigning NWA world heavyweight champions in the realm of professional wrestling, which culminated in a WWE run as the Attitude Era started to blossom.
In addition to his status as a UFC Hall of Famer, Severn is the promotion’s first and only Triple Crown Champion—victorious in the UFC Superfight Championship, the Ultimate Ultimate 1995 Tournament Championship alongside the UFC 5 Tournament Championship.
Despite having over 120 professional MMA bouts under his belt, his record standing at an incredible 101-19-7, made even more impressive considering he was aged 36 when he had his first MMA bout, the now-58-year-old shows zero signs of slowing like some of his contemporaries from the MMA scene in the mid ‘90s—spending most of his time training students at his facility in Michigan, while running both his Danger Zone MMA and Price of Glory Wrestling promotions. Oh and he still harbours hopes of fighting again in addition to recently releasing a well-received book of his extensive memoirs, entitled “The Realest Guy in the Room.”
Even with the above commitments, he is one of the most approachable men of his stature within MMA—Severn is the relatable everyman whose hard work compensated for any athletic failings and that blue collar work ethic transcends merely his sporting accomplishments.
A friendly extrovert, at odds with his steely demeanour, I had a two-hour catch up with Dan to talk life, his accomplishments, the changing attitudes of each generation, the fight game, how professional wrestling has changed since his NWA/WWE heyday and more—the following are some of his musings.
A Michigan farm boy who found wrestling by chance
“I was a chunky, happy-go-lucky kid. I have seven other siblings—second on the totem pole with five males and three females—and I grew up on a farm, so I had the storybook upbringing. It was because of growing up on a farm and the responsibility bestowed upon me is probably the safety net which drives me on now.
“Nothing attracted me [to amateur wrestling], I was actually a basketball player, but I sucked as a basketball player so usually found myself sat on the bench. A big flu epidemic hit my junior high and a couple of my buddies from the wrestling team approached me and asked me to fill in a weight class for them, otherwise the school would have had to forfeit. I was thinking that I was a stocky farm kid so I should go out there no problem—I wrestled twice and got beat twice. I felt like I humiliated myself and let my buddies down. Then, when it came to the eighth grade, I opted to wrestle rather than play basketball.
“I lost a lot of matches before I had won any and I was just a kid trying something out. That’s a big difference between today’s era of the millennial and my era. Back then, parents would make you see something through even if you didn’t like what you were doing as a kid. Today, parents let their kids flake out of anything and drop out left and right. Even with my kids—my son was playing baseball and he didn’t like the coach and wanted to quit. I told him: ‘Son, you can quit, but only after you see out the rest of the season.’ That is a major fault for today’s millennials, who are allowed to simply roll over at the slightest verbal altercation or thinking their coach is being a little hard on them.
“It’s great preparation for life in general. Jake, do you like everyone you’ve ever worked with? No? That’s my point! You have to learn how to get along, who to avoid, who are the people you like being around and you can then categorise your people from there.”
A further look into the millennial generation
“Growing up is so much easier now because of the weakness which comes up with each generation of weaker people. I look at this invasion of millennials as nothing more than Stay Puft Marshmallows—they’re so soft mentally, so soft physically. I look at them and think, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me!’ You guys would not have survived in my era whatsoever. You would have been cannon fodder at best.
“This is a broad stroke, but most millennials have strong index fingers and strong thumbs and it’s the most robust part of their whole entire body. They don’t know how to interact with people, they have the poorest grammar, they don’t know how to shake people’s hand and they don’t know how to look people in the eye. Social-wise, millennials are some of the most inept people I’ve ever met. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but as a broad stroke I would say that point blank. I am not impressed at all.
“I walked into my living room once and there were half a dozen teenagers in there sitting on the sofas and all their heads were down. They were all texting away and I was observing them, there would be a giggle from one of them and the rest would catch up and laugh away about 30 seconds later. They’re literally communicating to each other without talking and looking at each other.
“Jake, let me ask you something. Did your parents ever utilise corporal punishment? No? There’s the problem. When our school systems took away corporal punishment, there is suddenly a total lack of repercussions for what comes out of your mouth and for your actions. There’s got to be repercussions. Simply going ‘oh, let’s talk to them’ is bullshit. I don’t know who wrote the book of just having a talk—hell, I even had problems about this with my own wife, because she simply wanted to talk to my kids when they did wrong. It doesn’t work—it’s just a number of warning shots with no repercussions. There has got to be repercussions.
“Unfortunately I was the disciplinarian for my five kids. I’m not proud of it and I would tell them that I didn’t want to do it, but I did want them to grow up as a responsible adult one day. I remember walking into my classroom and seeing the paddle kept on the wall with pride. It even said ‘Board of Education’ on it. If you got out of line, you were going to get your heinie lit up with that thing and you were not going to get out of line again. The best, proper people came up in that era with me and I guarantee it was because of the threat of repercussion.
“Just speaking about this gets me worked up.”
Photo by Ed Mulholland/Zuffa LLC
Respect and standards
“For the young classes at my training facility, I will stand there as they all come in and everyone has to greet me as sensei, Mr. Severn or coach and they must shake my hand and look me in the eye. They know this—it’s part of my rules. It doesn’t do anything for me, but I’m trying to help them survive the world. I have rules, I have expectations from my students, but, more importantly, I have standards.
“I look at the United States right now and we continually lower our standards. That’s bullshit. I run a training facility and I do not discriminate whatsoever—I hate everybody equally and I work things out from there. I know that most people who walk through my doors talk a good game and I am so tired of that as they are wasting my air. Nike should have been all over me as I don’t talk about it, I just do it. Most people won’t know me in my entirety—I’m an iceberg and only a third of me is showing on the surface. The other two thirds? I rarely tell people what I’m working on as it hasn’t come to fruition yet and it doesn’t really matter until then.
“Little over a year ago I was at a business meeting with five other men. The gentleman to the right of me was such an arrogant ass. He was belittling almost everyone at the table to the point that I had enough. I leaned in on him and I invaded his personal space—and then some—to the point he was leaning back on his chair. He started panicking as I started breathing on him. I said, ‘Let me ask you a question. When’s the last time you had a good old fashioned ass beating? By the way you’re talking to these other gentlemen and myself, I’d say it has been a while. I think you’re about due for another one.’ His eyes turned into big saucers and I think he might have peed his pants on top of all this. I leaned back and told the other men that this meeting was over for me as the guy only represented an investment and money. He was an asshole and I will not work with assholes—I can find money from somewhere else and I will enjoy working with them and I left. One of the other guys from the meeting later called me to say how awesome it was that I took this asshole to task and how everyone was thinking it, but I was the only one to act on it. I was thinking, ‘Why? Why subject yourself to someone who conducts themselves like that?’ I’m not gonna have a miserable life, I’m going to enjoy the people I have around me.”
Professional wrestling and Brock Lesnar comparisons
“Now, pro wrestling sucks. There are no real characters and I think WWE forgot this is an entertainment product. I enjoyed the eras when they had larger-than-life characters. You know, when there was a ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage and when there was a Hulk Hogan, the Junkyard Dog and Koko B. Ware—they were a cast of entertaining, eclectic characters.
“I had a two-year deal with WWF—a limited contract, which, as far as I know, is the only unrestricted deal they ever offered a wrestler, which meant I could even appear on WCW or the NWA if I wanted to, but I don’t think they ever truly understood what they had with me. Now they’re embracing a Brock Lesnar and he only had eight fights which spanned over four years—Jake, I’ve done over eight fights in one year while working for WWF, NWA and any other promotion which would book me at the time. I can wrestle, coach kids amateur wrestling, fight in a cage and then do an appearance at a sports bar in the evening—I was and am totally multi-faceted and they wasted that potential in WWF.
“Brock and I are only similar in the sense that he also wrestled both styles and entered the cage a few times. That’s the closest we’ll ever come as only one of us has been lifetime chemical-free and the other person has not. I’ll let you pick between the two. I have already outlived five of my cagefighting opponents and over 30 of my former wrestling partners and none of them were older than me. It’s something called positive lifestyle choices and something tells me both of those numbers will continue to rise and yours truly will continue to hang around.”
Retirement with a clause and Ken Shamrock
“I retired from MMA with a clause—I would fight again if I had one of three opponents: Mark Coleman, Royce Gracie or Ken Shamrock. A match against any of those three would have been just fine, but Coleman is now off the list as he’s had one or two hip replacements and there are now only two viable options left. A side note—out of the first three people inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, only one of us has never tested positive. Want to guess who that is? Me? You must have inside information there.
“I didn’t think much of Gracie and Shamrock’s ‘fight.’ Originally, Shamrock was meant to fight me. Their match took place on a Friday night, but Shamrock had already signed to fight me on that Sunday and had taken a small percentage of his purse as a guarantee. This was booked months in advance and I was already in a five-month training camp—only the third MMA training camp of my life. I was a machine and I could have easily fought and beat both Ken and Royce on the same night.
“Shamrock should have never signed the Bellator deal. He started tweeting of a major announcement and I was certain he would be talking about my fight. Instead, he announced this Bellator fight with Gracie and I was the guy who had to inform this Canadian promotion that Shamrock had made this announcement. They ended up contacting Ken and he had the audacity to say, ‘Just move the show back one week,’ before asking, ‘Does Severn have a problem with that?’ I had no problem with that at all, but I had to tell the company that Shamrock was due a minimum of a 30-day suspension if he got any type of booboo from the Gracie fight.
“They then moved the show back a month, but Shamrock got his feelings and his little testicles hurt against Gracie, lost his match and then tested positive for performance enhancers for a second time. Not only that, he also tested positive for opiates in his bloodstream. I have no clue when his suspension is due to end, but, at this point, I have no interest in fighting Shamrock unless a guarantee is made that he shows up. I wasted five months of my life with that training camp. He is not a man of his word and I can’t say enough bad things about that guy. Ken Shamrock is a sham, has had a lifetime of chemical usage and has never experienced true success. I’ll let my accomplishments speak for myself and he can let his speak for himself. Big difference—we’re on two different levels.”
A career retrospective and the keys to longevity
“I am most proud of my accomplishments from my amateur wrestling career. I didn’t do it for fame, I didn’t do that for a belt. You have to realise that it was the Cold War era when I started competing on the international stage. To be wrestling in the Soviet Union—or any other Eastern Bloc countries—and win with your country’s flag be raised and its national anthem playing while stood on the top of the podium, that means more to me than anything else I’ve ever done. My international career also prepared me very well for my MMA career.
“The reasons behind the longevity of my career are a combination of things. First of all, I think I had some great genes to work with and I believe I made the most of that. Also, I feel my lifestyle, lifestyle choices and attitude towards MMA in terms of knowing what my strengths and weaknesses are helped with my longevity in both MMA and wrestling. I would only train for five days—1.5 hours a day—in the lead up to a fight and that was always to sharpen up my grappling.
“I’m not a striker, I’m a wrestler. I’m good at avoiding getting hit and I’m good at taking guys down from the clinch—that’s why I’m one of only four men to have over 100 MMA wins in the world. I faced the other three and defeated them all and the closest one to my age is 15 years my junior. That’s why I say I’m in a category all by myself—I started a cagefighting career just before turning 37 years of age. You should be retiring by then. I was the WWF’s oldest rookie ever, starting at 48 years of age. Now, I’m a year-and-a-half away from turning 60 years old. Picture a 60-year-old and I am not that guy—I can still outwork most people physically and mentally.
“Just look at Ronda Rousey against Amanda Nunes. Rousey was once a fantastic judo practitioner and I can relate to that as a grappler myself, but I knew I was never going to become an accomplished striker after so long in the wrestling world. Rousey lasted less than a minute. I learned the basics to make sure I could block, protect and successfully measure range to help use what I was gifted with.”
The Beast’s next steps and Conor McGregor
“I’m a very unique commodity in so many different ways. For what I’ve accomplished—young in life and old in life—while being totally chemical free. The fact that I’ve only had two training camps in the 20-year span of my career. The fact that I have the best winning percentage over anyone in the world. There’s a reason why my book is called ‘The Realest Guy in the Room.’ I am that guy. I am that guy everyone’s trying to get close to but never will. You will never see another guy like me ever—whether currently living or diseased and I’m not done and I am working on my next chapter.
“There will never be another Dan Severn again who enjoys the longevity I have. In fact, I’m actually talking to a company now, who are interested in my pitch to them. That pitch is that I come out of retirement for one year and I would do something incredible—shock the world, even—by showing fans how many matches I can have in that time. Will it materialise? I don’t know. We may even have to wait until 2018 for this to begin, but I know I can be successful with this.
“I also want to create the next level of MMA competitor at my training facility. I want my students to realise fighting should be a marriage of professional wrestling and MMA combined, because fighters are a dime a dozen. What really makes you stand out is your appearance, what you say, what you do and how you finish an opponent. That’s where professional wrestling meets mixed martial arts. It’s proven—Conor McGregor is probably the greatest example of someone who understands that factor. He’s putting on a show and simply knows he can get more money talking the way he does. If you’re looking to get into the fight game, you’ve got to realise your career is going to be short-lived. “After that, I will meet my demise at 125 and I hope it will be taken tragically by a jealous husband. A man’s gotta have a dream now, Jake. She will be a much younger woman—hopefully in her 90s.”
Check out these related stories:
Revisiting UFC 9: The Night MMA Lost Its Punches
Dan Severn Would Return to Fight Winner of Gracie-Shamrock
Dan Severn: When Wrestling Became a Martial Art