On the brink of his retirement from action, Dan “The Beast” Severn is looking back at his long and successful careers in mixed martial arts and pro wrestling.
His unique insight on those pursuits might surprise people who view them through the simple real-versus-fake dichotomy.
“Professional wrestling is much more difficult,” Severn says over the phone from Arizona, where he is developing a university athletics program for children.
“I’ve been hurt far worse in the professional wrestling industry than I have been in all of my cage matches.”
Severn admits this may “seem like a contradiction in terms,” given the scripted and theatrical nature of wrestling, as opposed to the spontaneity and fierceness mixed martial arts.
But few people are more qualified to make such a claim, given Severn’s extensive background in both worlds. He was one of the early heroes of MMA as the sport was emerging from the shadows and (slowly) gaining mainstream respectability.
After an impeccable collegiate wrestling career, he entered the Ultimate Fighting Championship at UFC 4, impressing many fans with his grappling abilities despite a final-match submission loss to Royce Gracie. The following year, he defeated three men in one night to win the Ultimate Ultimate 1995 tournament (notable for being the first UFC event to feature judges).
Due to Severn’s amateur wrestling background, Severn’s fights often included long, unexciting periods in which he immobilized opponents. Severn is the first to acknowledge that he wasn’t a thrilling striker.
“I’ve never claimed to be a fighter — I’m a competitor,” he says. “You’ve got to get within leg’s reach or arm’s reach to hit me, and if you put that limb out there, I’m going to grab that limb and use it against you. You’ll never see the light of day until I let you loose.”
In the mid-1990s, Severn entered the world of professional wrestling, quickly winning the NWA World Heavyweight Championship from Chris Candido at a Smoky Mountain Wrestling event. During his NWA title reign, he also won the UFC Superfight Heavyweight Championship, making him the only person to hold titles in both pro wrestling and MMA at the same time.
Severn’s notoriety from UFC helped land him a spot in WWE, where he engaged in a feud with former UFC rival Ken Shamrock. He also participated in the first round of WWE’s ill-fated attempt to capitalize on the skyrocketing appeal of MMA, the Brawl for All.
Though he scored a victory against the Godfather, Severn withdrew from the tournament, allowing the Godfather to advance (eventually, tournament champion Bart Gunn suffered an embarrassing knockout to toughman champ Butterbean).
Severn quickly discovered that wrestling, though scripted, wasn’t nearly as “fake” as widely believed.
“What makes me nervous about wrestling is that I have to put my body in someone else’s hands,” he says. “If that person screws up, it’s me that gets hurt.”
As opposed to MMA, in which a fighter has one simple goal – to defeat his opponent – professional wrestling requires physical storytelling, emotional engagement and a well-timed spectacle.
What makes it even trickier, he says, is the peculiar nature of most professional wrestlers.
“I say this as a broad stroke: professional wrestling is the biggest band of derelicts, ne’er-do-wells, misfits, nitwits and socially inept individuals ever. There are exceptions. But that’s the way it was when I first got involved, and it still is to this day.”
Severn has been reflecting on his career a lot lately, since he has announced he will no longer compete in combat sports after 2012. With that clock ticking down, he says he would love to have one final hurrah – a last showdown against an old foe like Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock or Mark Coleman.
He knows any fight of that kind would be a sideshow attraction – a “geriatric league match,” as he puts it. But he still believes there’s a market for MMA nostalgia.
Those fights apparently weren’t meant to be, however. As in most ventures, the stumbling block was money, Severn says. So he’ll be ringing in 2013 in peace.
Of course, Severn knows that any announcement of a “retirement” is subject to a few loopholes, especially in his profession.
“If there was a ridiculous amount of money involved, I’d come out of retirement,” he says. “I am a wrestler after all.”