Speaking with MMA Junkie about the realities facing aging MMA fighters that continue to compete, early UFC standout Dan "The Beast Severn" was asked about a hypothetical scenario: after Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie complete their trilogy in February and Bellator MMA offered him the chance to fight the winner, would he take it?
“Well, they were on my to-do list in the first place," Severn said. "So sure, I’d do it."
The 57-year-old Severn differs in an important way from other MMA pioneers who are revisiting past glories: unlike his peers, he didn’t stop fighting for almost 20 consecutive years. Instead, the mustachioed grappler and Tom Lawlor weigh-in inspiration fought almost 130 times, winning 101 of those bouts largely against nameless opponents (and Forrest Griffin) on the regional circuit, before calling it quits on New Year’s Day 2013. That marathon career followed early accolades: at 36, he entered the UFC with a laundry list of amateur wrestling credentials and a handful of unrefined submissions to win the UFC 5 tournament, the Ultimate Ultimate 1995 tournament, and the UFC Superfight Championship, the precursor to the SEG-era heavyweight title.
And yet we can’t quite separate the rest of Severn’s legacy from that one time his carotids got caught between his own arm and Royce Gracie’s legs 21 years ago. That fight at UFC 4 was one of the myth-making moments for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu: after nearly 16 minutes of getting smothered and pummeled and the pay-per-view feed cutting out, the lanky Brazilian still managed to submit a 250-plus-pound American wrestler who had size, gravity, and the cage working in his favor. If you forget about the time Mel Gibson threw one on Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon, it was probably first triangle choke captured by American cameras.
To hear Severn tell it many years later, though, he might have as been complicit in his own defeat. Speaking about the fight with Sherdog in 2013, Severn said: “I’m a big believer that the eyes are the window to a man’s soul, and [Royce] is looking over to [Helio] outside the cage. I could read exactly what’s going through his mind. It was kind of like, ‘Dad, I’m hanging in there, but you throw that towel in, I wouldn’t hold that against you.’ Then my eyes go from Royce’s, I go over to Helio’s. He’s outside the cage. He does have the towel in his hand. He has it down, but he kind of lifts it up, crosses his arms and just kind of shakes his head no, that he wasn’t going to do it. I’m looking at him and I’m thinking, ‘You old bastard. … You’d let me kill your kid here right now for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, wouldn’t you?’… All I can say is, only Dan Severn really knows what went down that night. … I wish I would have known a little bit more about what that whole deal was with the organization and things of that nature. I might have viewed things a little bit differently, might not have been so kind that night.”
Coyly implying that you lost because of your own benevolence is a pretty self-aggrandizing way to look at defeat. Then again, the Gracie clan does occasionally give the impression that tapping out is a cardinal sin if your first name begins with an R, and the family wasn't exactly upfront about its behind-the-scenes ties in the old days. Severn also loudly accused Shamrock of using pharmaceutical help to furnish his impossibly chiseled physique—accusations that Shamrock copped to later on. He split a pair of Superfight Championships with Shamrock: one loss via guillotine at UFC 6, one victory by split decision in a fight at UFC 9 that might literally be the most boring MMA fight of all time, a fact enabled by the event's bizarre quasi-prohibition on punching.
Even when you fight 100-something times afterward, the ignominious early days are hard to forget: Severn's pre-retirement bucket list included rematches with both Gracie and Shamrock, neither of which came to fruition. Now, who's to say Severn won't be next on Bellator's senior tour? Who's to say Marco Ruas isn't far behind? We're in an age of impermanence. Bands don't break up: they just get back together. MMA fighters don’t retire: they just wait for the chance to settle decades-old scores.
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