Dan Severn & the formative years of the Ultimate Fighting Championship

By the winter of 1994 things weren’t looking good for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). In the inaugural event a year prior Ken Shamrock met up with Royce Gracie – Royce wasn’t the top member of the Gracie clan but he was quiet, unassuming and weighed 170-pounds soaking wet with a brick in his pocket.

Every beer-bellied, obnoxious fan that purchased UFC 1 thought they would kick into drunken alpha male mode to beat this pocket-sized Brazilian until he begged for mercy and that was his appeal. Royce submitted three men that night to dominate the first eight-man field, including a win over Shamrock in the semi-finals.

Right away this caused tension between Ken and the Pancrase organization.  The top-ranked fighting organization out of Japan at that point had groomed Shamrock to be one of their biggest stars, especially after his victory over Masakatsu Funaki and they felt that by losing to the pint-sized submission artist it made their promotion look weak.

And thus, the proverbial game of tug-of-war began. Shamrock eventually struck a deal with the Pancrase organization to lose to Funaki in a worked match-up so that if he lost to Gracie it wouldn’t reflect as badly on them since one of their top guys just submitted him eight days prior.

In a miniscule arena with no air conditioning and a few thousand people sweating on top of each other in Charlotte, North Carolina Shamrock’s attention was forced like a laser on Royce and he was all-business submitting two opponents in less than ten minutes to make it to the finals but his Brazilian foe wasn’t going to be meeting him there.


In the opening round Gracie met Kimo Leopoldo – Heavily tattooed, 250-pounds, walking to the Octagon with a cross on his back – Not the most skilled competitor to fight in the UFC but his smothering size gave Gracie the toughest challenge to date. While Gracie eventually got the submission he was injured and unable to return to action later in the evening.

As a result Shamrock bowed out of the tournament because he only wanted to overthrow Gracie, leaving the door open for the notorious Steve Jennum to win the tournament as an alternate with a 0-0 record.

It only made sense that UFC 4 would feature Shamrock, Gracie and Jennum but the Lion’s Den leader was contractually obligated to fight in the talent-stacked King of Pancrase tournament that left Rorion Gracie and scrambling for a credible replacement – Enter Dan Severn.

Today world-class athletes flood the UFC but in the early-nineties they were few and far between. A former two-time All-American wrestler at Arizona State University and Olympic alternate Severn was the most decorated athlete to compete in this perceived blood sport up until this point.

Stone-faced, herculean stature, wearing a grey athletic shirt covered in sweat with a sweet moustache, wrestling shoes and plain black tights, he was about the manliest thing you’ve ever seen. You know what else is manly? Suplexing people on their head, which is exactly what he did to hometown hero Anthony Macias in his opening bout, forcing a submission without throwing a single strike.

The finals came around and he met Royce, two-time UFC tournament king. Severn manhandled Gracie to the floor and without a time limit we had these two trade positions on the floor for so long that the pay-per-view ended and only those in the building got to witness it unfold live. Four minutes after hundreds of people yelled at their TV sets for the event ending without a conclusion, Gracie threw up a triangle choke, the first in UFC history to tame ‘The beast’.

That night made Severn a household name, so much so that the event was titled Return of the beast despite it being headlined by the first non-tournament fight in company history with their two top stars in Shamrock & Gracie.

The Superfight championship ultimately was not settled that night, because of the abrupt ending to the last event now the company had added time limits so when the fight reached its 36 minute limit the bout was declared a draw, but anyone who watched that fight knew that Shamrock was the rightful champion.

That was the last time that Gracie would compete in the UFC in over a decade, leaving Severn to step up as one of the top dogs in the promotion.

Winning the UFC 5 series it only made sense that Severn would meet Shamrock for the Superfight title but the road to getting there, as always when dealing with spooked promoters was a wacky and convoluted one.

Severn was dedicating most of his schedule to the UFC and his training but to fatten his wallet he also serves as the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) champion. For decades the NWA ran professional wrestling in North America – Simply put, you played ball with the NWA board or you paid dearly.

Lou Thesz, Pat O’Connon, Gene Kiniski, Harley Race, Ric Flair, Dustry Rhodes, Terry Funk. All the greatest wrestlers of a generation, many of which would have tested their might in MMA if that door was open held the prestigious title, but in the early-nineties it was worth about $20 on the black market.

Putting a legitimate shooter who was perceived as one of the best in ‘No holds barred’ fighting as it was known could only bring credibility to their championship, but it also made things harder for Shamrock to get the green light to fight him.

The Gracie name was strong at this point in Japan, especially after Rickson had won back-to-back Vale Tudo Japan titles without breaking a sweat so they allowed him to travel to America to fight Gracie, regardless of the outcome it wouldn’t hurt their business but they couldn’t have him losing to a “fake wrestler”.

Even with his credentials as an amateur they wouldn’t allow him losing to the NWA champion so he had to once again drop the King of Pancrase title with a knee bar to respected catch wrestler and Olympic alternate Minoru Suzuki.

It seem it was all for naught though, Shamrock made short work of Severn in one of the most anticipated fights of that era. The wrestler went back to his bread-and-butter but Shamrock was able to fence off the takedown and sink in a front face lock to officially become a UFC titlist.

The Ultimate Ultimate Tournament might have sounded like the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard of, but it was an express-ticket for Severn to get his rematch with Shamrock. With fighters like Marco Ruas, Dave Benetau, Oleg Taktarov, Keith Hackney, Steve Jennum and ‘Tank’ Abbott it was the most talent rich tournament to date and Severn steamrolled the competition.

Submitting UFC 3 champion Steve Jennum before out-working and out-pointing Abbott & Taktarov to score decisions, it was time to go back to the well for Severn-Shamrock II and arguably the worst fight in UFC history.

The war of words was intense and 141,000 people laid down their hard earned dollars to witness the top fighters in the UFC duke it out, it was also the beginning of the end of the no-rules era of the UFC as John McCain was set to bring down the hammer on this barbaric spectacle.


Fans dubbed the second meeting between Shamrock & Gracie the “Dance in Detroit” as neither did anything but circle and dish at legs for take downs for thirty minutes. The crowd booed and fiery chants of “Bullshit” filled the 10,000 seat venue in Michigan.

When Severn was declared the winner by Split Decision the crowd vociferously booed the champion and pelted the Octagon with rubbish.

Sensing that the ship was sinking, Severn never defended his Superfight title and began his journey that would send him all over the world professional wrestling for the WWE and notching over 100 professional victories.

Yesterday the UFC Hall of Fame inductee made it official and retired from the sport at 54-years-of-age with this note on his website.

“Father time is telling me it’s time to go,” he wrote. “I have learned over time that the only constant factor is change. It will happen, and there is nothing we can do to stop it, so smile, hold on, and embrace it for all that it has to offer and hopefully you too will have the ride of your life.”

One of the most important cogs in the wheel of this industry in its pioneering days, the first powerhouse wrestler to assert his dominance in the Octagon and an all-time great just exited the building and I, for one, salute him.


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