Without question, UFC Hall of Famer Dan Severn is the most famous mixed martial artist Michigan has ever produced. After his stellar Greco-Roman wrestling career was derailed by a controversial decision at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials, Dan continued training and competing in wrestling, ultimately putting himself in a position to become one of the first major MMA stars.
Today, the man known affectionately to MMA fans as “The Beast” trains combat athletes for a variety of sports at his Coldwater, Michigan compound. For those willing to suffer through the considerable demands of training with one of the greatest fighters in history, here are five things you’ll learn from your time spend with Dan.
1. Condition yourself for the demands of your sport
When Dan made the transition from Greco-Roman wrestling to mixed martial arts, the length of the competition he was preparing for went from six minutes to fifteen minutes. According to Dan, this meant the way he trained had to change as well.
“I was an animal at one point, and it used to be a lot of fun to put 500 pounds on the squat rack,” Dan said. “When the time demands of the contests I was in increased, it became more of an endurance competition. I would set the timer for three minutes and hit the heavy bag as hard as I could the entire time. I also have a fifteen minute weight circuit that I do with a 45-pound plate and 15-pound dumbbells, and it makes me smile when the young bucks that aren’t even half my age have to keep grabbing lighter weights while I’m able to keep going.”
2. Wrestling is the foundation of every great fighter
If you eventually want to make the transition to mixed martial arts, Dan recommends that you learn how to wrestle. It certainly comes as no surprise that one of the greatest Greco-Roman wrestlers in U.S. history would suggest that wrestling should form the base of a great fighter’s repertoire, but Dan can back up his suggestion with some solid supporting facts.
“Nine of the top ten guys in the sport have a background in wrestling,” Dan explained. “Wrestling teaches you about body positioning and body control. The jiu-jitsu practitioners that are worth anything work with wrestlers on their takedowns because wrestlers know how to attack at the knees and jiu-jitsu practitioners attack at the hips. Wrestlers also get used to clinches and they can work from range, and the other disciplines don’t teach these thing as effectively.”
3. All body parts are NOT created equal
Combat athletes are renowned for their tremendous conditioning and impressive physiques, but depending on the fighting style they’re involved in, they might have to give special attention to training some body parts over others. This is something that Dan learned quickly once the opposition started throwing punches and kicks at his face.
“As a wrestler, you train to work the legs, back and neck,” Dan said. “You have to do cleans and squats, and when you do rows and pulls it simulates the pulling motion you’re using whenever you wrestle. As soon as you move to a striking sport, you have to do cardiovascular circuits that train the shoulders because you’ve got to be able to keep your hands up to protect yourself. Things like jumping rope or just holding up light weights can help with this. When you get tired, the tendency is for your hands to slip downward, and when people are trying to hit you that’s not good.”
4. The classroom can make you a better fighter
While becoming a two-time All American wrestler at Arizona State University, Dan devoted the majority of his time to earning a degree in education, which has served him well in both teaching and coaching careers. However, Dan also used his time in Arizona State’s classrooms to make himself a better athlete, and some of the most valuable courses he took while filling credit hours at his alma mater were taken with the intent of making him a more effective fighter.
“When I got to college, I did everything I could to become a better wrestler, and I didn’t even go to school for the right reasons,” Dan admitted. “I wanted to see how I would do against NCAA Division 1 wrestlers. So, I took a nutrition class, I took a judo class, and I took a weightlifting class, and it paid off, because what I learned from those classes helped me to go undefeated in my freshman year (26-0).”
5. Get used to the idea of hurting someone
When Dan competed in his first UFC event, it was his first competition in which he could legally throw punches at an opponent, and it wasn’t something he was comfortable with. In the end, he lost the fight because he wasn’t willing to throw any serious blows at Royce Gracie’s face when Gracie was in a compromising position. It was a struggle with his conscience that Dan knew he had to get over.
“In that fight with Royce, I was forced to tap out primarily because I wasn’t willing to do what I needed to do to another human being in order to win,” Dan explained. “In wrestling, you’re already learning how to inflict legalized pain. When you roll someone, you can’t just lift them up and move them; you have to inflict pain to get them to move. By the time I got in the cage, I had 26 years worth of rules floating around in my head telling me it was wrong to hit someone. Before my next fight, I took 32 days and trained myself to do everything except biting and eye gouging, and from UFC 5 onward, I had no problem throwing hammer strikes down at someone’s face.”
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