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MMA and Wrestling Legend Dan Severn Shared His Best Advice for Staying Fit at 64

“If your training becomes part of your lifestyle, you’ll never stop training.”

courtesy of dan severn
Courtesy of Dan Severn

“Fight forever” is a popular chant in professional wrestling arenas, but no competitor has ever managed that feat. 64-year-old Dan “The Beast” Severn – a two-time U.S. Olympic alternate in freestyle wrestling, a two-time NWA World Champion in pro wrestling, a three-time UFC champion, and almost certainly a top contender for the title of “Mustache GOAT” – has come about as close as anyone. Severn has won 101 sanctioned mixed martial arts fights, dozens of amateur wrestling tournaments, and hundreds of professional wrestling matches over the course of a five-decade career in combat sports that began in high school. He recounted this story in The Realest Guy in the Room, published in 2016, and says he has more than enough material to warrant a second volume.

Severn fought his last MMA match in 2012 at the age of 53 and was competing in the wrestling ring for major independent promotions such as Game Changer Wrestling and Major League Wrestling as recently as 2019. Still packing 235 pounds on a 6’2” frame, Severn travels incessantly, coaching wrestling and MMA seminars and making personal appearances between recording sessions of the podcast he co-hosts with his good friend and wrestling/MMA protege Don Frye.

En route to his latest gig, Severn took the time to share some of the insights acquired during a sports and fitness journey that now spans half a century.

So let’s start with the important stuff: Are you still rocking the mustache?

Of course. That’s my calling card. Let me just say that this mustache has gotten me into a lot of trouble. But it’s not just the mustache. I don’t look my age, and even though age is catching up with me, I still don’t feel as old as I am.

courtesy of dan severn
Courtesy of Dan Severn

That’s what I want to talk about. Throughout your career—at least after you started competing in MMA in 1994 at UFC 4—your appearance didn’t seem to change much.

Someone watching you fight Dave Legeno in 2007 would see a guy who looked a lot like the guy who submitted Dave Beneteau in 1995 to win UFC.

Well, I do want to say two things here. The first is that in the past few years, I’ve worked to bring my weight down to 230-235 pounds. I was competing at 250 to 255 pounds during a lot of my MMA and pro wrestling career, and while I was always well conditioned at that weight relative to other heavyweights, there are now 100,000+ miles on these tires, and I’m reducing the weight of the load a bit.

And the other is that during my amateur wrestling career, I moved up and down between 220 pounds and heavyweight [ed’s note: today this class is capped at 285 pounds, but up until 1987, it was called “unlimited” and had no weight limit. There were pluses and minuses to both classes, and I had my share of success in each, but the cut to 220 could be difficult at times.

Still, your longevity across several sports is quite remarkable, and you’ve aged more gracefully than many peers. What’s the secret?

There are many secrets. The first secret isn’t a secret at all so much as genetic luck—I came from a high-achieving family. My father was a big, strong farm boy, and all five of his sons went to college to wrestle. All three of his daughters went to college on academic scholarships. So when I realized wrestling was going to be my sport, I had a deep pool of natural talent I could draw upon.

Meaning you were a prodigy on the mats from the start?

No, absolutely not. That’s the first lesson for people reading this. I wanted to be the first freshman to make the varsity wrestling team at my high school. I weighed 165 pounds as a freshman, and I challenged starters at different weight classes to win a spot on the team. When I went up against our heavyweight, a 300 pounder, he fell down and I got on top of him and pinned him, so suddenly I was the starting heavyweight.

Back then, you didn’t weigh in without clothes so your skin could be examined the way kids do today. I needed to weigh a minimum of 175 pounds to compete at heavyweight, so I’d weigh in with cans of Coca-Cola in my jacket pockets to ensure I made weight. And then I found myself matched against some kids who were 6’3” and 285 pounds, sometimes without any bad or loose weight on them.

So what’s the lesson there, in terms of training?

The lesson is that this kind of handicap, early in your training career, forces you to improve your psychology and technique. The mindset I developed there is something I’ve relied on for decades. I was getting beaten up, thrown around…I was a lamb being led to the slaughter. But because I had the right mindset, this overriding drive to win, I finished 13-14 my freshman year—and I got my wins because I learned how to deal with these behemoths. I mastered the far side roll, which led to a lot of wins over immobile, unsteady heavyweights.

Did wrestling heavyweights from the outset jumpstart your success?

You can develop a good deal of natural strength if you’re competing in your chosen sport against stronger people, especially if you’re growing into your body. I also discovered a copy of Amateur Wrestling News at my high school, and that opened my eyes to the entire world of wrestling – there was so much to learn about, from the history of the sport to techniques I was unaware of.

The Internet has made it much easier to learn about your chosen sport or hobby, but I think it can also prevent you from digging in and learning everything you can learn from the limited materials at hand. The information in that magazine was like gold, and I treasured whatever I found there. For any younger people reading this, if you don’t choose to go into the military, go into amateur wrestling. Amateur wrestling has paid me so little – I’ve made most of my money in other sports – but it gave me the tools to succeed everywhere else. By the end of high school, I was winning national and world tournaments in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.

Did your success continue at Arizona State?

I had some great pinning streaks in college and was twice an All-American, but I also had some injuries and some matches that didn’t go my way. I was still very successful, but I’ll tell you something else about me: I do not remember the wins. A win is expected. Someone might mention to me that I beat [future UFC Light Heavyweight champion] Forrest Griffin back in 2001, but I don’t remember that fight all that well. The losses stick. I replay them in my mind all the time.

Were you still able to train with larger heavyweights at ASU? In terms of diet and training, did anything else change in college?

During my first few years there, Arizona State had a 420-pounder on the roster named James Mitchell, so yes, I got to keep training with really huge men. I also learned a lot about nutrition, including how to eat right on a budget – which was important because I wouldn’t ever be making big money during my amateur wrestling days. And these are simple tips that anyone can apply. If you’re a bigger guy and you need to stay big and strong for the type of training you’re doing, you can go to a Chinese buffet and eat strategically.

There will be lots of fried and unhealthy stuff on the menu, but you’ll also find steamed vegetables, baked salmon, raw fish, and grilled chicken…and the prices at these places, even now, are incredibly cheap. Getting the basic nutritional fill on a budget is probably critical for any kid reading this. It’s not about how much you spend, it’s about what you consume.I still use this shortcut when I’m driving my beater car from event to event. I must know every halfway decent buffet from Coldwater, Michigan to Phoenix, Arizona.

I do have my vices, like downing a half-gallon of ice cream whenever I allow myself a cheat meal, but in general I’ve focused on fish, chicken, lean beef, and vegetables since college. Basic vitamin supplementation, too – B, D, a multivitamin, pills you can get at Wal-Mart. Simple stuff, but I didn’t understand any of that when I was in high school, and I’ve seen the benefits of following these general guidelines over the decades.

courtesy of dan severn
Courtesy of Dan Severn

What about weight training? The field of strength coaching was evolving around that time. Were you lifting heavy?

My amateur wrestling career, and later my MMA career, was built around explosiveness. I wanted to take out your knees when I shot. From 1984 to 1986, when I was competing internationally, I liked to think I was performing exorcisms at the expense of my opponents’ bodies. Heavy barbell lifting helped me build some of that explosiveness, but I got stronger and faster at wrestling by wrestling nonstop as I grew into my body. That’s a really important point people should think about.

You have only so much time in a day. If you’re trying to get better at this activity, whether it’s wrestling or cycling, you are going to need to do the activity itself. Even today, I stay fit by coaching. I’ve stayed fit all these years by coaching. When you’re a wrestling coach, you’re wrestling with the people you’re coaching. You’re moving with them. If you can maintain your weight and your conditioning, and you’re a healthy 250 pounds as I was, you’re going to be very strong.

So you would say 1984 to 1986 was your heyday as a competitor, in terms of freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling?

I was in the mix for a long time [serving as an Olympic alternate in 1984 and 1988], but my best shot at the gold medal in freestyle came in 1984. The Soviet Union wasn’t competing that year, and they were arguably the best wrestling country in the world at that time, so the U.S. was going to rack up medals. Bruce Baumgartner got the first of the two gold medals he’d win at heavyweight, and everyone he beat in 1984 was someone I had beaten already. And the guy I lost to at trials at 220 pounds, [two-time NCAA champion] Lou Banach…everyone he beat on the way to the gold medal was someone I’d beaten, too.

Our match came down to some weird refereeing, and I formally protested the result. If I’m remembering correctly, 37 of the 38 matches that wrestlers protested at the trials led to some kind of correction—mine was the one that didn’t. Lou’s coach [at the University of Iowa] Dan Gable was running the U.S. team, and Lou was his guy. I’ve said it before, but I’ll tell you, too: if I’d have won that match and then won the gold medal in Los Angeles, I could’ve called it quits. I’d have had my endorsements and business deals. It’s one of those losses I think about all the time. But I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. And I wouldn’t be talking about the interesting stuff I’ve spent the past three decades doing.

So as your amateur wrestling career wound down, you got involved first in pro wrestling and then in the very beginning of American mixed martial arts. How would you compare the training you did for amateur wrestling versus the training you found yourself doing for pro wrestling and MMA?

Well, the way I wound up doing pro wrestling and then MMA is interesting. In 1992, the Olympic eligibility rules were changed so you could compete as a pro wrestler without compromising your amateur status. Imagine that, as late as 1992, professional wrestling [an exhibition sport with predetermined outcomes] disqualified you for amateur wrestling! But professional wrestling is definitely the most damaging sport in which I competed, at least in terms of the toll it took on my body.

You’re going to definitely fall down and get hurt in pro wrestling, so you need to know how to fall. You can’t avoid falling. Freestyle and Greco-Roman were second, because of the high-amplitude throws and the elite quality of the competition. You could take out a guy’s knees in freestyle, just obliterate him. In Greco, some of the throws were incredible. MMA would be down the list in terms of damage to the body, especially if you approached it like I did, with a wrestling-heavy style that ensured you rarely ever got knocked out or even hit all that hard. And folkstyle wrestling [ed’s note: the style of wrestling in which American high school and collegiate athletes compete] is quite safe because of the stricter rules and refereeing, which is part of why I said I think it’s a good idea young people should consider participating in that sport.

Got it. Wrestling was painful, MMA less so. Were you still training primarily by practicing?

Practicing was a big part of it. In pro wrestling, you have a match that has to be laid out, and specific ways to perform or absorb all the moves for that match. The match could be ten minutes or it could be an hour, but in any case, you need to be in good cardiovascular shape. In MMA, I was initially working with no time limits, and even when time limits came into play, the matches were still longer than the six or seven minutes of an entire amateur wrestling match. With MMA in particular, I had a lot to learn about striking and submission grappling, so that took up the bulk of my time.

As far as conditioning went, I was in my mid-30s by 1992, so I was already past the heavy barbell training stage. I replaced heavy lifting with weight training that would increase my muscular endurance and let me function for a long period of time. I’ll do something I call the dirty dozen, working through twelve exercises, doing each for two minutes with as little stopping as possible and a 30-second break between exercises. A typical exercise in the dirty dozen might consist of doing torso twists with a 45-pound plate for two minutes, or holding that same plate at a ninety-degree angle for two minutes. Your arms will start to smoke, just like they will when you spend 30 seconds trying to choke someone on the mat. That kind of squeeze can wear you out, and this training prepares you to squeeze, bend, or hold someone over an extended period of time.

In the early days of MMA, drug testing was lax or nonexistent. You stood out as one of the biggest competitors who still had a natural-looking body. What are your thoughts on steroid use?

I’ve said some of this before, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. I knew about steroids in high school. If you’ve trained your body up to an elite level, where you’re starting to hit the wall in terms of what you’re capable of, you have a decent sense of what other people are capable of. You can feel natural strength – you know what that is, because you can recognize it. Here’s this guy with huge joints, big farm boy, you know what to expect. But take someone like my [two-time UFC opponent] Ken Shamrock.

Ken has the frame of a 170 pounder, a welterweight. When we fought, this 170-pound guy was blown up to heavyweight size. Ken had unnatural strength and speed. He has admitted he was on all kinds of steroids, so I’m not exposing him or anything. And if you look at his career, over time he got smaller and smaller. He wasn’t even a light heavyweight by the end. He couldn’t keep the weight on.

Do you resent the use of steroids by opponents?

I’ve wrestled people in high school and college who were on steroids. You can still beat anybody if your technique and mindset are right, but the unnatural strength helps a steroid user muscle through things they shouldn’t be able to overcome with the level of skill they have. It’s a shortcut. You can look at my record and see when I’ve lost to people who either failed a drug test, like Josh Barnett, or admitted they used steroids, like Mark Coleman. Mark won a national championship in college at 190 pounds, but when I fought him, he was more than 250 pounds.

He was in the Olympics, so he had skill, but he was unnaturally strong by the time I fought him. Personally, I believe in a level playing field, but in the mid-1980s, it typically didn’t matter if the guy I was wrestling was on steroids or not. It probably helped him recover if he was, because I was going out there to hurt him. But in the long run, steroids help athletes with recovery, they keep guys strong well past their prime, they extend careers. I had people approach me at different points in my career to talk about using steroids. If I’d taken them, I’m sure I could’ve blown up well to over 300 pounds. I could’ve been a real freakazoid. I don’t regret my decision, though. It comes down to personal responsibility.

Are you opposed to performance-enhancing drug use in general?

I was certainly opposed to using them myself. The risks in terms of heart disease are real, and my dad had heart issues. I believe not using steroids extended my career. My joints and muscles weren’t pushed beyond what they could handle. I had to work within my limits at all times. My recovery periods were what my body required. I didn’t have “six-pack” abdominals in my fifties, but how many 50-year-olds who weigh 250 pounds have a six pack? How many need one?

I was able to compete in the MMA cage for fifteen minutes, something few guys that age have ever done – steroids or not. And I’m not necessarily against all forms of performance enhancement. I recently got a stem cell treatment, and I’m seeing some improvement in my joints. I don’t have any problem with people using CBD oil and medical marijuana. But the risks of steroid use outweighed the rewards for me, and I was an experienced professional athlete who had a lot of money on the line. Readers who might be thinking of using steroids should consider my decision before making theirs.

What else do you want readers to consider? Can you give us one main takeaway in terms of your training methodology?

Well, let me put it this way – I was never a big fan of my nickname. “The Beast” is a label that was given to me by Jim Brown, a famous old NFL player who did commentary for the early UFC cards. I have lots of relatives who are devout Christians, and a moniker like “The Beast” carries negative connotations for folks like that. So I turned it into an acronym, with “B-E-A-S-T” meaning “believe in yourself, educate yourself, adjust your attitude, study hard, and teach others.”

If you want to understand my training methodology, it’s as simple as that. You’ve got to believe you can do this stuff, learn about what you’re trying to do, get your mindset squared away, practice and study constantly, and share the knowledge you acquire with others. The best way to succeed at any sport is by doing that sport. Your training needs to be specific to that sport. The exercises need to make sense for what you’re doing on the mat or in the field. Your conditioning will always be there if you’re practicing, because practice will condition you in a way running laps or some unrelated activity never can. You have to actually do an activity to get better at it.

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