Dan Severn was the first really good wrestler to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Even though he was already 36 years old by the time of his debut at UFC 4, he experienced eye-opening success, pushing Royce Gracie to the limit that night, then winning the UFC 5 tournament. “The Beast” stuck around as one of the top fighters in the promotion until UFC 12, when he ran into a younger, more accomplished and more athletic wrestler in Mark Coleman.
After the Coleman loss, which incidentally accompanied the creation of weight classes in the UFC, Severn took his show on the road. Among his many firsts in the nascent sport, Severn was the first fighter who appeared to grasp the financial potential of being an “Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran.” In the late 1990s, mixed martial arts promotions were springing up all over North America and the world like mushrooms in the wake of a rainstorm, and Severn fought almost anywhere that would have him—and meet his relatively modest purse requirements.
So it was that in the 31 months between Severn’s loss to Coleman at UFC 12 and his much-ballyhooed return at UFC 27, he fought 31 times, compiling a record of 27-1-3. The sole loss was to a 22-year-old, pre-UFC Josh Barnett, while the draws came against fellow early MMA legends Pat Miletich, Kimo Leopoldo and Jeremy Horn. He fought in 13 U.S. states, the territory of Guam and Japan.
When Severn returned to the UFC on Sept. 22, 2000, his opponent was the 9-1 Pedro Rizzo, fresh from his unsuccessful shot at the UFC heavyweight title just three months before. As an example of how quickly the sport was developing, it would have been difficult to come up with a better opponent than “The Rock.” While Severn was already understood by those in the know to be a bit of a throwback, Rizzo was one of the new breed of truly well-rounded martial artists populating the sport. Rizzo was a disciple of UFC veteran and Brazilian vale tudo legend Marco Ruas, and he was at least competent—advanced, really, by the standards of the time—in every phase of MMA.
In particular, Rizzo was brutally adept with leg kicks, a favorite technique of his mentor Ruas. Those kicks remain an integral part of the MMA skill set to this day—Rizzo used them to take Randy Couture to the limit in their two fights, and third-generation disciple Jose Aldo leaned heavily on them to become the greatest featherweight of all time—but against a proto-MMA living legend like Severn, they might as well have been a cheat code.
Watching 20 years later, the fight itself feels like a bridge between eras: Bruce Buffer, Mike Goldberg and “Big” John McCarthy are all on duty, even as Severn marches out in pro wrestling trunks and a pair of Asics. It took all of 90 seconds and two low kicks for Rizzo to put Severn away. With Severn in a wrestler’s stance, weight heavily on the front foot—and in wrestling shoes, to boot—and not making even the barest attempt at checking them, the Brazilian’s first kick put him on his seat and the second buckled his lead leg entirely. As a fight, it was probably a bit of a letdown to the fans in attendance in New Orleans that night, but it was an excellent indication of where MMA was headed: a sport in which fighters might not need to use every style in order to win, but would at the very least need to be familiar with and learn to defend against them.