RondaRousey.com’s Real Shooters feature explores the good, the bad, and the weird of pro wrestling-MMA crossover moments in history.
Dan Severn is an athlete who’s never been shy about expressing his love for both combat sports and professional wrestling. When he competed in both the UFC and the WWF at the same time, he showed off his accomplishments in both disciplines by bringing his UFC championships to the wrestling ring and vice versa. But before Severn showed MMA and sports entertainment skills to a mainstream American audience, he made his pro wrestling debut in a lesser-known Japanese promotion called the Union of Wrestling Force International (UWFi).
UWFi had no affiliation with the 20th-century American promotion
Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF) led by Bill Watts, but it was the descendant of two “UWF” promotions in Japan (also known as the Universal Wrestling Federation). In 1984, the original Japanese UWF was formed by a group of wrestlers who left New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) with the goal of creating a more realistic, less flashy product. They started incorporating more martial arts-inspired moves into their wrestling matches, creating what came to be known as “shoot style” wrestling.
Though the matches were just as worked as those in other pro wrestling promotions, they promoted their matches as the only real pro wrestling, Meaning that all other companies’ pro wrestling was fake, to the extent that the UWFi called their first championship the “Real Pro Wrestling World Heavyweight Championship.”
The first Japanese UWF dissolved in 1986, but the company was revived in (as Newborn UWF) 1988. In 1990, that second version of the company split due to creative and business disagreements, as well as financial difficulties. Some of the roster went their own way to found Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi (PWFG) and Fighting Network Rings (RINGS), each with their own approach to shoot style wrestling. However, most of the wrestlers stayed with the company through its evolution into the UWFi.
The international aspect of UWFi was that this new company made a conscious effort to bring in performers from outside of Japan, usually to face Japanese stars. As “Super Vader,” Big Van Vader—who was already well known in Japan—was their top heel for a while. But the promotion didn’t just hire foreign stars who were already known, they also hired talented American amateur wrestlers who they knew could adapt to their style of wrestling. This resulted in UWFi appearances by Gary Albright, Bob Backlund, Bad News Allen (aka Olympic judoka Allen Coage), and—you guessed it—Dan Severn.
Severn had all the skills the UWFi was looking for in a guest star. He had trained in jiu-jitsu and amateur wrestling since he was a teenager, won Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling national championships in high school, and was a two-time All-American in college. He was also an alternate on the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in 1980, 1984, and 1988, and had entered wrestling competitions worldwide.
The only thing Severn didn’t have going for him was pro wrestling experience, but his debut opponent made up for that: UWFi booked him against Yuko Miyato, better known as Shigeo Miyato. This homegrown UWF wrestler (having trained at the UWF dojo) had worked in every era of the promotion since his debut in 1985, plus a few years in NJPW.
But despite his lack of experience, Severn never looked out of place in the ring on November 11, 1992, at Tsuyuhashi Sports Center in Nagoya, Japan. Part of this was probably due not only to his amateur wrestling experience but his significant size advantage. Severn was billed at 6’2”, 270 pounds, which was a dramatic contrast to Miyato’s 200 pounds at 5’10”.
The two men circled and felt each other out at the beginning of the match and Miyato missed a kick, but Severn hit the first successful offensive move with a suplex. To the 2019 viewer, this completely breaks the illusion of a real fight, but the move still looks great and the 1992 audience was very impressed.
Severn soon got in more realistic offense on the ground with an attempt at an armbar, then a choke that was broken by Miyato reaching the bottom rope. Miyato was later able to take down Severn with a judo throw, but a rope break saved Severn from the follow-up hold. This would be Miyato’s only offensive streak. Severn soon hit a very pro wrestling variation of the Death Valley Driver and followed it up with a calf slicer to submit Miyato in about four minutes.
It was an impressive ending for a debut match and established the previously unknown Severn as a dominant force in the UWFi. Though wrestling in this promotion wouldn’t be a huge part of Severn’s career, in retrospect, making his pro wrestling debut for a company that strived to make their product look like combat sport was a perfect fit for an athlete who took so much pride in his work in both legitimate sports and sports entertainment.