Lister started wrestling in high school, and became the high school division wrestling champion and a U.S. National Sambo Champion. Shortly after graduating from high school, Lister visited the Fábio Santos Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy in San Diego with his wrestling teammates, and became very interested in the sport. He started competing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in 1996, six months after he started training.
From 1997-2003, Lister worked as an instructor for Santos. Lister teaches both beginner and advanced students at Victory MMA in San Diego. The classes typically begin with Dean teaching submission grappling techniques from various grappling arts he’s accumulated during the years, followed by sparring.
He maintains that it is “the biggest and most challenging sport that exists”. Lister does not favor any particular technique, although he is mostly known for his leg attacks (foot locks and knee locks). Lister is a high school division wrestling champion, two-time U.S. National Sambo champion, four-time U.S. Machado National Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Champion (weight class and open classes), and a National Gracie Jiu Jitsu champion. He also holds the rank of black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, given to him by Jeffrey Higgs, who holds a black belt under Fábio Santos.
Lister was invited three times (2000, 2003, and 2005) to the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) championship, a prestigious grappling tournament consisting only of the top 16 grapplers in the world of each weight class. Lister won the Abu Dhabi Absolute Division championship in 2003, as well as two Superfights in 2003 and 2005; in addition, he set a tournament record by defeating 4 of his opponents consecutively (3 by submission) in 2003.
It is worth noting that one of Lister’s MMA losses is against Nathan Marquardt, despite previously submitting him in the 2003 ADCC tournament.
Lister was a King of the Cage Middleweight Champion, and defended his title several times before losing to Jeremy Horn in a Light Heavyweight fight. KOTC stripped Dean of his title after the loss, even though it was at a higher weight class. Years later, Lister avenged this loss by submitting Jeremy Horn with a guillotine choke in the TUF 7 finale.
Lister lost a three-round unanimous decision to Yushin Okami at UFC 92 on December 27, 2008, dropping his UFC record to 4–2. He subsequently requested to be released from his UFC contract, and has since signed with the Maximum Fighting Championship.
Dean Lister and Renato Sobral fought to a draw at Metamoris 3 a submission-only jiu-jitsu match.
Lister won the 2003 ADCC Absolute World championship and was the 2005 Superfight champion, defeating Jean Jacques Machado.
He claimed the gold medal again in 2011 in the under 99 kg division by submitting João Assis in the final by a heel hook. He also submitted jiu-jitsu world champion Rodolfo Vieira, in his weight division, also with a heel hook. At the 2013 ADCC in Beijing, China, Lister defeated Cristiano Lazzarini in the semi-finals of the under 99 kg division by heel hook but would go on to lose on points in the finals to João Assis; In the absolute division Lister submitted both Hideki Sekine and João Gabriel Rocha by heel hook before losing to Marcus Almeida in the semi-finals. Lister also lost to Keenan Cornelius in the bronze medal match both on points.