This article was featured in the November 2009 Issue of Fighters Magazine.
“If you can make your voice heard, you can stand up for these things, you can speak out on these things and people are going to listen. You can affect change and you can make things happen, you can improve the world and make it a better place. That’s my motivation behind fighting.”
Evan Tanner was truly one of MMA’s more spiritual fighters but it did not make him any less a fearful competitor. Tanner established a fierce reputation within the sport for his heart, discipline and his ruthless style. He compiled a very impressive 32-8 professional record, won the USFW Heavyweight title by defeating Heath Herring and also held the UFC Middleweight belt in 2005 with a dominating performance over the dangerous David Terrell. Tanner was also the first ever American to win the Pancrase Neo-Blood event in Tokyo, Japan.
Evan Tanner was born on February 11th 1971 in Amarillo, Texas and even as a young child showed a great deal of athletic prowess. It wasn’t until 1989, when Tanner won the Texas State Wrestling Championships, that he became aware of his physical gifts. Tanner dropped out of college after a year as he felt he was not receiving the kind of knowledge that he was searching so hard for. Evan made a big decision at this point to travel the country and live and work in a number of environments. It was these first voyages that shaped Tanner’s mind set and established his love of exploring his surroundings and seeking adventure.
Tanner’s first steps into mixed martial arts came on 12th April 1997 for the Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation. It was friends who convinced Evan that he should compete in this tournament and they were right to encourage him as he defeated 3 fighters in one night, finishing with a rear naked choke over future UFC title contender Paul Buentello. Tanner realised that his overall skill set needed to improve if he was to grow as a fighter, so he acquired a series of Gracie instructional videos and began teaching himself the submission game.
As Tanner’s wins became more frequent and impressive so did the offers from fight promoters. During the summer of 1998 Evan travelled to Japan to fight in the Pancrase Neo Blood tournament and promptly became the first ever American to be victorious. As Tanner’s reputation continued to grow and he continued to defend his USWF belt, it was only a matter of time before he attracted the attention of the UFC.
Evan Tanner first entered the now famous octagon, before the Zuffa era, in January 1999 for UFC 18: Road to the Heavyweight Title. Tanner defeated Darrel Gholar by rear naked choke and was asked back for the following event in which he made short work of Valeri Ignatov, stopping him with elbows in the first round. Following on from this Evan loyally stuck with the struggling USWF and defended his belt on 4 occasions in Amarillo but it was clear that his star was rising in the sport.
After a return to the UFC near the end of 2000 that saw him defeat Lance Gibson by strikes, Tanner was given a title shot at champion Tito Ortiz. In one of the shortest title fights in UFC history, Ortiz slammed Tanner to the mat and clashed heads with him as they hit the canvas. Tanner was knocked out cold from the impact and Tito Ortiz was declared the winner by KO (slam). This was one of the first title matches that the UFC had staged since the buyout from the Zuffa and as the MMA landscape changed around him Tanner looked to further evolve as a fighter.
Over the next few years Tanner became a mainstay with the UFC as he dropped from light heavyweight to middleweight and chalked up a very impressive 7-1 record since the Tito Ortiz loss. In what can be seen as Tanner’s golden years he went on to score victories over Robbie Lawler and Phil Baroni on two separate occasions. Evan was, at this point, training exclusively with Randy Couture and Matt Lindland at Team Quest in Oregon. Tanner became a fearsome competitor during this time, using his wrestling skills to maul his opponents in the clinch and unloading with vicious strikes from the top whenever he gained dominant positions. It was this style and determination that gained him another title shot in the UFC, this time at 185lbs, in February 2005 against dangerous prospect David Terrell.
Tanner had left Team Quest at this point and was training alone for this fight. In one of the most memorable title bouts in recent years, Tanner survived the initial onslaught from Terrell and fought out of a deep guillotine choke to remain in half guard and pound out his adversary with devastating punches and elbows. Evan was the champion and for him it was not about recognition or fame but for the experience, for the adventure. This philosophy was the way Tanner lived his life from beginning to end.
“To change the world it takes little actions, little actions every single day. It’s hard for people to see that the small change that they make in their lives can change the world but it can, believe me”
Tanner would go on to lose his title in a rematch with Rich Franklin and in that, lose the opportunity to be a coach on The Ultimate Fighter. Looking at Tanner’s lifestyle and his unique approach it wasn’t hard to see what that would have meant to him. It was a chance to try and change the world for the better and to use his profile to help as many people as possible. Tanner followed this fight with a close loss to upcoming David Loiseau but was able to get back on the winning track once again with a submission victory over Justin Levens at UFC 59.
Tanner then chose this time to take another hiatus from the sport concentrating more on exploring and also setting up a mixed martial arts training camp for disadvantaged athletes near his home in Gresham, Oregon. Tanner’s MMA foundation, however, never got the chance to materialize as a bad experience he had with one of the fighters persuaded him to take a break from this endeavour. It was during this time that Tanner started to turn to alcohol and he publicly kept a blog on the Internet for all his fans to see. Tanner poured his emotions into this blog every week and fans became upset to see their champion withering away before their eyes.
Tanner turned the corner in mid 2007 and was able to begin seriously training again and make his return to the UFC. He accepted no corporate sponsors for his return stating instead that he would start “Team Tanner”, a self funded move to repay his fans for all their support. The return to active competition was not as easy as Tanner had envisaged. The sport had evolved in his absence and he suffered back to back losses to Yushin Okami and Hawaiian Kendal Grove. It was at this time that Tanner looked to re-evaluate his position in the sport and once again, during a period of reflection, he stumbled on his next adventure.
Tanner began excitedly updating his blog about his latest challenge. He was going to explore the treacherous deserts of Southern California. He talked about it on his blog with such energy and he had taken all the necessary precautions for such a trip.
“Today, I ran to the store to pick up a few things, and with the lonesome, quiet desert thoughts on my mind, I couldn't help but be struck with their brutally stark contrast to my current surroundings, the amazing congestion in which we exist day to day.. I want to go to these places, the quiet, timeless, ageless places, and sit, letting silence and solitude be my teachers.”
Evan Tanner’s body was found by a marine helicopter on September 8th 2008. Tanner had intended to refill his water bottles at a spring which had run dry; his motorcycle had run out of gas. He had communicated with friends prior to his death informing them of his situation and saying that he would walk back to camp, during the later hours of the evening. Tanner’s body was found at that spot where he had sat down to rest, the temperatures had soared to 118 degrees and he had died from heat exhaustion.
The mixed martial arts world mourned the loss of the fallen warrior. Evan Tanner was truly a people’s champion, his unique perspective on life and his selfless and dedicated approach won him fans both in and outside of the cage. Evan Tanner will always be a personal hero of mine and always be one of the main reasons that I write and that I continue to follow the sport. Ironic perhaps that Tanner had no time for heroes, but saw us all as equals.
"I don't like to use the word hero. I would rather use the word respect. There are those for whom I have respect. To me that is something more than what "hero" means. I have respect for anyone who stands up strong for his ideals and principals. I have respect for anyone who has the strength to walk with integrity and live in truth and honesty. I have respect for those who have a big enough heart to show kindness to all those around them. I have respect for those who can laugh at themselves, and understand it is those around us that give life meaning."
By Ben Cartlidge 2009
By Ben Cartlidge 2009