Four years ago, on September 8, 2008, the mixed martial arts world lost one of its most compelling figures when former UFC middleweight champion Evan Tanner tragically died of heat exposure during a camping trip in California’s Palo Verde mountain area.
Just 37, Tanner’s death hit the MMA scene hard, not just because he was so young and for what he brought to the fight game, though he brought plenty throughout his 11 year pro career. Instead, we all felt like Tanner was one of us, a fighter who wasn’t some superhero with otherworldly powers, but a regular guy who struggled and fought not just in the Octagon, but in life.
And he was. After his passing, I wrote of a journey that didn’t resemble that of his peers, making him unique among those choosing the fighting path as their own.
From his obituary:
A native of Amarillo, Texas, Tanner worked various jobs as a bouncer, a cable TV contractor, a framer building beach houses, a dishwasher, a baker, a ditch digger, and a slaughterhouse worker before stumbling on to mixed martial arts in 1997.
Over the next 11 years, fighting would be a major part of his life, to the tune of 42 professional bouts, but as he said before what would be his final bout against Kendall Grove in June of 2008, he never considered himself a fighter.
“I always thought of myself as the poet, the writer, or the philosopher – I never thought of myself as a fighter,” he chuckled. “But here I am. I always had an idea of the flow of my life, but not exactly what I would be doing day to day. And fighting definitely wasn’t something I thought I’d be doing.”
But he was good at it – very good in fact. Over the course of his career, Tanner (34-8) scored wins over Paul Buentello, Heath Herring, Ikuhisa Minowa, Justin McCully, Elvis Sinosic, Phil Baroni (twice), and Robbie Lawler. His biggest win, however, came at UFC 51 on February 5, 2005, when he stopped David Terrell in the first round to win the UFC middleweight championship.
Tanner would lose the belt to Rich Franklin in his first defense four months later, but the fans never abandoned him, and he returned that admiration, both in person and through his internet blogs.
“I wanted to give something back to the fans and let them know that I’m just a regular guy,” said Tanner in early 2008. “Some of the guys forget that and get caught up in the lights, and I never want to forget that and that I’m one of the lucky ones that got a chance to get out there and do this. There are a lot of great athletes out there, a lot of great fighters that never got the chance. I’m one of the lucky ones that did, so writing the blog and telling life as it is helps me stay grounded and it gives me a way to connect with the fans and give them something back.”
His blogs were more than just fight talk and product advertisements though. Tanner spoke frankly about life and his struggles in and out of the Octagon. And when he made his return to the UFC in 2008 after almost two years away, it was a triumph of the human spirit and an inspiration, regardless of whose hand was raised at the end of the fight.
“My thought was that I’m in a position where I’ve done some things and some people look up to me a little bit and maybe something in my story can help inspire them or motivate them to get through some things or do something better,” said Tanner before his return against Yushin Okami at UFC 82 in March. “If that’s the case and it helps anybody else out, then it’s worth me facing the embarrassment.”
He fell short in his final two bouts against Okami and Grove, but there was no keeping him down, and his off-time after the Grove bout was filled with more of his adventures, as well as participation in Harley-Davidson’s 105th anniversary celebration.
Sadly, there would be no more adventures. Before the Grove fight, I wished him luck. He thanked me and said something that I will always remember him by.
“Everything’s been about the journey,” he said. “I never really set out with goals for fighting; it’s been about the adventure along the way. When you’re on your death bed, it’s those stories, those little adventures that are going to be the things that you remember. It’s not so much getting there, but how you got there.”
There never was a fighter quite like Evan Tanner. And we aren’t likely to see one like him anytime soon, if ever.
EVAN TANNER’S MOST MEMORABLE UFC MOMENTS
Darrel Gholar – January 8, 1999 – UFC 18<br>Result – Tanner Wsub1
Facing a two-time Greco-Roman national wrestling champ, Tanner apparently had no business beating Darrel Gholar in his UFC debut, despite a 16-1 record and experience in Japan as well as in the US. And when Gholar got Tanner to the mat and began to work his ground and pound attack, it appeared to be trouble for the 27-year old from Amarillo. But Tanner showed his trademark cool under fire, worked for submissions from the bottom, and eventually got back to his feet, where he attacked Gholar with leg kicks and knees before submitting him at the 7:57 mark. Right then you got the impression Tanner was definitely going to be heard from again.
Homer Moore – November 2, 2001 – UFC 34<br>Result – Tanner Wsub2
Following the win over Gholar, Tanner would defeat Valeri Ignatov and Lance Gibson, earning him a shot at Tito Ortiz’ title at UFC 30 in February of 2001. The bout was over almost as soon as it started as an Ortiz slam knocked Tanner out in 32 seconds. Less than nine months later, Tanner returned to the Octagon to take on 11-0 prospect Homer Moore, who was garnering some significant buzz from the MMA media at the time. Tanner took his time in the first round, getting his legs back in a real fight, and by round two he was ready to attack and he did, easily submitting Moore with an armbar. Tanner was back, and ready to make another run at a title. And he would get there the hard way.
Phil Baroni – November 21, 2003 – UFC 45<br>Result – Tanner TKO1
After three wins and a loss to UFC newcomer Rich Franklin, Tanner dropped to the 185 pound weight class, and who did he find waiting for him but the ‘New York Bad Ass’ himself, Phil Baroni. And despite Baroni’s two losses to Matt Lindland, many saw him as too fast and powerful for Tanner. But the bout’s four minutes and 42 seconds of compelling action sent a message to the other middleweights that Tanner was a force to be reckoned with, despite a controversial ending.
Using his aforementioned hand speed and power, Baroni stunned Tanner with a right hand seconds into the scheduled three rounder, and follow-up bombs by the New Yorker had Tanner stumbling, cut, and in deep trouble. As it turns out, the cut under Tanner’s left eye may have been his saving grace. With a halt to the action called by referee Larry Landless in order for the ringside doctor to check Tanner’s cut, he gained enough time to recover his senses and get back into the fight.
After he ate another Baroni right hand, Tanner used some effective knees in the clinch and finally took the Long Island native to the mat. As the seconds ticked away on the first round, Tanner gained a full mount position and rained elbows on his foe. Landless leaned in and repeatedly asked Baroni if he wanted the fight stopped. Baroni, thinking that the referee was asking if he was fit to continue, answered ‘yes’. The bout was halted at 4:42 of the first, and though Baroni wasn’t too happy with the finish, Tanner was glad to get the win.
“That guy hits hard,” said Tanner afterwards. “That hurt.”
Robbie Lawler – October 22, 2004 – UFC 50<br>Result – Tanner Wsub1
After Tanner defeated Baroni via decision in their UFC 48 rematch, another young gun was placed in front of him in hard-hitting Robbie Lawler. Again, Tanner was expected by many to be the sacrificial lamb for the up and comer, but again, he stunned the world with a little veteran magic.
Surprisingly the action was subdued in the first two minutes, with neither man fully committing to the attack. But at the three-minute mark, Lawler made his move, taking Tanner down to the canvas. Unfortunately for the Iowan, Tanner locked in a triangle choke, producing the tap out at 2:22. And with three straight middleweight wins, there would be no denying Tanner of his second world title shot.
David Terrell – February 5, 2005 – UFC 51
Result – Tanner TKO 1 (Wins UFC Middleweight Championship)
David Terrell was the middleweight division’s hot shot after his 24-second KO of Matt Lindland (notice a theme here?) and his crowning as champion seemed to be almost an afterthought. But Tanner would not be denied.
Terrell tried to repeat his early KO of Lindland with a whipping kick to the head seconds after the opening bell, but Tanner blocked the shot. Terrell was able to take Tanner down moments later, and even though the veteran quickly got to his feet, the Santa Rosa, California native was firmly on the offensive as he chased his foe around the Octagon.
Tanner kept his cool though, even after Terrell sunk in a guillotine choke and looked for the submission. “He had me pretty tight, I’m glad I made it through that one,” said Tanner.
Gamely, he pounded his way out of the choke and with Terrell on the mat against the fence, Tanner opened fire with a series of punches and forearms. “I was trying to keep him busy, to keep him from thinking about submissions,” said Tanner.
With no response from Terrell, who appeared bewildered while on the defensive, referee Herb Dean had no choice but to stop the fight with a mere 25 seconds left in the first stanza. And just like that, Evan Tanner was a world champion.
“It’s awesome,” said the new king. “I don’t even have the words to describe it.”
Rich Franklin – June 4, 2005 – UFC 53<br>Result – Franklin TKO4 (doctor’s stoppage)(Tanner loses UFC Middleweight Championship)
Tanner’s reign at the top was short lived, but maybe more than in any victory, his true warrior spirit came out in his loss to Franklin in their rematch.
The fight was fast paced from the start, with Tanner immediately taking the fight to his challenger. Both fighters traded heavy shots with some surprised by Tanner’s willingness to keep the fight standing. Franklin jarred Tanner briefly with a high left kick, and Tanner quickly recovered, only to get rocked by an uppercut seconds later. Franklin’s superior standup skills were evident, but Tanner kept moving forward, looking for an opening – an opening which came with 40 seconds left in the round as he dropped the challenger with a right hand to the jaw. Tanner got Franklin’s back and briefly had an arm for an armbar, but Franklin cleared his head and was back in the fight by the bell.
“I don’t remember that, so apparently I was hurt pretty bad,” said Franklin of the left hand that floored him.
As Tanner went to his corner, he was bleeding from his ear, and things would only get worse as the fight progressed.
Tanner came out confidently in the second, but Franklin easily eluded any danger. The pace dipped a bit in the second stanza, but Franklin did manage to cut Tanner over the eye, and his fast counters were beating the champion to the punch and leaving their mark on his face.
The pattern continued in the third round, with Franklin now mixing kicks and knees in with his accurate punches. In the second minute, Tanner got nailed and staggered by a left hand but quickly regained his bearings. Another left hurt Tanner a few moments later, and when Franklin got Tanner on the mat, it looked like the end was near, but the courageous Tanner once again fought his way out of danger. Yet when Tanner rose, his face was a mask of blood and bruises.
Despite the fact that the fight was becoming one-sided, Tanner kept coming forward as he refused to give up his title without a fierce struggle, but by the fourth round the outcome was no longer in doubt, and after a series of shots by Franklin with 1:35 to go in the round, referee Herb Dean halted the bout to allow the ringside physicians to check Tanner, and the fight was immediately stopped.
Ironically, the fight took place the same night as the high-profile boxing match between Ricky Hatton and longtime junior welterweight champion Kostya Tszyu. Tszyu retired in his corner before the 12th round, a move for which he was criticized by some. After the bout, in a column for insidefighting.com, I wrote the following:
“After an 11 round streetfight, Tszyu, face and body battered and bruised, thought of his family, thought of his future, and decided he would not be a trophy for the bloodthirsty.
UFC middleweight champion Evan Tanner thought of none of those options. As he faced a young, aggressive, well-conditioned challenger in Rich Franklin, Tanner thought only of defending the title he had worked so hard for and of avenging his loss to this same opponent. He withstood punch after punch as his face swelled and burst open with cuts, and he kept upright, hoping that an opening would show itself where he could turn the fight around and get the victory. And in a sport where there’s no stigma attached to tapping out of a fight, Tanner kept fighting until he wasn’t allowed to fight anymore.”
Less than four months later, I spoke to Tanner before his comeback fight against David Loiseau and asked him what kept him going through that fight as the odds mounted against him.
“I knew that I was taking some damage and it was really unpleasant,” admitted Tanner. “But I was thinking if I can just get him, hit him, get a hold of him, I can make something happen. I just kept believing that I could make something happen, but it didn’t turn out that time.”
That’s what separates champions from everyone else, regardless of whether they still hold a belt or not.
Justin Levens – April 15, 2006 – UFC 59<br>Result – Tanner Wsub1
Tanner would lose to Loiseau via cuts, his skin betraying him for a second straight night, but six months later he was back in the Octagon against prospect Justin Levens. It was a must-win situation for the former middleweight champion, he knew it, and he acted accordingly, dominating his opponent until the end came via triangle choke at 3:14 of the first round.
“This is my first victory towards the title,” said Tanner after the fight, but little did anyone know that it would be his last win. Tanner would walk away from the sport for nearly two years, and though his heart and determination never wavered, he would fall short in his final two bouts to Yushin Okami and Kendall Grove. But despite the way his career ended, there is no question that the resume he left behind is one to be proud of, and the history books will always remember him as a champion.