Evan Tanner 1971-2008
“I believe there are people out there that just have a warrior spirit, whether it’s fighting or something, they’ve got to do it. It’s hard to identify with me; it’s just something I do.”
On what was unquestionably one of mixed martial arts’ saddest days, former UFC middleweight champion Evan Tanner - beloved by fans for his fighting ability and by friends for his free spirit – passed away at the age of 37 on September 8, 2008.
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 earlier this year before what would be his final bout against Kendall Grove, 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 will be no more adventures, only memories of Evan Tanner.
“Evan was such a unique individual, and he was okay being an individual,” said Hayner. “He was okay with taking the path less traveled, and he often chose that harder path.”
It was simply who he was. Just read the words he spoke to me before I wished him luck for his fight against Grove in June.
“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.”
And he did it his way.
Rest in Peace, Evan.