September 3, 2008. Thirty-seven-yearold former UFC middleweight champion Evan Tanner loaded his camping gear onto his Kawasaki KLR 650 dirt bike outside his beachfront apartment in Oceanside, California, and embarked on his latest, greatest journey into the unknown. The destination of choice: the desert just north of Brawley, a cattle town about 150 miles inland.
From surf town to cactus country, this journey had all the makings of a classic Evan Tanner mini-epic. It was a new chapter in the life of a bonafi de truth-seeker who defi ned himself by his desire to push his limits in the service of wisdom, self-discovery, a love of nature, and a genuine desire for human connection. His biography up to that point had been a case study of the consequences of following a road less traveled.
He had ended up in his share of dark corners, including prolonged bouts with alcoholism and depression. But Tanner had conquered those demons—he had been clean and sober for nearly a year— and, despite a failed comeback attempt in the UFC after a two-year layoff, he found a new gym in Oceanside and committed himself to giving professional fi ghting at least one more shot. But his desire for the next great adventure remained as potent as ever. Tanner liked to tell people that, when he eventually settled down, he’d tell his kids about his days living on the fringes of society to ensure they wouldn’t repeat his mistakes. True wisdom, after all, usually comes at a price.
Despite a stellar record—32 wins (29 via stoppage) against eight losses, and a UFC belt—Evan Tanner will never merit serious consideration as one of the sport’s all-time greats. But that kind of recognition was never his ultimate goal, and his place in mixed martial arts lore is nonetheless secure: Evan Tanner will go down in MMA history as the only UFC champion who never really thought of himself as a fi ghter. Walking into the Octagon and facing off against a guy hell-bent on taking his head off? That was just another way for him to test himself, to see what he was made of. More importantly, the paychecks he collected as a professional gladiator provided him with the means to pursue his other, more consuming passions.
“There is simply no one to compare Evan to,” says his manager, John Hayner. “Most fi ghters, they live, breathe, and eat fi ghting. They’re fully committed. Fighting dictates everything they do. Evan would tell you straight up that fi ghting was not his top priority. He’d rather take a motorcycle ride from Seattle to Florida, and stop at children’s hospitals along the way. [Former UFC referee] Big John Mc- Carthy once told me that Evan would give you the shirt off his back, even if it was the only shirt he had. Evan didn’t feel the need to conform, to be anyone other than himself.”
Tanner’s routine over the course of his career remained consistent: If he didn’t have a fi ght coming up, he never went to the gym and never watched fi ghts on TV. It’s not that he didn’t love the sport. It’s just that there were other, more important ways to spend his time. But once a contract got signed, Tanner’s existential commitment to testing his limits became focused on one thing: breaking the will of the man standing across from him.
Tanner turned pro in 1997, after some friends from his hometown of Amarillo, Texas, suggested he enter a local tournament called Unifi ed Shoot Wrestling Federation. Tanner won every bout via stoppage. He kept going, winning 22 of his fi rst 24 bouts, usually in dramatic fashion (including victories over future Pride/UFC vets like Heath Herring, Ikuhisa Minowa, Travis Fulton, and Justin McCully). Before the UFC came calling, only one of Tanner’s fi ghts went the distance: a decision victory over Kiuma Kinioku on a Pancrase card in 1998. Tanner may not have been a technical marvel, but he was a closer, a showstopper.
“He was relentless, and he was beyond tough,” recalls Elias Cepeda, of Inside Fighting. “He was an overachiever. There were plenty of matches where it seemed like he didn’t belong in the ring with the guy he was across from, and he’d come out with the win. He wasn’t the most accomplished wrestler, but he would scrap, fi nd a way for a takedown, and then just impose his will with his ground-and-pound. Evan didn’t seem to know how to quit if he wasn’t separated from consciousness.”
Tanner didn’t have a specifi c itinerary for his the Brawley trip. The point, the ultimate goal, was to test himself, which required that a few details be left to chance. But that didn’t mean he was unprepared. Tanner always relied on his ability to teach himself how to do things, instead of depending on outside instruction. And, so far, his self-confi dence had been more than justifi ed. This was a guy, after all, who fi rst took up wrestling in 10th grade and went on to become the Texas state champion in both his junior and senior years; a guy who had learned how to fi ght, not in a gym, but by watching and re-watching MMA fi ghts on VHS tapes alone in his tiny apartment; a guy who skipped college but transformed himself a self-taught intellectual and voracious reader, devouring everything from Austen to Whitman to Hesse.
To prepare for his trip, Tanner researched dirt bike mechanics, then learned how to optimize his bike for desert terrain using information he downloaded off the Web. Scanning free satellite imagery provided by Google Earth, he found what seemed to be the perfect site for a base camp, next to a stream that extended for miles. The temperature in Brawley may have been unusually high for September, regularly breaking the triple digits, but Tanner reasonably concluded that, as long as he stuck close to the water while riding around each day, he could keep himself hydrated.
The night before he took off, Tanner posted the following entry on his popular Spike TV blog: “Tomorrow I go out into the desert. It has taken over a month to get all the gear together. The preparation for this adventure took far longer than I had expected. I’ve never done this before, so I took my time reading books, studying the land, and researching…A few weeks of solitude in the deep desert, and then back to civilization, and back to training.” He never returned from the desert.
February 5, 2005. The sport was about to change forever, but Evan Tanner didn’t know it. Nobody did. The only thing on Tanner’s mind that night was that, after fi ve years of battling it out inside the UFC Octagon, he fi nally got his shot at the middleweight belt title. Tanner may have been knocked out by Rich Franklin and Tito Ortiz, but he’d also dominated genuine players like Robbie Lawler, Phil Baroni, and Elvis Sinosic. Tanner had earned his shot.
The only thing standing between him and his title: David Terrell, a Brazilian Jiu- Jitsu phenom with some lethal stand-up skills. Terrell had turned heads a year before, when he needed just 24 seconds to KO Matt Lindland, one of #[extra space here]MMA’s bona fi de superstars. Technically, Tanner had nothing on Terrell. He knew it, Terrell knew it, but Tanner couldn’t care less. Tanner entered the ring relaxed, his long hair tied back, samurai style. The bell rang, and Terrell came out banging: leg kicks, head kicks, all delivered precisely, most of them landing. Tanner shook them off. Terrell changed tactics and moved into the clinch. He grabbed Tanner’s head and locked in a standing guillotine choke. It was deep. To many, Tanner looked ready to tap. But anyone who had followed his career knew one thing: For Evan Tanner, admitting defeat was a nonexistent concept. You could knock him out, choke him out, snap his arm, rip his knee ligaments apart, but if it came down to a battle of wills, you didn’t stand a chance.
With the choke still secure, Tanner stood Terrell up, slammed hi
m to the ground, and pinned him against the cage. He popped his head out and starting swinging. After a torrent of answered punches [should this be “unanswered punches”?], referee Herb Dean waved off the bout at 4:35 of the fi rst round.
Tanner lost his title a mere two months later, however, when he faced off against his nemesis: Rich Franklin. The stakes were high. Whoever won the fi ght would be secured a coaching spot on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter, the reality show that instantaneously transformed MMA from a fringe attraction to a popculture phenomenon. Tanner started out strong, fl ooring Franklin with a textbook right cross in the fi rst round. But it went downhill from there. Franklin started to dominate, and then gradually punish, Tanner with his vastly superior skill set. After four rounds of torment, the ringside doctor waved the fi ght off. Tanner may have been stopped, but he hadn’t quit on his stool.
After the Franklin fi ght, Tanner began a downward spiral that lasted more than two years. He went 1-1 in his next two fi ghts, then dropped out of fi ghting in 2006. He sunk into a depression, and began self-medicating with booze. He drifted from town to town. Still, his commitment to helping others—if not himself—continued. He started a martial arts training center in Gresham, Oregon, for disadvantaged youth. It fell apart.
But Tanner did fi nd one positive outlet: blogging. It was the perfect medium for his brand of self-expression. He was never really comfortable in the spotlight, and he had no interest in marketing himself the way the UFC had been doing with guys like Franklin, Chuck Liddell, or BJ Penn. But Tanner did crave human contact. More often than not, it would happen at a local bar on one of his many adventures through rural America. But those conversations invariably resulted in a nasty bender, and that was the last thing Tanner needed. On the Internet, he could pre-serve his privacy and stay away from the sauce, yet communicate the observations, lessons, and little nuggets of wisdom he had gleaned during his travels. And the fans responded.
For a guy whose prime years as a fi ghter happened before the concept of a “casual” MMA fan even existed, Tanner soon found himself surrounded by supporters who were listening to what he had to say. It was the audience he had been craving his entire life.# [add space]By the time Tanner jumped on his bike and headed off for Brawley, he had lost four of his last fi ve fi ghts. But his readers couldn’t care less about what he was doing in the ring.
When he arrived at his base camp, Tanner immediately realized he was in trouble. For starters, the temperature that day had skyrocketed to an unfathomably hot 118 degrees. More importantly, the stream that Tanner had planned his trip around, his one and only lifeline for survival, wasn’t there. The satellite images he had been relying on had been taken months, if not years, earlier. The water had simply dried up. Cell service was unpredictable, but Tanner did manage to fi nd enough reception to call Hayner and let him know that his bike had run out of gas, that he had no water, and that he was going to try to walk back to town. It was the last conversation Tanner ever had.
Five days after Tanner’s departure from Oceanside, the pilot of a marine helicopter called in the news: Evan Tanner had been found dead in the desert. Initially, rumors began circulating on the Internet that Tanner’s personal struggles, which he had chronicled openly and honestly on his blog (beginning at insidefi ghting. com, then moving to his MySpace page, and eventually to Spike.com), may have played a role in his death. Tabloid reporters called Hayner, digging for evidence that Tanner might be have been suicidal. Hayner would give them a piece of his mind and then hang up the phone. Two days later, the bottom-feeders were silenced when the Imperial County Sheriff’s department issued a report saying that the cause of death was heat exhaustion. It was an absolutely excruciating way for anyone to spend his fi nal hours. But one thing was clear: Evan Turner hadn’t given up. He had gone done swinging.
In the days following Tanner’s death, the love he had gained over the years began to emerge: from the strangers he had met on the road, from the MMA fans who had watched as he stayed four hours at UFC events to sign the programs of each and every person who wanted his autograph, and from the thousands of loyal readers of his blog. On September 9, a 27-year-old fi lm editor from Dallas uploaded a lovingly crafted tribute video of Tanner’s highlights in the ring. Two weeks later, the clip had logged more than 100,000 hits.
“We’ve had numerous cards from as far as the U.K. and Japan, from people who could understand what his writings meant and who could relate to him, who told how he affected their lives,” says Tanner’s older brother, Jeff. “Evan made you want to look at the deeper things—the deeper side of life—and not the avenue of having the fanciest cars and the newest houses and the keeping up with the Jones’s attitude. He wanted to show people that it’s not the material possessions that make a person happy, it’s the friends and family and just the world around you, period.”