A Spirit Still Fighting


Evan Tanner. Photo by Danita Rigert. Used with permission.

One year ago today, the mixed martial arts community lost one of its most beloved figures.

Yet the spirit of Evan Tanner is alive and well, and quite possibly stronger than ever, thanks to the legions of fans and supporters that he gained over the years. They are content to help spread the message he intended to share to the rest of the world before his untimely death last September in California.

“I still see where people still make threads or posts about him on message boards,” Jason Leigh, a close friend of Tanner, told MMA on Tap. “They are more about his words and thoughts other than of his fighting. I think he would like that.”

So how could a man that described himself as a shy wallflower, liar, and cheater at times end up becoming such an adored figure in all walks of life, not just in the world of fighting?

“Evan meant a lot of things to a lot of people,” said Ian Dawe, another close friend of Tanner. “To some he was a drifter, a poet, a warrior. To others he was a world champion and source of inspiration. He was my best friend. More importantly, Evan was his own man. He knew his path, and he walked it.”

A message of hope

Try as he may to think of himself as an average person, Tanner’s goals and achievements painted a different picture.

In a sport forever connected to brutal knockouts and bloody battles, Tanner eventually became the best fighter on the planet in his respective weight division, at least for a brief period of time in the eyes of some. But fighting wasn’t what Tanner wanted to be defined by, it was just something he did for a living.

He wanted to be remembered for things that meant much more to him than just climbing into the cage.

“It’s not who I am, it’s not how I define myself, it’s just something I do,” Tanner once said about his mixed martial arts career, which began as just another one of his infamous adventures. “There are many other things I could be, many other paths I could be walking, but fighting is what the fates put before me. There is an ultimate purpose to it.”

Indeed, fighting was just something Tanner wanted to use for something bigger - a platform for the message he wanted to spread. A message developed over years of adventures and experiences, hardships and obstacles, sacrifice and pain.

It was a message that centered around kindness towards one another, something today’s world could use more of.

“Simply put, Evan was a man of the people,” Dawe said. “It might not have seemed that way at times, but that’s the reality of it. He lived a lonely existence, but he lived deeply and loved life and humanity as a whole.”

“One of the ultimate things a human can learn is kindness for their fellow humans… and understanding,” Tanner said shortly before his death. “I’d like to teach those things to my children.”

After years of admitting that fighting in the cage was a pretty good way of paying the bills, Tanner finally realized that in order to share his thoughts with the rest of the world, he was going to have to once again reach the highest level of the sport, a level at which he once resided as UFC middleweight champion.

“I never really set out to do that the first time,” Tanner said in a past interview with MMA on Tap. “I just kept winning fights… just kept winning and next thing you know, I’ve got the middleweight belt. I was just trying to pay the bills. This time I realize what it means. It’s not just having a title, but having a platform in which to stand and speak my ideas. As a fighter in the UFC, I’m able to do that of course, but not to the extent that I could if I was champion.”

It turns out that just by communicating with others through regular conversations and random blog posts and not regaining the title, he may have achieved just that.

Unneeded troubles

Positive thinking. It was something that Tanner tried to base his life around and teach to others. To Tanner, a single individual had the power to change the world, even if only in a small way. However in the weeks and months following Tanner’s death, not everyone was looking to use Evan’s name and legacy in a positive way.

John Hayner of Driving Force Sports, the company that sold the uber-popular “Believe” shirts in the month’s before Tanner’s death, allegedly posed as his manager following his passing, even going as far as making an appearance on HDNet’s “Inside MMA” along with welterweight fighter Mike “Joker” Guymon to discuss his “client’s” death and what fans could expect in his honor in the near future.

With the help of family friend and UFC veteran Dan Christison and his wife, Kyra, Hayner’s antics were quickly brought to an end. He abruptly stopped production of the t-shirts, which despite numerous requests from fans over the past year, still have not been put back into production, and quickly vanished from the MMA scene.

War Machine, the fighter formerly known as “Ultimate Fighter 6” competitor Jon Koppenhaver, came under fire for his comments regarding Tanner’s death just days after it occured, insinuating that Tanner may have killed himself.

“What else is an underpaid fighter supposed to do at the end of his career?” Koppenhaver said in a September 2008 MySpace blog. “Cash in his 401K? Collect social security? Start to work some fucking job for 10 bucks an hour? This shit ain’t boxing, and if you’re not Chuck Liddell or Tito Ortiz, you don’t get paid dick.”

UFC officials quickly received word of Koppenhaver’s comments and he was subsequently terminated from his contract with the promotion. Koppenhaver has since apologized for his actions but has been seemingly banned from ever competing in the UFC again.

Jim Larson, creator of the Amarillo, Texas-based “Shark Fights” promotion, also announced that he would be starting the “Evan Tanner Scholarship Fund”. Proceeds from the internet pay-per-view sale of Shark Fights’ first-ever event last October were said to have been going to Caprock High School, where Tanner won two state wrestling championships as a junior and senior.

According to Leigh, no such scholarship exists.

“There was a promotion that advertised a scholarship fund for Evan off of proceeds from their event,” Leigh said. “They had a video montage and his family in the ring. I had a friend from Sherdog ask me about info on the fund a few months ago and after a few calls I was told there was no fund.”

Attempts to contact Larsen for comment were unsuccessful.

In his honor

Despite all of the unnecessary drama created after his death, Tanner has still been honored for the true person that he was.

A memorial service in Tanner’s memory was held at the Amarillo Civic Center, the arena where Tanner defended his Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation numerous times early in his career, on September 27.

Hundreds were in attendance, including a couple of Tanner’s former opponents, Heath Herring and Paul Buentello, as well as UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta among others.

Although a scholarship in Tanner’s name may not exist, a memorial fund in his honor actually does. Set up by the Tanner family, the Team Tanner Foundation is still taking donations through the Amarillo National Bank or through Paul Buentello’s official clothing line, which sells a handful of Tanner-inspired shirts and hoodies.

Also, in a move that some may have been expecting since last fall, filmmaker Gerard Smith of Tough Crowd Productions has started working, in conjunction with Tanner’s family and friends, on a feature documentary regarding Tanner’s life. His fans will be playing a key part in the process too.

“The whole thing started with me talking to Evan online, so it only make sense that we open it up to the fans,” Smith said. “We’re going to hit the road later this month and continue shooting through early November. We have several interviews already lined up but we also want to set up several “fan days” to meet with the fans and interview them on any personal stories they have about Evan.”

“A very talented crew of professionals is working for next to nothing in order to get this done. We will also be donating money to charities that will be announced further down the line as well as setting up a website that will feature video blogs showing the filmmaking process.”

While MMA’s highest honor to date, a spot in the UFC’s Hall of Fame, has eluded Tanner so far, his friends and family believe that he probably wouldn’t be too worried about it.

“Evan enjoyed the sport but wasn’t a big fan of it,” Leigh said. “He wanted to use the sport as a platform to have his message heard and hopefully use it to help out charities or just people in need. I know that he would appreciate the posts and threads more so than any Hall of Fame or others honors that have to do with MMA.”

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Shortly after Evan’s death, I wrote down some of my thoughts. Those thoughts haven’t changed. What has changed is the way people view Evan and his life.

During the weeks following his death, there were quite a few people out there that didn’t hold back when it came to criticizing someone who didn’t exactly lead a normal life. Who could blame them though? It isn’t every day that someone ends up camping in the desert without making it back to civilization.

Fortunately, it looks as if things have changed for the better. Gone are the critics for the most part. They’ve been replaced by people interested in Evan’s story and his beliefs. Even though a premature death may be contributing to it, Evan is more beloved now than ever before. More importantly, a greater amount of people are identifying Evan for his words and adventures rather than his fighting career. That’s something he worked to achieve for a long time.

My position regarding Evan’s potential induction into the UFC Hall-of-Fame hasn’t changed. I still truly believe he deserves the honor. While his record in the UFC isn’t exactly on par with most of the HOF’s current members, what he achieved inside the Octagon is without a doubt. A man who taught himself how to fight using instructional video tapes and never trained year-round fought 17 times in the UFC, winning 11 of those fights along with the UFC middleweight championship.

Nothing short of amazing if you ask me.

I also can’t describe how excited I am for the documentary that Evan’s family has decided to work on. Rumor has it that his family was able to get ahold of many of Evan’s journals from over the years. A Kurt Cobain-type of book being released along with the documentary would probably be something people would eat up, including myself.

It’s still hard to believe a year has gone by so fast.

Rest in peace my friend.

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