Evan Tanner and Phil Baroni engaged in a pair of memorable wars during their respective stints with the UFC. Tanner was victorious in both of them. Photo by Tracy Lee.
He never set out to become one of the world’s best fighters, but Evan Tanner did just that during an eventful eleven-year career that saw him win three championships in three major organizations, including the UFC. Tanner’s career was filled with ups and downs, all of them memorable moments that are now etched in the minds of those that followed him until his untimely death over the weekend.
In honor of Tanner, here’s a look back at the most historic fights of his illustrious career and the defining reasons why Tanner became one of the most beloved fighters to ever grace the sport of mixed martial arts.
9. Tanner vs Justin Levens (April 15, 2006)
After a six-month hiatus and consecutive losses that caused his short-lived title reign to become a distant memory, the UFC penciled Tanner in as one of the featured fighters on UFC 59’s main card. In a matchup between a pair of crafty grapplers, Tanner signed to take on Jeremy Horn, only to have Horn bow out due to injury just two weeks into the fight. Marco Ruas protege Justin Levens stepped in on short notice, quite the large task against a fighter with Tanner’s level of experience. Tanner took the fight to the ground early on during their battle and eventually forced Levens to submit after trapping him with a semi-flying triangle. The win would end up being the last of Tanner’s career and his only one while training under the famed Chute Boxe banner, but was a testament to Tanner’s natural ability in the cage even as an aging veteran.
8. Tanner vs Justin McCully (July 26, 1998)
After winning ten out of his first eleven professional bouts in Iowa and Texas, Tanner traveled overseas to Japan to compete in Pancrase’s annual Neo-Blood tournament, which featured a mix of fighters from all over the world. Despite most of the Japanese fighters being billed as favorites to win the tourney, Tanner submitted his first two opponents, Kousei Kubota and future PRIDE standout Ikuhisa Minowa to advance to the tournament finals against a fellow American, Team Punishment co-founder Justin McCully. Tanner would go on to submit McCully a little over five minutes into their bout, becoming the first and only American to date to ever win the esteemed tournament.
7. Tanner vs Shannon Ritch (February 15, 2003)
In one of the many instances which showed the huge heart and kindness that Tanner had for others, he agreed to headline a charity event being put on by Portland, Oregon’s Full Contract Fighting Federation in support of future “Ultimate Fighter” contestant Josh Haynes, whose son was born with a tumor located on his brain stem. Despite numerous requests for help, Tanner turned out to be the only well-known professional fighter to lend his services with the exception of his opponent Shannon Ritch, whom Tanner quickly submitted with a triangle choke in the first round of their main event bout. Tanner fought on the card free of charge and ended up helping to raise thousands of dollars for Haynes’ family. Haynes’ son remains cancer-free to this day.
Evan Tanner vs Yushin Okami. Photo property of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
6. Tanner vs Yushin Okami (March 2, 2008)
Following his win over Levens in April 2006, Tanner decided to take some time off from fighting. After stepping into the Octagon six times in the past two years, one could say that it was pretty well-deserved. However Tanner’s infamous bad habits kicked in. Instead, his temporary break from fighting became a long one as he once again battled his addiction to alcohol and self-admittedly “wasted away” for two years aboard a sailboat in Oceanside, California and various homes of friends.
Eventually Tanner realized that his life was going down a terrible road and decided to stop drinking completely. He signed a new four-fight deal with the UFC shortly after and began training again, eventually agreeing to fight top-ranked middleweight Yushin Okami at UFC 82 this past March. Although Tanner would go on to be knocked out by Okami in the second round, he showed that in this world, anything can be accomplished as long as one puts their mind to it - something that Tanner was hoping to send as a message to others that followed his journey back to the UFC.
5. Tanner vs Robbie Lawler (October 22, 2004)
Since he decided to drop down to the middleweight division in the summer of 2003, Tanner had racked up two straight wins, a pair of hard-fought victorious over Phil Baroni, and had quickly put himself in line for a shot at the vacant UFC middleweight title, which the promotion had begun planning to re-institute. At UFC 50, Tanner was matched up against hard-hitting Team Miletich product Robbie Lawler, who opted to move up a weight class after struggling at welterweight in his last few fights. Avoiding Lawler’s brutal strikes in the opening minutes of their bout, Tanner was slammed hard onto the mat following some grappling in the clinch with Lawler. However Tanner swiftly swung his legs up and caught Lawler in a triangle choke that forced him to tap out. The winner solidified Tanner’s spot as the UFC’s top middleweight contender along with future opponent David Terrell.
Evan Tanner and Phil Baroni. Photo property of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
4. Tanner vs Phil Baroni (June 19, 2004)
Seven months earlier at UFC 45, Tanner and Phil Baroni met in a bloody war that saw Baroni nearly stop Tanner with strikes early in the first round only for Baroni to eventually be taken down and TKO’d courtesy of a controversial stoppage by referee Larry Landless. The two agreed to a rematch and were placed on the main card of UFC 48. With master strategists Randy Couture and Matt Lindland in his corner, Tanner surprisingly opted to stand with Baroni once again, this time with a newly refined striking repertoire. Tanner bruised and battered Baroni over three rounds with a mix of strikes and slams en route to a unanimous decision that left no doubt as to who the victor was the second time around.
3. Tanner vs Paul Buentello (April 12, 1997)
After becoming a two-time Texas State Champion in high school wrestling and completing a handful of semesters in college, Tanner embarked on a cross-country journey in order to find the real-life education that he was seeking. During a stop in his hometown of Amarillo, Texas, a group of friends asked Tanner to enter a local eight-man heavyweight tournament that was being put on by a local shoot-fighting promotion called the Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation, an organization that Tanner would eventually own at one point. After much encouragement, Tanner entered the tourney and the rest is history. He defeated Mike Kennedy, Gary Nabors, and then future UFC heavyweight title challenger Paul Buentello in the same night. What was supposed to be a one-time adventure, Tanner never stopped fighting for the rest of his life.
2. Tanner vs Rich Franklin (June 4, 2005)
The site was Atlantic City, New Jersey and UFC 53 was the UFC’s first pay-per-view event following the huge success of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show, sans UFC 52, which happened a week after the show’s finale. Evan Tanner, who had became the first UFC middleweight champion in almost five years after defeating David Terrell at UFC 51, was set to rematch Rich Franklin, who had defeated Tanner in a light heavyweight bout at UFC 42 two years prior.
Their second bout was much longer than their first. Tanner came dangerously close to avenging his prior loss after dropping Franklin with a right hand in the first round. However Franklin was able to survive and went on to dominate Tanner over the next three rounds, making his face almost unrecognizable until the ringside doctor called a stop to the action with almost two minutes left in the fourth round. While Tanner lost the fight and his title, his willingness to continue to push forward throughout the fight helped define the warrior spirit that fight fans continue to praise him for to this day.
Evan Tanner. Photo by C.J. Cansler.
1. Tanner vs David Terrell (February 5, 2005)
In defeating Robbie Lawler at UFC 50, Tanner positioned himself as one of the top contenders for the UFC’s vacant middleweight belt, which had last been worn by Murilo Bustamante three years earlier. His challenger, David Terrell was found after he knocked out Tanner’s former training partner, Matt Lindland, in less than 30 seconds at UFC 49. Despite having a ton of experience over Terrell, Tanner came into the fight as the underdog in the eyes of the Las Vegas oddsmakers. However it was the exact role that Tanner thrived in.
After taking some punishment from Terrell early in the form of strikes, Terrell took Tanner down a couple of times, only have to him quickly return to his feet. A clinch against the cage saw Terrell sink in a deep guillotine choke, which Tanner defended for about 30 seconds before dramatically escaping. Tanner then pounded away on a defenseless Terrell until referee Herb Dean stopped the fight at the 4:35 mark of the first round. An elated Tanner jumped to his feet and screamed before being hugged by his corner. UFC President Dana White wrapped the belt around Tanner’s waist moments later, officially making him only the third middleweight champion in UFC history.
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