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UFC Champion, Alcoholic, Adventurer - The Remarkable Life And Death Of Evan Tanner

UFC Champion, Alcoholic, Adventurer - The Remarkable Life And Death Of Evan Tanner
By John Balfe
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Evan Tanner was clean and sober when he died in the desert surrounding California's Palo Verdes mountains in September 2008.

It had been more than a year since he had a drink by the time Tanner loaded up his motorcycle for a solo trip into the desert. For the 37-year-old former UFC middleweight champion this was an achievement on a par with many of his athletic endeavours and - like so many other elements of his life - Tanner put the bottle down by harnessing the strength of sheer willpower.

Tanner's philosophy on alcohol mirrored that of his larger, overarching world view. If he was going to drink, he would push it hard and see how far it would go. For so long he lived the life of a drifter; moving from town to town as opportunities either dwindled or presented themselves. This was a life that suited his drinking too, and you would often find him huddled in a dark corner of a bar in whichever town he found himself in, awaiting opportunities or erasing memories.

But as the time passed, Tanner's health suffered. He developed a condition which made his kidneys ache while training. His urine was the consistency of motor oil. Tanner's health stood out in stark contrast to the person whose life was littered with athletic achievement throughout high school, college and into his professional career.

He was a state champion wrestler in high school - just one of the several sports that Tanner excelled at. He graduated at the top of the honour roll and the resulting scholarship offers should have been the first step towards a comfortable life.

It was at this point of his life, though, where Tanner first realised that he wasn't chasing a comfortable life.


Evan Tanner was a doer. To gain life experience, he would say, you have to go out and live it. With that in mind and with a successful amateur wrestling background under his belt, he decided to give mixed martial arts a shot.

Tanner was almost entirely self-taught as a mixed martial artist for the majority of his career. His photographic memory meant that he could learn moves and sequences from instructional books and DVDs with relative ease and he would practice them with friends in his living room until he felt comfortable with them. This doesn't sound quite like the background of a truly great mixed martial artist but Evan Tanner wasn't your typical man and he began his career with a record of 22-2 before he signed a contract to join the UFC.

When matchmaker Joe Silva called him in late 2004 to offer him a UFC middleweight title shot, Evan Tanner was in the midst of a drinking binge. His UFC career had yielded eight wins against two losses and he was, by all accounts, one of the more fearsome fighters in the sport. But if that was his public face, reality reflected a much more troubled soul.


So consuming was his addiction that he would go days without eating and, when he picked up that ringing phone, Tanner later said he weighed somewhere in the region of 175lbs - some 10lbs below the middleweight weight limit and anywhere between 20 and 30lbs lighter than the men he would be fighting. He had two months to get into fighting shape but Tanner saw this as nothing more than another challenge. He stopped drinking, started eating correctly and trained multiple times per day.


Evan Tanner defeated David Terrell via strikes inside the first round at UFC 51 to become champion of the world.

But despite being one of the world's best fighters, Tanner could never look past the uneasy trade-off of the fight game: his success could only come at the expense of someone else's hopes and dreams.


He would win just one more fight throughout the rest of his life.

Tanner checks on a defeated opponent


Although Tanner had been sober for months ahead of what would be his final UFC bout against Kendall Grove in June 2008, he still blamed his past indiscretions with alcohol for his dwindling abilities. Years of abuse had taken their toll but Tanner was elated to learn that there was a solution to his problem and there was a medicine which would help him regain the fullness of health he had previously taken for granted. He would collect his prescription after completing a camping trip that he had been planning for months; just a man, his motorcycle and the solitude of the Californian desert.

When he posted his thoughts on his online blog, several of his fans feared for his safety. He responded:

Come on, guys. This isn't a version of 'Into the Wild.' I'm not going out into the desert with a pair of shorts and a bowie knife, to try to live off the land. I'm going fully geared up, and I'm planning on having some fun.

And to think, there are still places in the world where man has not been, where he has left no footprints, where the mysteries stand secure, untouched by human eyes. I want to go to these places, the quiet, timeless, ageless places, and sit, letting silence and solitude be my teachers.

Evan Tanner would never be seen alive again.

In near 50 degree celcius heat, Tanner first realised he was in trouble after hiking five miles to replenish his water supply only to discover nothing but a dried up water spring. Dehydrated and exhausted, Tanner died surrounded by the natural world he held so dearly, with his head resting gently on a rock.


Evan Tanner didn't die a professional fighter. Fighting was just something that he did. He died an adventurer, a poet and with his one true foe, his alcoholism, truly vanquished. He made many mistakes throughout his life, and no doubt would have made some more, but he was a man aware of his own frailties and battled to set them right. And, after all, that's what fighting is all about.

Watch the trailer to the Evan Tanner documentary 'Once I Was A Champion' below.



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