Eddie Vedder’s voice keeps ringing in my ears. I’ve been obsessively listening to the same song for days now; “Off He Goes” by Pearl Jam. My IPod tells me I’ve now hit the play button for the 165th consecutive time. I try, but I can’t get away from this damned song. My obsession began in early September, when I received a piece of news I had never wanted to hear. “Evan Tanner is dead”. The title of the article is precise and leaves no room for hope. Apparently, Tanner ventured too deep in the deserts of Southern California and never managed to get out. Stranded with no water and no gas for his motorcycle, Tanner fought his last battle against a pitiless sun, and the sun won. The almost 120 degrees recorded that day killed him as he was trying to find a way out on foot. To the world of mixed martial arts, the 37 year old Tanner was the former middleweight UFC champion. To me, he was much, much more.
It’s not by chance that a Pearl Jam song would make me think of Tanner. The last entry in his blog told how he was listening to Eddie Vedder while he was preparing for a trip into the desert: a spiritual pilgrimage to try to rid himself of the demons that had been haunting him all his life. “Off He Goes”, in particular, seems the perfect song for Tanner, a man whose overabundant personality seems to be made to be celebrated by Eddie Vedder’s melancholic voice. When Vedder sings “It’s like his thoughts are too big for his size”, it’s as if he was speaking of Evan Tanner. It would be difficult, in fact, to come up with a better epitaph for a man like Tanner; somebody in whose veins run emotions too powerful to allow him a normal life. Whereas most human beings have an emotional range that goes from –1 when they are sad and depressed to +1 when they are overwhelmed with joy, Tanner switches from –10 to +10. For some odd reason, he was born different. From the start, destiny prepared for him a path made of broken hearts and triumphs—a wild ride that sees him homeless and alcoholic as well as UFC world champion. For any other athlete in combat sports, winning the UFC belt would be the goal of a lifetime. For Tanner, it’s barely more than a step along the way. Tanner, after all, ended up being a professional fighter almost by chance. Fighting for him is only a way to challenge his limits and forge his spirit, but his world is much, much bigger than than competitive sports.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately—wrote Henry David Thoreau—to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Imagine taking Thoreau’s spirit, put it in the body of a cagefighter, and maybe we can begin to get a sense of who Evan Tanner was.
His journey begins in Amarillo, Texas, on February 11, 1971. Since he was a child, Tanner doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the typical Texan. In school, he often remains silent, very quite, and extremely independent—certainly not one of the popular kids. Even his friends find him a bit weird. As Nietzsche would put it, “wild and foreign even to those who love you”. Growing up in Texas must not have been easy for a hypersensitive guy like him. Maybe this is why Tanner often seeks solitude and quietude.
In high school, however, something changes. At 15, he begins to wrestle. Contrary to nearly all his teammates, he has never wrestled before, but his talent is undeniable. The lack of experience doesn’t prevent him from becoming state champion for two consecutive years. When he walks through the halls in school, no one takes notice of him, but any time he steps on the mat everyone’s eyes are on him.
He reminds me of the Lakota hero Crazy Horse. Pathologically shy, Crazy Horse didn’t speak much. His voice was often barely more than a whisper. And he showed little interest for the things that filled the dreams of his friends. Most of the time, he is on his own. His weird behavior pushes other Lakota to nickname him “Our Strange Man”. It would be easy to ignore him or treat him like a nutcase but Crazy Horse—like Tanner—possesses an unbelievable power. Since he was young, any time he went to battle against rival tribes or the U.S. Army, Crazy Horse was invincible. Bullets would fly all around him and he would barely take notice. While everyone else dove for cover, Crazy Horse would regularly charge the enemy to rescue fallen friends. The other Lakota couldn’t help but take notice of his unexplainable, disturbing skills: he was a fighting demon who was never introduced to fear. And the same goes for Tanner. He was weird—no doubt about it. No one can understand what forces move inside of him, but everyone realizes he has access to extraordinary abilities.
After high school, his college life is quickly over—not because he lacks the grades for it (on the contrary, he makes the Dean’s Honor List), but because he doesn’t feel stimulated enough. Academic schooling doesn’t feed his restless soul: too abstract, too intellectual, too many useless notions and not enough warmth, epic challenges, life.
After a long list of odd jobs, in 1997 Tanner decides to use his wrestling experience making his debut for a local MMA promotion called Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation (USWF). Like most of his other choices, this one is not the result of a well thought of plan. He just thinks it would be a great adventure. Why not? Fighting against other touch Texans in a ring placed in the middle of a rodeo arena, usually used for cattle sales, seems to him like an experience not to be missed. His plan is to enter the tournament and then retire. He has no intention of turning fighting into a profession. Things don’t pan out that way, though. Tanner wins the tournament defeating three opponents in one night (including future heavyweight contender Paul Buentello), The audience loves Tanner so USWF calls him again to fight a championship match against future UFC and Pride star Heath Herring.
Things are getting serious here. Wrestling and athletic talent only go so far. Maybe—Tanner thinks—it would be a good idea to learn how to fight for real. The logical next step would be to join a martial arts camp, but logic is not high on Tanner’s priority list. What he does instead is precisely what any martial arts expert tells you not to do. He buys some DVDs and attempts to learn fighting by trying the moves on a friend in his living room. Like everyone knows, no one can learn just by watching videos. This is absolutely true for 99% of human beings but Tanner doesn’t belong to that 99%. This, after all, is the same man who learned how to learned how to re-plumb a house from reading a book at the library. His photographic memory allows him to remember anything he sees. He just needs to observe a technique a couple of times and soon enough he can executes it perfectly.
This impossible talent, that permits him to excel quickly in ways that normal people can only achieve thanks to years of hard work, does nothing to lessen his sense of alienation. If anything, it makes things worse. Like Crazy Horse, Tanner can do things that no common mortal can dream of, but this is a blessing and a curse at the same time. What makes him special is the same thing that condemns him to loneliness, even when he is surrounded by people who love him. No one, in fact, fully understands the dark forces lodged in his heart. Maybe this is what attracts the demons who will follow him for the rest of his life. In order to keep the demons at bay, and to overcome his akwardness in social situations, Tanner starts drinking heavy.
Despite the alcohol, Tanner gets back in the ring, and defeats Herring finding himself a champion of a sport in which he is self-taught. In the following years, he’ll defend his USWF title seven times without ever needing the judges’ assistance to win: all his USWF matches end by submission or KO.
Just to make things more interesting, when Japan calls, Tanner packs his bags and goes fighting for the Japanese organization Pancrase where he’ll defeat rising stars such as Ikuhisa Minowa, Ryushi Yanagisawa and Kiuma Kunioku. Tales of his success attract the attention of the UFC. So in 1999 Tanner debuts for the organization that will make him famous. After three consecutive wins, he finds himself fighting for the light-heavyweight title against Tito Ortiz: not bad for a guy who learned everything he knows by books and dvds! The dvds, however, are not enough to beat Ortiz who knocks Tanner out with a brutal slam. The defeat doesn’t stop Tanner who goes on to win three more fights before losing to future champion Rich Franklin.
At this juncture, it’s time to make a choice. Step one is the decision to join the legendary Team Quest, where Tanner will be able to train with champions like Randy Couture, Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland. Further, Tanner leaves the light heavyweight division (for which he was too small) and drops down to middleweight. In this division, he wins three consecutive fights (twice against Phil Baroni and once against Robbie Lawler) and earns himself a shot at the title against jiujitsu prodigy David Terrell. The demons, however, start screaming again and almost ruin everything. A disagreement with Team Quest induces Tanner to leave the team and go back to training on his own. Troubled romantic relationships push him back into drinking heavy. The title match is only two months away and Tanner is drinking so much that he can no longer keep food down. Physically, he is in horrible shape. With a titanic effort of the will, Tanner temporarily quits drinking and begins again training like a madman. Somehow, he manages to get back in perfect shape just in time to beat Terrell and become world champion. The title doesn’t stay with him long since his old nemesis—Rich Franklin—takes it away from him despite a heroic performance by Tanner. A couple of fights later, Tanner leaves the UFC. No one who drinks so much can keep competing at such a high level.
For two years, Tanner disappears from the mixed martial arts world, but legions of fan follow his adventures through his blog, where he tells with alarming honesty everything that happens to him. In early 2008, after kicking the bottle for good, Tanner attempts a very unlikely comeback to the UFC. Yushin Okami, however, is there to block his path. As Tanner will later tell, the true battle is fought after he loses in the ring. The temptation to dive back in the bottle, in fact, is insanely strong, but in what he considers the toughest challenge of his life Tanner finds the willpower not to give in to the demons.
A few months later, Tanner embarks on his last trip. In his last entries in his blog, he tells of wanting to go to the desert to cleanse himself spiritually of everything that he had had to endure in the previous years. With hindsight, the blog offers disturbing passages. Tanner freely admits that what he has in mind is an extreme adventure that could kill him. In an eerie coincidence, Tanner tells he prepares for the trip while listening to a song by Eddie Vedder taken from the soundtrack of “Into the Wild”, the movie about the life of Christopher McCandless, a young man who, inspired by Thoreau’s writings, ventured out in the Alaskan wilderness and ended up dying there. After directly mentioning McCandless, Tanner reassures his fans that he has no intention of meeting the same end. Destiny, however, has different plans. Tanner will die exactly like McCandless: killed by the nature he loves so much.
The loss of a great athlete is always sad, but the collective mourning in the MMA world reflects something deeper. What his fans love is Tanner the man even before Tanner the UFC champion. Fighting for him was only a way to touch as many people as possible, share his philosophy and inspire people he may have otherwise never met. “Believe in the power of one” was his creed. Changing oneself and the world, one person at a time, was his mission.
Considering what happened to him, it would be easy to file his passion under the heading “romantic bullshit”. It would be easy to feel pity for him, but Tanner would have none of that. As he wrote, “Now you may ask if I regret it, if I would do it differently if I could, if I would take it back. NOT A CHANCE!!!!! I went for it. I put it all on the line. I always will. I knew what the consequences would be if I failed, and I was willing to accept them. So any of you reading who might be feeling a twinge of sympathy, don’t. I made my decisions, and I accept the consequences. I’m no victim. And to those who are thinking about preaching at me, don’t bother. I won’t hear you. I haven’t accomplished anything in this life worth remembering by playing it safe. That’s boring to me anyway.”
Evan Tanner surely was not perfect, neither as a fighter nor as a man. But his irrepressible drive and his incredible heart are greater than any sterile perfection. No regrets, no complaints. The only thing Tanner made room for is a great desire to taste life in all of its intensity, even when it makes you shed tears of blood. How can we not love such a man?