Evan Tanner 1971-2008

On what will unquestionably be remembered as one of mixed martial arts’ saddest days, former UFC middleweight champion Evan Tanner - beloved by fans for his fighting ability and by friends for his free spirit – has passed away at the age of 37.
By Thomas Gerbasi

“I believe there are people out there that just have a warrior spirit, whether it’s fighting or something, they’ve got to do it. It’s hard to identify with me; it’s just something I do.”
---Evan Tanner, 2005

On what will unquestionably be remembered as one of mixed martial arts’ saddest days, former UFC middleweight champion Evan Tanner - beloved by fans for his fighting ability and by friends for his free spirit – has passed away at the age of 37.

Tanner, on a camping trip in the Palo Verde mountain area, was found by an Imperial County Sheriff’s Department Deputy on Monday. The cause of death is not known at this time. He had not answered friends’ text messages since last Wednesday, and was officially reported missing on Friday.

On his personal Spike TV web blog, Tanner discussed the trip and how a failure of equipment could be fatal, but in a subsequent blog, he downplayed such fears, writing, “It seems some MMA websites have reported on the story, posting up that I might die out in the desert, or that it might be my greatest opponent yet, etc. Come on guys. It's really common down in southern California to go out to the off road recreation areas in the desert about an hour away from LA and San Diego. So my plan is to go out to the desert, do some camping, ride the motorcycle, and shoot some guns. Sounds like a lot of fun to me. A lot of people do it. 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.”

His agent, John Hayner, says that Tanner was excited about the trip and in a good place physically and mentally before his untimely death.

“He was in a good state of mind the last time we spoke,” said Hayner. “Everyone that was around him, and even at the gym he was training at, also said he was in a great state of mind. Living in Oceanside (California), he really liked being on the beach. His house was across from the water, he was in beautiful surroundings.”

If one thing was ever clear about Tanner, it was that he loved life, the outdoors, and adventure.

“He was always planning on going on some sort of adventure,” said Hayner. “And he never needed the finer things or made a fuss about them. He just needed enough for gas, shelter, and training.”

A native of Amarillo, Texas, Tanner worked various jobs as a bouncer, a cable TV contractor, a framer building beach houses, a dishwasher, a baker, a ditch digger, and a slaughterhouse worker before stumbling on to mixed martial arts in 1997.

Over the next 11 years, fighting would be a major part of his life, to the tune of 42 professional bouts, but as he said earlier this year before what would be his final bout against Kendall Grove, he never considered himself a fighter.

“I always thought of myself as the poet, the writer, or the philosopher – I never thought of myself as a fighter,” he chuckled. “But here I am. I always had an idea of the flow of my life, but not exactly what I would be doing day to day. And fighting definitely wasn’t something I thought I’d be doing.”

But he was good at it – very good in fact. Over the course of his career, Tanner (34-8) scored wins over Paul Buentello, Heath Herring, Ikuhisa Minowa, Justin McCully, Elvis Sinosic, Phil Baroni (twice), and Robbie Lawler. His biggest win, however, came at UFC 51 on February 5, 2005, when he stopped David Terrell in the first round to win the UFC middleweight championship.

Tanner would lose the belt to Rich Franklin in his first defense four months later, but the fans never abandoned him, and he returned that admiration, both in person and through his internet blogs.

“I wanted to give something back to the fans and let them know that I’m just a regular guy,” said Tanner in early 2008. “Some of the guys forget that and get caught up in the lights, and I never want to forget that and that I’m one of the lucky ones that got a chance to get out there and do this. There are a lot of great athletes out there, a lot of great fighters that never got the chance. I’m one of the lucky ones that did, so writing the blog and telling life as it is helps me stay grounded and it gives me a way to connect with the fans and give them something back.”

His blogs were more than just fight talk and product advertisements though. Tanner spoke frankly about life and his struggles in and out of the Octagon. And when he made his return to the UFC in 2008 after almost two years away, it was a triumph of the human spirit and an inspiration, regardless of whose hand was raised at the end of the fight.

“My thought was that I’m in a position where I’ve done some things and some people look up to me a little bit and maybe something in my story can help inspire them or motivate them to get through some things or do something better,” said Tanner before his return against Yushin Okami at UFC 82 in March. “If that’s the case and it helps anybody else out, then it’s worth me facing the embarrassment.”

He fell short in his final two bouts against Okami and Grove, but there was no keeping him down, and his off-time after the Grove bout was filled with more of his adventures, as well as participation in Harley-Davidson’s 105th anniversary celebration.

Sadly, there will be no more adventures, only memories of Evan Tanner.

“Evan was such a unique individual, and he was okay being an individual,” said Hayner. “He was okay with taking the path less traveled, and he often chose that harder path.”

It was simply who he was. Just read the words he spoke to me before I wished him luck for his fight against Grove in June.

“Everything’s been about the journey,” he said. “I never really set out with goals for fighting; it’s been about the adventure along the way. When you’re on your death bed, it’s those stories, those little adventures that are going to be the things that you remember. It’s not so much getting there, but how you got there.”

And he did it his way.

Leave it to me as I find a way to be
Consider me a satellite, forever orbiting
I knew all the rules, but the rules did not know me
Guaranteed
---Eddie Vedder, “Guaranteed”. The song playing on Evan Tanner’s myspace page.

Rest in Peace, Evan.

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