The tragic tale of Evan Tanner (cont.)
It was the spring of 1997 when Evan Tanner caught wind of the announcement: A fight promoter was staging a tournament in Tanner's hometown of Amarillo, Texas. The eight-man competition would be held in an old B-52 bomber hangar that had been turned into a rodeo arena. The fighting style was early mixed martial arts -- essentially No Holds Barred -- and the winner-take-all prize was $500. As friends goaded him to enter, Tanner, then 26, shrugged. Why the hell not?
After all, Tanner accumulated new experiences the way other people collected stamps or coins. He was also a natural athlete: After taking up wrestling as a sophomore at Caprock High, he had won the Texas state championship his junior and senior seasons. Smart and strikingly handsome, he could have been the classic popular jock, but Caprock classmates recall him as a proud loner, a quiet kid with few friends and a tendency to get lost in his head. His parents were divorced, and he was close to neither. His mother and stepfather, pious Jehovah's Witnesses, had once moved Tanner and his three siblings to a ranch in Arkansas to wait out the End of Days. Tanner's father lived outside of Texas, and during high school Tanner stayed with his older brother, Jeff. After graduating in 1989 he enrolled at a small college in Iowa on a wrestling scholarship and made the dean's list, but school bored him and he abruptly dropped out in his freshman year.
He spent the first half of his 20s drinking a lake's worth of beer and going on spontaneous trips -- camping or snowboarding, often by himself -- subsidized by a variety of jobs. By turns he worked in a slaughterhouse, laid cable, washed dishes, poured concrete, installed drywall, taught skiing and prepped salads. Before the Amarillo fights Tanner bought a few books and videos on Brazilian jujitsu and taught himself chokes and submissions -- the underpinnings, so to speak, of MMA. On the night of the fights, as a few friends and his girlfriend, Danita Drown, the daughter of the local Harley-Davidson dealer, looked on, Tanner used his innate athleticism and a series of slick moves to punish three opponents, the last of whom, Paul Buentello, was a friend and high school classmate. For Tanner the night turned out to be more than a little adventure. It was a new line of work.
The emerging sport of MMA gave former karate kids and college wrestlers a new outlet for their skills. Tanner was the accidental fighter, almost embarrassed by his success and the violence it entailed. He combined his wrestling prowess with uncommon toughness and a knack for exploiting his opponent's tactical errors. After the Amarillo bouts he continued fighting and winning, and he traveled as far as Japan to traffic in mayhem. In 1999, after his record reached 17-1, he joined the UFC, the premier MMA organization.
Tanner enjoyed the strategic battles with his opponents, but he derived little enjoyment from putting them "to sleep" with chokeholds or pulping their faces with kicks and punches. Fighting, he once wrote on a blog, "is not who I am, it's not how I define myself. It's just something I do. There are many other ... paths I could be walking, but fighting is what the fates put before me. There is an ultimate purpose to it."
Specifically, he believed that fighting afforded him a platform to spread his message, which he called Belief in the Power of One. Shortly before his death, Tanner explained it this way: "It's not a self-glorifying thing, it's not, 'Hey look at me, believe in me.' It's a belief that one person can change the world. ... Your words and actions resonate eternally." Basically it meant helping other people -- in Tanner's case, mentoring younger fighters, counseling both friends and strangers in crisis, and at one point attempting to start a foundation for underprivileged MMA prospects.
Even as he rose in his new sport, Tanner continued to drink heavily. He did nothing to hide his alcoholism; at one training site he covered a wall of his residence with beer cans he'd drained. And he continued to take off on spontaneous, sometimes ill-advised adventures, leaving town with only vague indications of his destination. He once ignored weather advisories and rode his Harley-Davidson out of a training site in Oregon in a snowstorm, bound for Amarillo. It reminded friends of the time he had hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-river and back in the same day simply because a sign warned against it; he made it but nearly died of dehydration.
In 2001 Tanner drove a truck from Amarillo back to Oregon after his license had been revoked for driving under the influence. Riding through Idaho, he witnessed a fatal highway crash and performed CPR on the doomed victim until the police arrived. According to Danita, when a cop asked to see Tanner's license, the fighter explained his regrettable situation; the officer decided to look the other way as Tanner drove off.
Tanner was one of the few MMA fighters who didn't give himself a nickname, but his friends called him Evan Jack Sparrow, a nod to the buccaneer played by Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. "Evan was always pushing life," says Buentello, who would also become a prominent MMA fighter. "Just a modern-day hippie who lived on his own terms." Tanner was the rare cage fighter who listed Pride and Prejudice and The Brothers Karamazov alongside The Art of War among his favorite books. For one fight he would braid his hair; for the next, he'd grow a beard that would shame Grizzly Adams; for a third he'd wear his hair in cornrows or a samurai-style topknot. Every look, he explained, represented a new direction in his life.
These sensibilities made him a wildly popular fighter with the UFC's growing fan base of young men. Though Tanner was a self-described "minimalist" who sometimes felt he'd been born in the wrong century -- his only possession beyond the bare necessities was a collection of antique dictionaries -- he mastered social networking in the Internet age. Distant and awkward as he could be in person, he blazed to life when he corresponded with fans on his MySpace page. He was also a serial blogger. As he once put it on his site evantanner.net, "Sometimes when I write, it's like I'm reaching out to an old friend without a name or a face."