The tragic tale of Evan Tanner (cont.)
In 2002 Tanner moved to Gresham, Ore., to train with Team Quest, a fighter camp then co-managed by Randy Couture, the longtime UFC heavyweight champ, and Matt Lindland, an '00 Olympic wrestling medalist and subsequent UFC star. At first Tanner moved in with Couture. "The first thing Evan did was join a book club," recalls Couture. "I was happy to have him [at my home], but it was clear he was uncomfortable depending on someone else." Within weeks Tanner had moved into an eight-foot trailer behind the gym. Then he bought a small home in Troutdale, Ore.
Mostly by dint of his physical fitness and mental strength, the accidental fighter kept winning. By 2005 Tanner was the UFC's middleweight champion. That summer he signed to defend his belt in Atlantic City against Rich Franklin, a Jim Carrey look-alike who'd been a math teacher in Ohio before discovering MMA. An added bonus: The winner of the fight would earn a starring role on The Ultimate Fighter, a reality show on the Spike network. Franklin kneed and elbowed Tanner until his face looked as though it had gone through a meat grinder, and the fight was called in the fourth round. Devastated by the loss, Tanner returned to Oregon and resumed drinking, which he had stopped during training.
According to Lindland, the other Team Quest fighters staged several interventions, to no avail. Shortly thereafter Tanner left Team Quest.
He fought a few months later in Las Vegas and lost again. He returned home late in 2005 to find that, exasperated with his egotistic and self-destructive ways, Danita had taken most of the furniture and moved out. They would never speak again.
Tanner told friends that he sat on the floor in the empty house and drank for a week, drank past hunger, drank until the lights outside blurred and flashed before his eyes like Fourth of July sparklers.
In March 2006, in what would be his last fight for two years, Tanner won a first-round submission victory over Justin Levens (who, ironically, would die along with his girlfriend in November '08 in what is being investigated as a murder-suicide). In his time away from the sport, Tanner roamed the country, passing through Death Valley, Yosemite, Atlantic City, Hawaii and places in between, still drinking heavily. Out of work and out of money, he moved from place to place and woman to woman. "There were so many problems in my personal life -- women, drinking, finances, ways of thinking, all which kept me a fraction of my true self," he wrote in a blog post about that lost time. "I had to burn some things out of my system, I had to catch my breath."
Finally, with the mental toughness that had made him a great fighter, Tanner set a date to quit drinking: Oct. 10, 2007. According to friends at the time, he stuck to it. No AA, no higher power -- just a date. To hear Tanner tell it, his drinking problem had been intentional, part of a quest he began in his early 20s to learn compassion by accepting a great weakness in himself.
"I decided to become an alcoholic," he wrote in '05. "I had to force myself to drink. It took years of this for my body to finally gain the addiction, the craving ... I would lose the respect of many ... but I was willing to face all of that for the sake of what I had to gain, these things that would make me a better man in the future."
This, of course, sounds delusional. "I thought it was the biggest cop-out," says Tanner's half-sister, Paige Craig. "It was the most lame justification for wallowing in something that's unhealthy." But even in quitting, Tanner stuck to his story. He claimed he had accomplished what he had wanted to with his drinking, and he stopped cold. And for the 11 months that followed, Tanner was the man he had always hoped to be.
In November 2007 he signed a new four-fight deal with the UFC. He moved to Las Vegas to train. Uncomfortable seeking commercial sponsorships, as most UFC fighters do, he asked his army of web-based fans to contribute a few bucks and join Team Tanner. Meanwhile, he convinced an old fighter friend from Amarillo, Brent Medley, to give up his car sales job, come train with him and make his own MMA comeback. Medley came expecting to learn MMA from Tanner but wound up also listening to his eclectic philosophies. "It was like living with the Dalai Lama for nine months," says Medley.
Tanner reconnected with other friends like Johnny Hannay, an old high school classmate who was in the throes of a divorce, calling Hannay daily to make sure he was O.K. Tanner flew to Ottawa to work the corner of Ian Dawe, a young fighter he had befriended in 2003 through MySpace. As he had done sporadically over the years, Tanner showed up when friends needed him most, set them in the right direction and disappeared again, like a red-bearded Mary Poppins.
Tanner also started to devote more attention to his intellectual pursuits. After a brutal loss to Yushin Okami in March 2008, Tanner seemed unperturbed. Outside the dressing room he told a reporter that he was O.K. with losing because now he'd have more time to devote to his poetry, fiction and blogging.
A month later Tanner was trolling MySpace for travel blogs when he stumbled across the musings of Sara Tuominen, an Arabic linguist from Washington State who works for the U.S. government as a translator Iraq and Afghanistan, among other countries, and blogged about her experiences in Saudi Arabia. From late June until Tanner's desert trip, their MySpace message correspondence ran longer than some novellas. "Are you aware it's now 6:30 a.m., the sun has risen and we've stayed up all night?" Sara wrote after the first of many long exchanges. He wrote back, "I feel so wild and free."
As part of his growing interest in Sara, Tanner became engrossed in one of her hobbies: treasure hunting. He started researching the desert east of his new home outside San Diego and discovered the 19th-century legend of Peg Leg Smith's lost gold, nuggets strewn atop a desert butte. Tanner decided to make a series of trips into the desert -- the first alone, the next with Sara. Through a combination of Internet research and perusal of satellite maps, he settled on a campsite near Clapp Spring, whose water he planned to use over several days in the wilderness.
On his Spike blog, Tanner mentioned his planning for the adventure but claimed that his goals were not material. "I'll have to portray our adventure as spiritual in nature, to avoid being institutionalized," he told Sara. On Aug. 20, two weeks before he left for the desert, Tanner wrote to her, "I can't help but wonder if symbolic treasure has already been found. If this shared adventure is a conscious manifestation of my own discovery of another brightly burning star, of a familiar soul. Underneath the desert sky, beneath a million shimmering stars I expect I'll find my answer."
It was too strong a belief in his Power of One that led to Tanner's death. A simple phone call or a visit to the nearby town of Palo Verde, and he would have learned that Clapp Spring was dried up. The authorities, alerted by one of Evan's neighbors, discovered his body on Monday, Sept. 8. As the news spread through the MMA community, it was met with sadness but not always surprise. "It was tragic but at the same time ... " says Couture, his voice trailing off. "Evan dying alone in the desert? That was fitting in a way."
Still, Tanner's death triggered an outpouring of grief surprising for a onetime champion years removed from his glory days. He inspired dozens of blog posts and YouTube videos that got an aggregate of around 300,000 views. His memorial site at evantanner.net displays nearly 2,000 comments and anecdotes.
One came from Dawe, the young fighter Tanner had met via MySpace and had mentored in the last years of his life. Soon after Tanner moved to Vegas in 2007, they decided to take a day off from training and climb the calcified Red Rocks sand dunes. On the ride over, Dawe admitted to Tanner that he was scared of heights. Climbing off the established trails, Dawe was barely able to keep pace with Tanner. When they reached the top, Tanner looked at him and announced that Dawe would be descending alone.
A few minutes of careful stepping brought Dawe to the edge of a precipice. The next ledge was 10 feet down, across a three-foot gap with a deep ravine below. Dawe searched but saw no other route, no other soul around. Then, out of nowhere, he heard a voice, "Just flow, Ian."
There he was, Evan Tanner, in a black hooded sweatshirt, standing on the ledge below, which a moment before had been vacant. Dawe jumped, landed safely and looked for his friend. But like a mirage in the desert, he was gone.
Tanner's camp site
Below is a Quicktime panorama of Evan Tanner's campsite. Use your mouse to get a 360-degree view.
MORE ON TANNER
GROSS: A tribute to Tanner
SPIKE: Tanner's blog
TANNER'S SITE: EvanTanner.net
Jon Wertheim's new book on the rise of the UFC is out this week. To buy a copy, go here.