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Posted: Wednesday January 14, 2009 11:30AM; Updated: Wednesday January 14, 2009 3:45PM
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The tragic tale of Evan Tanner

Story Highlights

UFC champ Evan Tanner, 37, died in September of heat exposure

Tanner was attempting to drive his motorcycle through the Colorado desert

Tanner was a deep thinker, a loner and lived an unconventional life

By Ethan Todras-Whitehill and Jon Wertheim

With toughness and skills he learned as a wrestler, Evan Tanner won the UFC middleweight title in 2005.

The Colorado Desert is seven million acres of scorched earth in the southeast corner of California, along the borders of Mexico and Arizona. Evan Tanner arrived there around noon on Sept. 3 after riding his motorcycle 200 miles east from his home in Oceanside. Ducking under the gnarled branches of ironwood trees, he turned off the road and into the mountains, up one of the many washes carved by flash floods. He found the spot he'd pinpointed days earlier using Google Earth and parked his bike on a starkly beautiful plateau above the wash. He set up a cot and folding canvas chair facing a sea of pebbly mounds dotted with creosote bushes, and then he put up his shelter, a beige nylon tarp held up by metal poles -- critical protection from the sun on a day the temperature reached 117.

This expedition into the desert had been well publicized. Tanner, a popular mixed martial artist in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), had been chronicling his preparations on a UFC-related blog on the Spike television network's Web site. His description of the trip and its dangers had drawn attention and criticism on other MMA sites, prompting Tanner to post, "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."

On Sept. 4, his second day alone in the desert, Tanner set out on foot for Clapp Spring, a small oasis roughly five miles away, to replenish his water supply. But the terrain was harsh, with weathered basalt outcroppings and steep gravelly hills that absorbed and amplified the heat like a Dutch oven. Tanner had no map -- only a GPS -- so he climbed the mountains in his path instead of going around them. By a local miner's estimate, the temperature approached 130 in the sun, so hot that Tanner's sweat likely evaporated as it left his pores.

Tanner reached Clapp Spring, where bighorn sheep and wild burros once went to drink in the shade of California fan palms, but he found it empty. The main pool had dried up to the size of a napkin, two inches deep and filled with slime.

On his iPhone, he called and texted a friend and said that he'd wait until nightfall to return to his shelter. If no one heard from him the next morning, the friend should alert the authorities.

That night, out of water on the hike back from Clapp Spring, Tanner squatted to rest in a ravine barely wide enough for his 6-foot frame. In heat that still exceeded 90, he collapsed on his side beneath the waxing harvest moon. He was in peak physical condition, 200 pounds of well-defined muscle, only months removed from his last UFC bout. But in fight terms, Tanner versus the Colorado Desert was a brutal mismatch. By the early morning of Sept. 5, a little more than a mile from his campsite, he was dead from heat exposure. He was 37 years old.

Even in a sport that sneers at convention, Tanner was a singular figure, known as much for his fierce individuality as for his fighting prowess. Before his trip, the MMA Internet subculture had crackled with speculation about why he was headed to the desert. Some cynics, noting Tanner's faltering UFC comeback after two years away from the sport, his ominous blog posts about the excursion and his longtime struggles with alcoholism, concluded that he was on a suicide mission. Others believed he was venturing into the desert for spiritual reasons. Some of his friends simply assumed that it was just another one of his whimsical walkabouts.

They all were wrong.

Where Evan Tanner's body was found in relation to the campsite and Clapp Spring.


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