May 2008

It Could Be Worse: Evan Tanner

Author: Craig Hysell

If given enough time on this planet, a man or woman is eventually going to look in the mirror at some point and ponder one of the most difficult questions in the universe, “Who am I?”

Are we the shallow visage of our material possessions? Are we our jobs? Our thoughts? Our family? Our words? Our friends?

Maybe we’re a little bit of all those things. Or maybe it’s much simpler than that. Maybe what it boils down to is that we are our actions. Especially when it couldn’t be worse; when we’re hanging on to that last rung of the ladder, our grip goes white with strain and our next choice determines whether we die in ignominy or not.

Evan Tanner
It’s February 5, 2005. David Terrell has just kicked Evan Tanner in the head. Tanner smiles. Evan Tanner is having the time of his life.

For the as yet uninitiated, The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the premier venue for athletes who compete in mixed-martial-arts (MMA) events. MMA fighters train in a variety of combat disciplines—boxing, wrestling, muy thai (striking with hands and legs, knees and elbows), judo and jiu-jitsu (submission wrestling)—then pit their skill and mettle against opponents in an eight-sided cage, known as The Octagon, for three five-minute rounds.

Fights, separated by weight class, are extremely exciting; often referred to as kinetic chess matches full of turmoil, courage and, to some, barbarism. Blood can be as much a by-product as a tool. Celebrities like Michael Clarke-Duncan and Kevin James sit ringside. Checkmates come in knock-outs, armbars and chokeholds.

In 2001, Zuffa LLC (“zuffa” is Italian for “brawl”) bought the then struggling UFC for $2 million. By 2006 the Las Vegas headquartered company broke the pay-per-view industry’s all time record for a single year of business with $222,766,000 in revenue. In 2008, Anheuser-Busch inked a deal to make Bud Light the official beer of the sport and the UFC can currently be seen in 36 countries.

To 33-year-old Tanner, though, none of that mattered. He was busy testing himself, fighting the young and explosive Terrell for the middleweight (185 pound) title. By the end of the first round, the championship belt was wrapped around Tanner’s waist. Four months later he would lose it in a tough and bloody fashion. After that, Evan Tanner, the humble guy with big heart, practically disappeared.

Tanner was born in February of 1971. A college drop-out, he never set out to be a fighter. In pretty much every way, he was just a searcher, educating himself through travel, literature and experience. Fighting was just “one more story” he could tell his children someday. But he was good at it. He could test his character and get paid. For Tanner, going into the wild meant stepping into a cage rather than reaching Alaska.

But Tanner also had a secret, a demon more brutal than any opponent he had ever faced in ring or Octagon. Evan Tanner was an alcoholic.

By October, 2007, Tanner had nearly drunk himself to death. His teeth were loose, his skin was yellow and his legs were retaining so much water from kidney failure that he could barely walk around. He had pretty much destroyed every relationship he had, including the one with his fiancé. He was living on a couch.

The former champ had a choice: fight his depression and change, or live on the street and be dead in a couple of years. He quit drinking and started training.

On March 1, 2008, Tanner returned to The Octagon in front of 16, 431 fans at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH. He would be fighting Yushin Okami, an experienced, tough, and intelligent competitor out of Japan. It was going to be a difficult comeback fight for Tanner.

In the second round, Okami caught Tanner with a knee to the head, dropped him and won the fight. Back in the locker room, beaten, with tears of disappointment in his eyes, just five months from almost being dead, Tanner had to make another choice. He felt like giving up. Quitting for good. The drink was calling him back. It was “The Test.” Who was he?

Tanner keeps a journal at www.evantanner.net, where he often eloquently, almost poetically, describes his thoughts and choices. He writes, after the fight, of getting nose to nose with his addiction to determine who would possess his soul. “There are moments in life when all that a man is, is put to the test. His strength, his honor, his fundamental character—it is all on the line. It is… the actions taken in these rare moments that define a man. Minutes or seconds that can shape the course of a man’s life.”

This summer, instead of drinking, Evan Tanner will continue fighting in the UFC. Because that’s what Tanner is. A fighter.

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