Sherdog has a wrap-up of what they consider the top MMA stories of the 2000’s. Here’s number 8:
8. The Death of Evan Tanner (2008)
Heath Herring once told me that, while mired in the Texas circuit, he came out for a fight with Evan Tanner in a ring set up over a dirt-encrusted rodeo floor. A year later, Tanner was in Japan and Pancrase. A year after that, he was in the UFC. For a man who started learning the intricacies of submission fighting through videotapes, eventually achieving a winning stretch in the UFC that culminated with a middleweight title in 2005, he was a better fighter than he probably had any right to be.
As he got older and fell in and out of shape, Tanner took to posting bizarre confessionals online, writing candidly about his issues with alcohol and diluting motivation. Seeing him in a Grizzly Adams beard, pickaxe slung over his shoulder, you got the sense that he wanted out of his own skin.
Tanner was found dead in September 2008, victim of extraordinary heat conditions during an ill-planned trek through Southern California desert territory. His sport had never really known tragedy in a face so familiar to them; the morbid nature of his death brought up issues about whether athletes were being as psychologically battered as they were physically — whether some hike so far away from their sense of self-preservation that they never find their way back home.
Evan Tanner was a fighter very near to my heart. Here’s part of the eulogy I wrote when he passed:
Evan Tanner was more than one of my favorite fighters, he was a home town hero and a much-admired kindred spirit.
I only got to see him fight live twice, once in Amarillo in 1998 and his UFC debut in 1999. But I followed his career closely from the beginning, always proud of the home-town boy who taught himself jiu jitsu from some VHS tapes and went on to win the UFC championship belt and become a champion in Japan.
I only got to meet Evan once, shaking his hand and back slapping him in a parking lot in Amarillo, Texas after seeing him absolutely dominate an overmatched opponent. But I was more impressed by the way Tanner showed his respect for the guy after the match, raising his arm, talking to everyone in his corner, clearly Tanner saw the man as a brother warrior and not as prey.
That was one thing I always admired about Tanner. He fought for the challenge. He fought to test himself. He was always generous and friendly to opponents. He didn’t fight from anger or hatred. He fought as a positive force, a lone man testing himself against the universe. Sadly, that’s how he died, too. But he’s not alone anymore, now he’s part of that infinity he sought.
I hate to see Evan defined as a cautionary tale for MMA fighters, but it’s hard to argue that MMA was a big part of the crooked path that led him to an early and needless death.
Evan’s not the only MMA fighter to meet a tragic end — the deaths of Justin Eilers and Justin Levens can’t really be discussed without considering the role of MMA in their fates. And those are just the ones who’ve died. Living casualties like Mark Kerr, Karo Parisyan, and Drew Fickett are also warnings to any young athlete considering going down this road.
It’s not just MMA though, as the sad tale of NFL veteran Dave Pear attests. All high impact sports take a brutal toll on the athletes, including boxing and pro wrestling. As fans we owe it to the fighters to be aware of the high risks and high costs of pursuing the sport we love.
In the full entry is a video of his legendary early fight with Heath Herring in Amarillo, Texas, a fight I had the honor of seeing live back in the day. It was also the basis for my first ever MMA History post here on BE.
About the author