Evan Tanner Documentary 'Once I Was a Champion' Released Online

Matt Molgaard@MattmolgaardCorrespondent IIIJanuary 5, 2013

Danny Melby, Evan Tanner, Matt Molgaard. Photo courtesy of Danny Melby.
Danny Melby, Evan Tanner, Matt Molgaard. Photo courtesy of Danny Melby.

If you’ve been following the sport of mixed martial arts for more than four or five years, you’re more than likely familiar with the storied career of the late, great Evan Tanner.

Tanner entered the sport in 1997 of his own desire (with a little influence from close friends), having never trained extensively with any MMA camp. He studied Gracie jiu-jitsu videos and learned the art of the submission at home, in his garage. His competitive drive and pure will to win, however, enabled him to reach heights that now seem borderline preposterous.

Evan took his first professional fight at the Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation’s fourth event. An unknown entrant in the evening’s tournament, Tanner stunned the hometown crowd by defeating Mike Kennedy, Gary Nabors and Paul Buentello to sweep the evening’s tournament. He finished all three opponents and clocked just 6:11 of combat time.

He returned at Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation 7, where he won his first official title by defeating the significantly larger Heath Herring. Tanner would go on to accumulate more monumental accolades, as he became the first American to win the Pancrase Neo-Blood Tournament in 1998. Again, he tore through the competition, compiling four submission victories in Japan.

Evan’s success overseas, coupled with his dominating run in the USWF earned him an invite from the UFC, the world’s premiere mixed martial arts promotion, and he made the best of it. During his 17-fight UFC career, Evan secured 11 victories and captured the middleweight championship in the process after battering the highly touted prospect David Terrell.

Tanner’s subsequent career trajectory was a bit rocky.

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He dropped four of his next five fights and incorporated a two-year hiatus from the sport during that stretch. His exploits away from the cage became that of legend, as he embarked on a journey to “find himself” (as he described to me personally), which ultimately led to extended trips into the wilderness, failed boating excursions and a brief battle with alcoholism.   

Through it all Evan maintained a positive outlook on life, determined to return to fighting glory and rediscover the success he’d wrangled in the early years of his career.

Sadly, fate would intervene in the cruelest of manners. Another trek into the wild—this time a trip into the Southern California desert—would prove fatal. Out of water and fuel for his motorcycle, Evan died in the scorching sun, just miles from his campsite. He was 37 years old.

Since his death, many fantastic fighters have come and gone, but few leave the impression that Tanner managed. I can say with complete honesty that he was an incredibly deep thinker who carried a kind heart in his chest. He aimed to be remembered as a great man, not simply a great fighter, and to this day, I still consider my time with Evan a shining star in my career as a journalist.

The long anticipated documentary (which went into production shortly after Evan’s passing), “Once I Was a Champion” hit the Internet Saturday and can be found on Amazon Instant Video. A tearjerker to the greatest extreme, this film sheds some light on Evan Tanner and who he was as a man as well as a fighter. It is, in short, a must watch, but not for MMA fanatics exclusively: It’s a brilliant piece of work for anyone who fancies film in general.

Roxburgh Films released the Tough Crowd/Tapout picture, which was directed by Gerard Roxburgh.

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