The people who knew him still think of him regularly. How can they not? He moved them closer to life's truths than anyone else. He pulled them in, taught them lessons, then disappeared. He made them feel alive. He challenged them to think deeper, look further, rise above. He broke their hearts, then showed them what true redemption was all about.
They remember him because one year later, the life of Evan Tanner still echoes.
His was always a life in motion, always a midnight inspiration away from the next town, the next challenge, the next adventure. It was a voyage born of a noble pursuit: wisdom. Tanner always wanted to learn. He wanted to be a force for positive change, to influence anyone who listened to him with knowledge culled from real-life experience.
To do this, he was willing to go further than anyone else. He got on his motorcycle and rode, by himself mostly, and in the freezing cold or searing heat. He lived up north, down south and points east and west. He worked a series of menial jobs. He hiked, surfed and camped. He fought in a cage. To truly learn something, after all, it was best to live it.
"Evan was kind of a scientist in that way," said his sister Paige Craig. "He never really wanted to take anything at face value. He always wanted to explore for the truth. That was the test of true intelligence... A quest for true understanding rather than simply accepting what you're given."
It was always that way for Tanner, from the time he was a brilliant, idealistic mind and a naturally gifted athlete at Caprock High School in Amarillo, Texas. He was a state champion wrestler and a record-breaking pole vaulter, and graduated with academic honors and scholarship offers. He dreamed of being an Olympian. He moved on to Simpson College in Iowa, and promptly made the Dean's List. He was so bright, in fact, that while at Simpson, he was in the process of applying for a transfer to Harvard with the ultimate goal of becoming a doctor.
But Tanner's life followed a different path. It always did, because there was always something new begging for his attention, something valuable to be learned around the next corner.
Through a series of realizations, he'd come to conclude that his voice would never be one of authority simply by absorbing lessons in a classroom. From now on, his learning would be active. It would be aggressive. And at times, it would be risky.
"If he had a question, he'd go find the answer," said Jason Leigh, a longtime friend from Amarillo. "It was through experiences. When he experimented with alcohol, he wanted to see how far he could go, because he couldn't understand how somebody could be so weak that they couldn't overcome something like that."
By now, everyone who follows mixed martial arts knows about Tanner's troubles with alcohol. He candidly and poignantly wrote about his struggles. But know this right now: when Tanner died in California's Palo Verdes Mountains, he was clean and sober. Had been for almost a year, and had done it on sheer willpower.
That made perfect sense to those that knew him best. He was a man of an iron will, and when engaged, had a singular-minded focus that few could match.
When it came to his fighting life, Tanner saw the endgame not as an athletic pursuit, but as the lives he could touch. People were always first and foremost on his mind, and thus began a love affair between Tanner and his fans.
Prior to his comeback fight against Yushin Okami in March 2008, Tanner – turned off by the sudden commercialism of MMA – decided to give a piece of the sport back to the diehards. He started "Team Tanner," a program that let fans comprise the majority of his sponsorship. Despite the fact that he wouldn't make nearly what he could from traditional sponsorships -- which were rising as the sport's profile exploded -- Tanner along with his friend Kyria Christison worked to raise money for his training costs while keeping connected to the people that mattered most to him.
While the concept was a hit with fans, it didn't cover his financial needs. Tanner, however, constantly tried adjusting the project to make it work.
"He was such an intelligent person. I think he was just too smart," Christison said. "Very intelligent people need to constantly challenge themselves, and I think that's how he was. He was always trying to find a way to make something better. He was never satisfied because his mind never shut off, it never stopped."
His mind and willpower were capable of great things, perhaps best illustrated by the night he won the UFC middleweight championship.
Just two months earlier, Tanner was back in Amarillo and drinking heavily when UFC matchmaker Joe Silva called to offer him the title bout. Some days, Tanner would drink so much that he'd simply forget to eat, and he was down to 175 pounds -- 10 below the middleweight limit and about 15-20 below his normal weight. After a day's reflection, Tanner decided to take the match. To him, it was not so much a title match as it was another adventure, another impossible challenge to conquer.
He quit drinking cold turkey, rode his motorcycle from Texas to Oregon in the dead of winter, stopping every so often to check into a motel and do plyometrics to get back into shape. Finally, after a few days, he returned to Portland and immediately began a hellish training program, working out multiple times a day to prepare for the bout.
By the time he stepped back into the octagon, he was clean, sober and strong. His face had gone from sunken to full, his body had rebounded and his eyes were full of life. To those who'd seen him two months ago, it was a miraculous turnaround. To those who hadn't, he looked like a powerhouse. Though Tanner was the underdog in the match, he stopped young phenom David Terrell in the first round to become the champion.
People who met Tanner later in life would hardly have known of his incredible achievements. He displayed no memorabilia, and rarely spoke of his fighting exploits. When prodded, he'd answer questions quickly and modestly -- some would say embarrassingly.
In October 2007, Tanner invited young Canadian fighter Ian Dawe to stay with him at his Las Vegas apartment and train with him. The two had known each other for a while, so Dawe wasn't surprised at Tanner's Spartan lifestyle. But even he was a bit taken aback by Tanner's humility when he learned Tanner kept his UFC title belt in a box in the garage.
"Most of what we talked about was life," Dawe said. "We touched on MMA, but not a lot. He was a world champ, and most champs live and breathe their sport, but not him. For him, it was just something he did. MMA for the most part was the last thing on his mind."
***Tanner's mind was always working. He was always thinking, pondering, plotting. He studied life a la carte. He read books, watched educational programs, and talked to people, pulling the best parts of each into his mind.
He didn't discriminate in who he learned from, or how he learned it.
When he went overseas to fight in Japan, he took a subway as far as it would go, got off and explored for hours with no map and no destination. In fighting, he famously prepared for his first match by watching jiu-jitsu tapes. He once re-plumbed his entire house after reading a book on plumbing. His dictionary collection was among his most cherished possessions.
His mind was a sponge.
UFC middleweight Nate Quarry remembers that shortly after Tanner joined Team Quest in 2001, Tanner had a match with Homer Moore, an excellent wrestler that was able to take Tanner down repeatedly in the first round. Tanner tried a series of triangle chokes to no avail. Between rounds, Quarry, who'd volunteered to corner Tanner after realizing he was essentially alone, told Tanner that Moore was too big to triangle, and that he should fake a triangle and transition into an arm bar.
"I don't know how to do that," Tanner said.
Indeed, though he was in his 27th pro fight and had 17 submission wins, not a single one was by arm bar.
"Just do it," Quarry said. Tanner thought for a moment, perhaps retrieving some knowledge deep in his mind, and went out to start the next round. Fifty-five seconds later, Tanner had his first arm bar submission win after faking a triangle.
"I knew for sure he was that intelligent of a guy that he'd do it when it came down to crunch time," Quarry said.
It was a mind constantly at work, mostly though, with ways to help others. That was a lifelong theme. When Tanner was a senior and the star athlete at Caprock High, he befriended Johnny Hannay, a shy junior who was often a target for bullying in the 1,500-person school. Not surprisingly, the bullying soon came to an end.
When Hannay joined the wrestling team, Tanner would often extend regular practice for an hour, helping Hannay drill moves.
"He kind of became a mentor, and very much like a big brother to me," Hannay said.
Tanner was always quick to help others. As gifts, he would often give out books. On Feb. 15, 2003, in the midst of his UFC run, Tanner fought for free on a cancer benefit show to raise funds for the son of MMA fighter Josh Haynes. On Nov. 3, 2007, Tanner flew from Las Vegas to Forth Worth, Texas, volunteering to help build a children's playground despite having no ties to the area. When he moved from Portland, he held on to his house with dreams of making it a home for young adults interested in MMA. He started a support group on MySpace for people who like him, were dealing with addiction.
His primary tool for passing along lessons became his writing. Tanner kept journals, boxes of them, with his thoughts and hopes and plans for the future. Before Twitter gave athletes a painless way to communicate with fans in 140 characters, he started a popular blog that discussed his problems and issues at length. And he had scores of people writing him at any given time. Both Dawe and Christison, for example, started their friendships with Tanner through MySpace.
Sure, he had issues, but he would give the shirt off his back to somebody, and that's what inspired me about him.
- Michael Van Vliet
Tanner wrote prodigiously about his problems and about trying to fix them. It caused some backlash from those who thought he was glorifying drinking, but that was never his aim; he was always trying to teach.
"He'd get hate emails. 'I hope you die,' and that kind of stuff," Christison said. "But what I kept saying is, He doesn't want you to worship him. He made a mistake. He wants to write about it and get you to understand it so that you wouldn't make that mistake yourself."
Tanner was almost repulsed at the thought of being a celebrity. He liked being known, and that his platform gave him a means to communicate with people, but to him, "celebrity" had a negative connotation. To him, it meant that you were somehow more important than everybody else, and that was a notion he rejected.
What he could believe, however, was how much power a single individual could hold. "Believe in The Power of One" would become a phrase forever linked to Tanner. By that, he meant that if one person could have impact in reaching another, and that second party carried the message on, it would start a wave of energy in a positive direction.
"It grows exponentially. Even a smile is contagious," said Craig.
Tanner's theory reverberates today. Dawe had a man serving time in jail contact him to tell him that Tanner's words had caused him to reevaluate his choices. In the days after his death, on MMA message boards, fans promised to volunteer to charitable causes in Tanner's memory. Even today, fans are commemorating the first anniversary of his death by doing the same. Michael Van Vliet, a realtor from Kingman, Ariz., is one of those fans.
In Tanner's memory, Van Vliet is volunteering at a local homeless shelter.
"Out of the kindness of his heart, he helped build homes, he helped build playgrounds for kids and gave back to the community, which now that these mixed martial artists are making good money, I don't see a lot of them doing that," Van Vliet said. "Sure, he had issues, but he would give the shirt off his back to somebody, and that's what inspired me about him."
Tanner liked the feel of wind against his face, the sound of running water, the warm glow of the sun. And mostly, he liked the feeling of peace that came from surrounding himself with the elements.
"Whenever he would go out in the wilderness, he would find more purpose," Craig said. "He would pull energy from his environment rather than being distracted by the fears and hesitations of all the other people."
It was a belief reflected in his writing.
"And to think, there are still places in the world where man has not been, where he has left no footprints, where the mysteries stand secure, untouched by human eyes. I want to go to these places, the quiet, timeless, ageless places, and sit, letting silence and solitude be my teachers," Tanner wrote.
He was troubled by the problems he saw in the world: man's intolerance to each other; children growing up in poverty; misguided, materialistic values. Nature was the only place everything seemed to be in order.
Aaron Mello-Fisher and his wife Livia spent time in Tanner's last months talking to him about his humanitarian ideology. The documentary filmmakers, who are responsible for the "For A Better World" Tanner interview videos that were released days after his death, say they could see the weight of those thoughts on him.
"It's hard to find someone like Evan, who was an elite athlete on top of the world in some ways, but also dedicated to humanitarian ideas," said Aaron Mello-Fisher, who had a series of conversations with Tanner over two months before capturing one on video. "For Evan, it was heavy on his shoulders. It was a burden for him the world was like it is. The world needed so much fixing, it's so messed up. That would keep him up at nights."
The Mello-Fishers, in fact, chose Tanner as their first interview subject for a project featuring celebrities who are involved in social causes specifically because of his passion for changing the world. After Tanner passed away, they decided it would be wrong to archive the footage, and released it online.
"It was the most complete idealistic view of him," Aaron said. "We knew we had to put it out there even if it took away from our documentary. Basically, with him died all of those ideas he had, and all we had was that one interview. His ideas are great and should be heard by everyone."
But another thing that the Mello-Fishers and the rest of those close to Tanner want people to know is that Tanner had plans for life. He did not go to the desert to die. He wanted to write, he wanted to teach, he wanted to help youth. There were women he had interest in, and he still had the drive to return to the top of the MMA world. What would he do next? He was Evan Tanner; he was capable of anything.
After being sober for months, he'd taken another step in cleaning up his health; he had just seen a doctor and been prescribed medication to treat an ongoing physical condition that would cause his ankles to swell and kidneys to ache. Dawe says that Tanner never complained during training, but sometimes it was obvious he was in pain. Once, Tanner called him into the bathroom to show him something.
"His urine was like motor oil," Dawe said. "He was working hard, but something was still wrong. He didn't complain. He trained like a maniac through it."
But after fighting and losing to Kendall Grove, Tanner knew history had caught up with him. He rode his motorcycle to Portland to get a diagnosis and was happy to finally know the problem had a solution. His prescription was ready, awaiting his return. His trip to the desert had been planned for a while as a getaway, to reflect on the past and ponder the future. It had been researched. He'd taken a plan and provisions: gas, water, food, a cot and a tarp for cover.
Up until a day or two before he left, he was making Team Tanner plans with Christison. He'd planned to do more video interviews with the Mello-Fishers. He'd called Hannay about possibly hiking in Arizona's Superstition Mountains when he returned. The trip to the Palo Verdes was nothing more than another Tanner adventure.
Until it went wrong.
Tanner got in trouble when he hiked five miles from his base camp to a spring where he planned to add more water to his supplies. He'd prepared by checking satellite images, and pinpointed Clapp Springs as a water source. The image, however, was outdated, and when Tanner arrived, the spring was nothing more than a standing pool of sludge.
He rested beneath the shadow of a tree for hours before starting back for camp in the 115-degree heat. He never made it back. After hiking four miles back, dehydration and exposure wilted the same body that had once vanquished enough men to become a champion. He died with his head resting on a rock, surrounded by his beloved nature. He died searching for water, the purest sustainer of life.
"I think the entire thing is very sad and also very poetic," Craig said. "He spent his whole life asking questions, and I think he finally found some answers in the desert. As cryptic as that sounds, I find it beautiful, and I think he knows a lot more now."
The news of his passing shook the sport. Here was a man who had seen the highs and lows of life, a man who'd gone from alcoholic to champion, a man who many gave up on but who wouldn't give up on himself.
He'd made and lost more friends than most could count, he left impressions everywhere he went: Amarillo, Texas; Norman, Oklahoma; Indianola, Iowa; Las Vegas; Portland; Oceanside, California, and beyond.
"I, like many people, gave up on him. I didn't think he'd get out of that rut," Leigh said. "But it's a good story and lesson. You think someone is this one thing, but he overcomes it. Yes, he had the worst experiences, but they were all followed by the triumphs and victories. The reason some of us got so fed up is we thought he'd never do it. We thought he'd never stop the drinking, and he proved me wrong. He proved us all wrong, and I'm glad as hell as he did."
Tanner's body was cremated, perhaps someday soon to be scattered at various sites he loved. His words, however, live on. His story will teach for him.
Professional athletes don't usually challenge us to think. They rarely exchange dialogue with fans. They entertain us, afraid to say anything controversial or expose their flaws. Tanner was different. He didn't hide behind a false public image. He sinned. He outed his own frailty and vowed to do better. He challenged us to do better, too. He dared us to believe.
We put our heroes on pedestals, and there they stay, but Evan Loyd Tanner was different.
He pulled himself down and walked with the people.