Josh Gross
Monday June 23rd, 2008

Evan Tanner came to mixed martial arts looking for adventure. He found fame, success and a UFC championship.

Yet, more than a decade after jumping into the Octagon for the first time, the 37-year-old's eroding physical skills don't portend much upside.

Following a split-decision loss -- Tanner's fourth defeat in his last five fights -- to Kendall Grove in Las Vegas on Saturday, I'm left to wonder what will come of the eccentric Texan, as he transitions away from the fight game.

From dirt-covered rodeo arena floors to historic venues in Japan to the biggest pay-per-view events in the United States, MMA took Tanner places he wouldn't have seen otherwise. In the beginning, at least, that was the idea.

Primarily self-trained leading up to his UFC debut in January 1999 -- Tanner learned the submission game watching instructional tapes -- Tanner dominated with arm-triangle chokes and a powerful wrestling style. That game transitioned well to the octagon, and prior to his recent downswing, Tanner won 10 of 12 UFC contests from his inaugural season to 2005 -- including one victory that netted him the middleweight title.

However, Tanner (32-8) must now deal with moving forward with his life while leaving behind one of the few things he could rely upon for a regular paycheck. He's not alone. Many fighters have given their soul to the sport, but, sadly, few will have much to show for it when their fighting days are done.

A few weeks before his fight with Grove, a young middleweight who gained fame after winning the third season of The Ultimate Fighter, Tanner appeared as a guest on HDNet's Inside MMA. It just so happened I was on the show as well, and it gave me a chance to catch up with the man with one of the best beards in the world.

We talked about his UFC debut against Darrell Gholar, which, like many others, was the first time I saw him compete. (To this day, Tanner's performance that night remains one of my favorites in the octagon.) Downing a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, Tanner laughed as he recalled Gholar's cornerman, Marc Laimon, screaming at the Greco-Roman wrestler to smash in the Tanner's eye. It doesn't sound funny, but it was.

The philosopher in Tanner always managed to find something interesting or unique about the most harrowing situations. His mantra is "Never stop learning," and he understands that one's greatest education usually comes from defeats.

While boxing is rife with stories of fighters struggling, poor, through post-competition life, MMA doesn't know that reality. Not yet. But 15 years after the sport appeared in America, you can be sure the tales of overwhelmed fighters will emerge.

Few safeguards have been established to ensure men like Tanner don't meet an unfortunate end. Mixed martial artists aren't guaranteed a pension. For the most part, they won't be able to rely upon millions made during careers shortened by the demands of the job.

Fighters deserve protection because they very rarely know how to protect themselves. Such is the nature of their business, of course, but the responsibility is not theirs alone. Promoters, regulatory bodies, managers, agents and trainers have a hand in this, as well.

Tanner has always fought for his own reasons. But that doesn't mean he deserves to be left out in the cold when his fighting days are done.

Amir Sadollah might be the least experienced fighter to win The Ultimate Fighter crown, but the Virginian middleweight is off to a fine start.

Showing a calmness in the cage few veterans realize, Sadollah, now 5-0, slickly armbarred C.B. Dollaway at 3:02 of the opening round in Saturday's UFC co-main event on Spike TV.

Depending on how he's matched -- T.U.F. winners are usually challenged within a few fights of winning the reality show -- Sadollah could quickly find himself in the deep end of a very competitive UFC 185-pound division.

As Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell forced challengers in their respective weight classes to grow as fighters, Anderson Silva has done the same at middleweight. Clearly, Sadollah isn't close to that class yet, but he should have more than a few opportunities to fight better mixed martial artists and, win or lose, gain valuable experience as he continues to progress.

Promoting its July 19 card on Spike TV as the place to watch the pound-for-pound best mixed martial artist for free, the UFC is taking a risk.

Not only is it lining itself up to be compared against Affliction's heavyweight-laden pay-per-view effort -- led by MMA's first sanctioning-body-approved world title fight between Fedor Emelianenko and Tim Sylvia -- it has put Silva in a position where, should he lose at light heavyweight to James Irvin, the title of best pound-for-pound fighter could immediately return to the Russian heavyweight.

For years Emelianenko, the Pride heavyweight king who owns two decisive points wins over current UFC champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, owned pound-for-pound status.

While inactivity coupled with the destructive Silva's incredible run in the UFC dropped him down the list, he stands poised to reclaim the title. Even if the Brazilian wins, Emelianenko would have a case as 1b to Silva's 1a.

And, you know, UFC president Dana White is correct: It's a tremendous time to be a mixed martial arts fan.

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