How many of us challenge convention like an involuntary reflex? How many of us dare a nomadic life, beholden to no man? How many of us find the pinnacle? How many of us, wishing the despair would become more real, crack open yet another bottle? How many of us experience adoration for doing what we love?
There may be others, but at this moment I can think of just one. His name is Evan Tanner. He is gone.
Throughout his 37 years roaming this earth seemingly without destination, Tanner pushed the boundaries of experience. He lived nadir and zenith. And in death he did not recoil from that assignment.
We knew him as someone who found challenge in physically taking on all comers. That was but a sliver. Tanner prodded life, and because of this the Texan found mixed martial arts among many things.
For a lot of us, myself included, the first time Tanner entered our consciousness came during his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut in 1998. Watching as a fan on a friend's couch that night, Tanner left a lasting impression: self trained; soft spoken; aggressive. He was the kind of fighter I wanted to see. Thankfully, there were plenty of opportunities. During Tanner's 11-year career he fought 48 times, including 17 bouts inside the octagon.
A week before he was set to meet Kendall Grove for what sadly turned out to be his last go, Tanner and I were panelists on HDNet's Inside MMA. Before the taping we shared a laugh about his UFC 18 victory over Darrell Gholar. I told him how much I enjoyed his performance, and how it inspired me to find a local Japanese video store where I rented tapes of his Pancrase fights. Discovery of a wider world of MMA followed, and while I can't say Tanner had a hand in driving me into journalism, his presence certainly helped me fall in love with the sport I cover today.
I watched his last bout not as a fan, but as a columnist. After losing a listless decision to Grove, I wrote of Tanner that his days competing against the best in mixed martial arts were over. Having gotten to know Tanner, I also worried. MMA afforded him an opportunity to live on his terms. Without the sport, where would he go? This was a man whose notion of a 401k plan centered more on distance traveled than money saved.
In hindsight, those concerns were dumb. Tanner lived as he saw fit, finding experience where others saw inconvenience. And he learned. He was always learning.
Champion. Athlete. Ultimate Fighter. Self-described alcoholic. Some called him a renaissance man. He studied Buddhism, searching for the now. Others saw him as eclectic, which works if it's meant as liberated. Labels, though, are exactly what Tanner did not strive to fill. He was his own person, and wished only for the freedom to be whom he was when he wanted to be.
Perhaps that's why MMA suited him.
In the dusty rodeos of Amarillo, Texas, Tanner first tried his hand, less a starting point really than another adventure. Deciding to substitute college for real world training, Tanner returned home. Simply because he'd never done it before, the idea of fighting in front of an audience appealed to him. He was not one to focus on consequences.
A wrestler in his younger days, the transition was organic. And thanks to a set of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructional videotapes produced by Royce and RorionGracie, Tanner rose to prominence after winning a tournament in Japan.
It wasn't until Tito Ortiz brutally slammed Tanner to the canvas that he realized MMA wasn't the kind of thing you just do; there had to be some passion and work behind it. In MMA Tanner found commitment. It also played to his nomadic sensibilities. He moved to different regions of the country, spending time in one gym before moving to the next. Along the way Tanner battled demons ... drinking topping the list. But through it all he remained introspective.
As long as he was learning -- searching -- the experience had meaning. He came to believe in "The Power of One," a reflection of the Buddhism that influenced his thinking. And in recent years he shared as much as he could of himself through blog posts.
In the middle of August, Tanner wrote on Spike.com of a pending foray into the Southern California desert. Eerily, he forewarned equipment failure could kill him. The thought would shake off lesser men, yet Tanner moved alone into the wilderness thinking instead of places "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."
This was his sense of "treasure hunting."
It's a rare thing being unique. Tanner was. He gave us a glimpse of who we are, who we could be in a perfect moment, and who we hope never to be.
In his last adventure, Evan Tanner found the silence deafening and the solitude eternal.