This past month ‘Once I Was A Champion’, a documentary based on the life of Evan Tanner, was released at the Bel Air film Festival. I had a chance to work with Evan several times in his career, and he was a very impressive athlete and competitor. It was always interesting because the spectre of his problem was always there, it was overwhelming. I’m gonna tell a couple of stories, one from a UFC and one from the Abu Dhabi Submission Grappling tournament Evan participated in. You will see what I mean.
Let me say these are not stories to make light of alcoholism or Evan Tanner. An astute observer would see the intrinsic pain that was crying out inside of Evan. And it shows the power of a disease that has robbed us of a champion.
The first time I met Evan was at UFC 18, his UFC debut. He had just blitzed Darrell Gholar, a tough wrestler. Tanner was already a known quantity and considered a huge prospect, with solid performances in a Texas league called USWF, and he was coming off a victory in Pancrase’s Neo Blood tournament. UFC 18 was January of 1999.
The location was New Orleans, and the after fight party was actually one of the bigger ones I had seen for the UFC around that time. Evan was having a good time, and was the center of attention. No one really noticed how much he was drinking, until he picked up John McCarthy’s wife off the floor and fell on his ass carrying her. His manager (Phyllis Lee at the time), dragged him to the elevator and took him to pass out in his room.
The 2001 ADCC tournament was an absolute disaster for Tanner, the demons had caught him. Tanner had a bottle of tequila in his luggage that he was bringing, but the bottle broke, soaking his clothes in tequila. Maybe from embarrassment, Tanner never got his clothes washed, he just wore the same clothes the rest of the stay.
For the tournament, Tanner gets Sanae Kikuta in the draw. Kikuta is good, and he actually won the tournament that year, but on paper it is a favorable draw for the bigger, stronger Tanner. He had to be considered the favorite going in. However the night before happened.
The production crew went to a bar at a local hotel, and Tanner followed along. He was seen drinking a beer, and one of the guys on the crew that knew him approached him. Knowing about Evan’s penchant for tequila, he asked him about it. Evan responded ‘something pretty sick is going to have to happen for me to drink tequila, just beer today’.
Well at some point, the bar held a tequila promotion and these gorgeous Filipino models went around offering tequila. This was every bit the specialness Evan needed, and the night ended 15 shots of tequila later. The next day he was one and done, losing to Kikuta in the opening round.
I repeat, I don’t tell these stories to make light of Evan or the disease of alcoholism. He was crying out for help, I believe. People should watch this documentary to see the human side. It is overall on a higher level of production than Mark Kerr’s ‘Smashing Machine’ and it is just as open and honest as that famous documentary. This is a must watch.