Evan Tanner was more than one of my favorite fighters, he was a home town hero and a much-admired kindred spirit.
I only got to see him fight live twice, once in Amarillo in 1998 and his UFC debut in 1999. But I followed his career closely from the beginning, always proud of the home-town boy who taught himself jiu jitsu from some VHS tapes and went on to win the UFC championship belt and become a champion in Japan.
I only got to meet Evan once, shaking his hand and back slapping him in a parking lot in Amarillo, Texas after seeing him absolutely dominate an overmatched opponent. But I was more impressed by the way Tanner showed his respect for the guy after the match, raising his arm, talking to everyone in his corner, clearly Tanner saw the man as a brother warrior and not as prey.
That was one thing I always admired about Tanner. He fought for the challenge. He fought to test himself. He was always generous and friendly to opponents. He didn't fight from anger or hatred. He fought as a positive force, a lone man testing himself against the universe. Sadly, that's how he died, too. But he's not alone anymore, now he's part of that infinity he sought.
Like Evan, I was born and raised in the Texas panhandle. Its a hard place to live. One of the last places in the continental U.S. to be settled by Europeans, it was only tamed in the 1880s and 90s and threatens to go back to wild plains with each farm closing. More west than south, more midwest than any other part of Texas, and yet defiantly, violently Texan. There's a saying in West Texas -- "We don't look down on nobody, but we sure as hell ain't looking up to anybody either."
The Texas panhandle was the land of the Comanche -- the fiercest horse-warriors on Earth, ever (take that Mongolia). The Comanches and Kiowa whipped Kit Carson and the US Calvary at the First Battle of Adobe Walls -- maybe the largest battle ever between Native Americans and U.S. forces.
Ten years later buffalo hunter Billy Dixon is said to have shot down a Comanche warrior at more than 1,500 yards as he and 27 other hunters stood off a siege of more than 1000 braves at the Second Battle of Adobe Walls. The famous and formidable Buffalo Soldiers also rode through the Panhandle, fighting for a country that treated them as badly as possible but earning the fear and respect of the Comanche as few others ever did.
Utimately, Chief Quanah Parker was so fearsome that the U.S. Calvary -- led by General Ranald Mackenzie, a true student of Grant and Sherman's scorthed earth/war is hell style -- slaughtered his horses in winter rather than face him in open combat.
Pat Garret, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holiday all passed through Tascosa, Texas, leaving trails of dead men in their wake. The oil boomtown of Borger (my hometown and football rival of several Amarillo high schools) is the only town the Texas Rangers ever had to shut down twice for rioting.
Amarillo's a great town to catch an asswhipping. Before it morphed into a regional health-care center, the main industries were truck driving, railroading, prisons, slaughterhouses, and building nuclear weapons. Its the hometown of pro-wrestling legend Terry Funk, whose brother (and fellow NWA tag team champ) Dory Jr. I once saw whip 4 men in a 7-11 parking lot. Unlike Lubbock to the south which is a seemingly placid farming and college community with a fearsome undercurrent of murder and organized crime thanks to the Bandidos motor cycle gang, Amarillo's bad men are cheerfully unorganized, too tough to be tamed.
The ignorance in Amarillo is palpable. Its the kind of place where if you intend on standing out, you better be ready to defend yourself against all comers. Its also got a dreadful, maddening climate. The place is completely flat as a pancake and the wind NEVER STOPS BLOWING.
There's also a proud tradition of eccentrics coming from Amarillo. Stanley March 3, patron of the arts, practical joker and owner of the famous Cadillac Ranch is the most famous but only the tip of the iceberg. Charles Johnson III "the most politically incorrect man in Texas" is another Amarilloan.
But let's not forget Evan Tanner the fighter. No he wasn't one of the absolute all-time greats, but I think he's a Hall of Famer. Here's why:
1. He was one of the best fighters to come out of the first wave of regional MMA events in America. His only peers in this were Josh Barnett, Pat Militech, Jeremy Horn and Heath Herring.
2. He was a UFC champion and a Neo-blood champion in Pancrase back when that really meant something.
3. He was one of the first, if not the first fighters, to combine good wrestling, effective muy thai in the clinch, and good jiu jitsu. More than that he practically invented elbows on the ground. Not cheap ass glancing open a cut elbows either -- Tanner's ground and pound elbows were short sharp shocks that stunned and damaged grounded opponents. Watch his very first UFC fights to see why Tanner's career lasted a decade.
Its noteworthy that he taught himself jiu jitsu and muy thai with instructional videos and books. Combined with his background as a Texas state wrestling champ -- again he was a prodigy, since he didn't start wrestling until 10th grade!
4. He finished fights. Out of 32 wins, only 3 were by decision.
5. He was always game and never gave up. His come back wins against Phil Baroni, Robbie Lawler and Dave Terrell are legendary for a reason. His losses to Rich Franklin showed just as much spirit.
I've posted a couple of fight videos in the extended entry.
I'd say "Rest in Peace" but Evan Tanner was too wild & free to ever rest, instead I'll say:
Blow With the Wind, May Your Adventures Never End.
Another tribute video: