Gerard Roxburgh’s documentary about former Ultimate Fighting Championship hero Evan Tanner is a tragic tale; the eventual fate of Tanner is one that, based on the what we learn about his life in the documentary, could’ve come at any time. And yet, it still comes as a shock.
In Once I Was A Champion, we’re introduced to an absolute bear of a human being in Evan Tanner, a fighter with all the fury and fire one would expect from someone with his punishing skill set, but none of the ego or bravado. Tanner is strong, determined and powerful in a fight, but quiet and meek in everything leading up to the battle, and shortly thereafter. A penchant for random adventures and disappearances, Tanner was a modern day warrior monk, albeit one who suffered more from a battle with the bottle than in any MMA match.
One thing that is clear, despite his loner persona: Evan Tanner was, is, loved by many. From the fans of his profession to the friends he made along the way, for a man as seemingly in-his-own-head as Tanner was (and he gets criticized for such), he still managed to make a huge impact on many lives, particularly when he steps away from the fights and cultivates a following on the internet.
His eventual fate, explained early on in the film, was as tragic as it was sadly predictable. For a man who was prone to disappearing without telling anyone where he was going and known for having severe drinking benders, getting stranded without supplies in the middle of the desert, due to a motorcycle failure, with little knowledge of where he was to help others find him, was not surprising. The complexity comes when you realize that Evan Tanner was not generally an irresponsible, or remotely unintelligent, man. Flawed, sure, but not out-and-out stupid. Dying of dehydration, alone in the middle of the desert, lines up with how he lived his life as much as it runs opposite it.
Once I Was A Champion is yet another MMA documentary I’ve had the pleasure of viewing recently that has changed my opinion of the sport, and the people competing (the other being the brilliant Fightville). I’m just sad that an athlete, nay, person, that I have a new found respect for is no longer with us, and was unknown to me before this film. But it’s experiences like this that keep me watching and learning. Everyone’s got a story.