Judge Alice Nelson was once a champion...a hopscotch champion. Booyah!
"I don't know if he had intentions of coming back or not."—John Wood, Coach of Evan Tanner
Having never heard of MMA fighter Evan Tanner, I can honestly say that I don't know much more about him even after watching the documentary Once I Was A Champion. It isn't the fault of filmmaker Gerard Roxburgh, he made a very good documentary; it's just that Evan Tanner didn't let anyone beyond the façade he wanted them to see. He is and was an enigma, someone who struggled with alcohol and depression, who felt the need to be a different person depending on who was around him at the time. The result is a hodgepodge view of a man whose life ended as mysteriously as it was lived.
Facts of the Case
Evan Tanner was a championship MMA fighter, a loner with a penchant for going off on his own and exploring his surroundings. One day in 2008, Evan took his motorcycle and headed into the desert just outside of San Diego California—he was never seen alive again. The documentary Once I Was A Champion is Evans story told by those who knew him best. Problem is no one really knew who Evan was, or what demons drove him to bouts of alcoholism and a depression that in the end took over his career, and maybe ended his life.
Evan Tanner was not your typical MMA fighter, he was a renaissance man of sorts, one who loved to read the classics and philosophize to anyone who would listen; he could also put you in a submission hold in a matter of seconds. Once I Was A Champion shows the complicated man that Evan Tanner was, a ticking time bomb on the verge of exploding.
Filmmaker Gerard Roxburgh paints a portrait of a human dichotomy, a man who was different with whatever group of people he happened to be around. Evan was a quiet loner with one set of friends, an easygoing fun loving guy with another, a successful and single-minded business man with some, an intelligent philosopher with others, and a selfish drunk with yet another set of friends. Maybe noone knew who Evan was because Evan didn't know who he was. Or he was uncomfortable confronting the real Evan, and used alcohol as a way to avoid the truth.
The differing accounts of Evan by many of the interview subjects is just further proof that his personality shifted from friend to friend. Some praised him as if he were faultless—like his old training buddy Joel Suprenant, who would probably nominate Tanner for Sainthood if he could. While others like fellow MMA fighter Chael Sonnen were critical of Tanner, even appearing angry when speaking about a man considered a selfish alcoholic who did what he wanted, regardless of how it affected others. Sonnen was defiant in his interview, not afraid to tell it the way he saw it.
But ex-fiance Danita was more careful. She had issues of course with Evan's drinking, the main reason she broke off the relationship and moved out of their home. Even after describing Evan as an unemotional man who never told her that he loved her, she still spoke cautiously about him, almost reluctantly, as if she didn't want to tarnish his name.
Was there some traumatic childhood experience that caused Evan to close himself off from the world and build an impenetrable wall? According to half-sister Paige Craig, the answer is no. She admitted they had a mother who checked out, leaving them to take care of themselves at an early age, but nothing to suggest that Evan would turn to alcohol to drown some unspeakable sorrow that occurred during those early years.
The flip-flops continued as each interview came and went, the one constant being the opinion that Evan Tanner was a great fighter—who at one point in his career, won the UFC Title bout when no one thought he could. But Evan had a dark side, one that led him into the desert—alone, in September of 2008 with no water and little gas—ensuring his demise. Roxburgh tells Evan's story admiringly, and even with the mixed messages about who the man truly was, this is a fascinating account of an unlikely champion.
Presented in standard def 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Once I Was A Champion is a slick looking documentary that comes as a bit of a surprise, considering its subject is a little known athlete. Roxburgh's film intersperses interviews with highlights of some of Tanner's fights, as well as a talk with Tanner himself—who looks like half the man he was during his peak fighting years. The Dolby 2.0 audio works well with the interviews, and is highly compatible with Heather Patience's fine score. Extras include three extended clips from MMA fighters Chael Sonnen and Bas Rutten, and Evan's ex-fiance Danita. Also included is an interview from Ed "Short Fuse" Herman, who trained with Tanner; his interview was left on the cutting room floor due to background noise in the gym where the interview took place.
The most impactful scenes from Once I Was A Champion are the ones where Evan Tanner is talking about himself. In these snippets, Tanner looks unkempt, even a bit mad. With his scruffy beard, disheveled hair, and a wild eyed look; Tanner is more of the philosopher than the fighter. He quietly says, "The ultimate thing humans can learn is kindness for their fellow humans—and understanding." Too bad we'll never get a real understanding of the man that was Evan Tanner.
This got me in a submission hold, so I find it Not Guilty.
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