Film Review: ONCE I WAS A CHAMPION

ChampionOk, I have to admit, I didn’t know who Evan Tanner was until he died in 2008. It wasn’t until around that time that I really started paying attention to MMA.

It was over a year ago that I heard about this documentary for the first time. Saw the trailer, read a couple articles, knew I needed to see it. I had learned who Evan Tanner was since his death. I had gone back and watched some of his fights and read some of his writing. Evan Tanner was not even close to the stereotypical MMA fighter. He was more of a mystic shaman, Jim Morrison-esque searcher/ writer/ rock star. God, that is such a clichéd way to describe the man but I can’t think of anything better. I admit I’m truly struggling to write this because Evan Tanner was not a man you could put your finger on and say, “he is this or he was that.” I’d like to say that I understand him, but from watching this documentary… I don’t think even his closest friends and fans understood him.

This is what we know: In his pro fighting career, Tanner had a record of 32 wins and 8 losses. He dropped out of college because he felt that learning from the real world had more truth. He had wrestled in high school, won the Texas state championship. After leaving college, he entered a wrestling tournament on a lark and proceeded to kick serious ass and win. This led to him fighting in Japan, in the Pancrase Organization and then to the UFC where he fought Tito Ortiz and Rich Franklin among others. Tanner eventually became the UFC middleweight champion.

Tanner shocked the MMA world when he decided that he did not want any corporate sponsorship but wanted to be supported by his fans. Calling the organization Team Tanner, he drew on an exclusive fan club. I can’t help but wonder how Dana White responded to that.

Now, I could go on with more details about his fighting career but I feel it was his life outside of the ring that made him special.

The man was a true individual. He went after new experiences in life. He collected them the way some people collect books. Yes, he was a natural athlete without question. He was also a loner who lived in his head, in books, in writing. He would wander off into the world alone looking for life, to see what it could show him. Tanner was also an unrepentant alcoholic who never tried to hide it. Some say that was part of the reason for how he lived and ended up dying.

The more I try to write this, I less I understand. This piece seriously hurts to write.

Tanner had this philosophy he developed, and this is how he described it:

“Believe in yourself. Believe in your own potential for greatness. Believe that you can change the world. It is something that is within each of us. Believe in the Power of One”

He felt that an individual person could change the world through thoughts, behavior, and actions.

In 2008, he went on a trip into the California desert in search of buried treasure. Some say it was a vision quest; others called it a suicide mission. Tanner was an avid blogger, he connected with fans and helped people through his words. People were worried when he announced his trip. He died on September 5, 2008 from heat exposure.

Going back, when I heard about this documentary, I needed to see it. However, it kept getting delayed from release. I would check different websites, message boards, etc., nobody seemed to know anything. With what I had already learned of Tanner, this all seemed somehow fitting: just like his life and death, there just had to be a mystery surrounding a documentary about his life. About a week before Christmas, I decided to make one of my usual checks to see if there were any signs of life. I was amazed to find out for one week on pay per view, Once I Was a Champion was showing. From December 28 through January 1, at random times. Blink or hesitate and you would miss the chance. I caught it and I was thrilled I did. It blew me away. It was a sad film. Just about every single person interviewed for the film was crying while talking about Tanner. I myself felt my eyes get wet. It moved me. Now I need to own it because I’m not done trying to understand.

Dave Wahlman