Linking Evan Tanner

By Jordan Breen Sep 13, 2008
Allow me to preface this article by telling all ESPN Page 2 enthusiasts that a links-based feature was my idea all along and that my use of it on radio predates Bill Simmons' first link-fest article.

Naturally, when this column was greenlighted for this week, I was excited to reclaim my idea from the pop-culture villainy of The Sports Guy but was unsure as to what to explore. However, the all-too-premature passing of Evan Tanner made the thematic focus a no-brainer.

Because of Tanner's heart-on-the-sleeve candor and his willingness to intimately interact with fans, he became one of MMA's most beloved personas. Therefore, it's not surprising that the online community eulogized him in a multitude of unique and stirring ways. I found none more penetrating than Kid Nate's over at Bloody Elbow.

Want more proof that Amarillo is more than just a little quirky?

Here and here are two articles that focus on Steve Nelson's Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation in Amarillo, where Tanner got his start in the sport. Written in 1997 and 1999, during a time when the vast majority of America suffixed discussion of "ultimate fighting" with the obligatory "I heard people die in that stuff,” the articles discuss MMA as if it's just another local stick-and-ball sport.

The USWF was one of the crown jewels of the first wave of regional MMA promotions, producing the likes of Tanner, Paul Buentello, Heath Herring and Frank Trigg among others. Tanner's USWF scraps with Buentello and Herring can be found here and here.

The red "It's Real" mat featured in the Herring bout is pantheon-level stuff -- Affliction could learn a thing or two. Also, I encourage you to check the 1998 rematch between Steve Nelson and Ralph Gracie. Sure, the first few minutes of the fight are missing, and it's a slap-fight, but by the standards of the day, it is pretty compelling.

Another of the more poignant Tanner memorials I saw came courtesy of one of Fightlinker's Japanese jackals (their affectionate name for their fan base), Koolpaw. Haikus aside, Koolpaw references the notion that Tanner was ducked by most of Pancrase's top dogs during his run in the promotion -- an idea I'd heard consistently from insiders since I started following this sport nine years ago. It's not exactly hard to believe either.

The fact that Pancrase threw the talented and vastly more experienced Tanner into the 1998 Neo-Blood Tournament, a tournament series typically reserved for the promotion's young rookie talent, is ridiculous enough. Here is one of his Neo-Blood matchups against a young, overmatched, pre-superhero-gimmick Ikuhisa Minowa. It's also notable for Tanner hitting a textbook lateral drop and the best audio you'll ever hear on a chokehold in MMA.

Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com

Evan Tanner (bottom) puts away
Robbie Lawler with a triangle
choke at UFC 50.
His fight with Ryushi Yanagisawa crystallizes Tanner's Pancrase predicament. Although Yanagisawa was never a top dog in the home of Hybrid Wrestling, at this point he was essentially the gatekeeper to the stars. His only losses in the two years prior had come to Guy Mezger, and he'd beaten quality opponents like Oleg Taktarov, Jason Godsey and Vernon White.

Rather than posing any stern test, Tanner ran over Yanagisawa in the exact fashion he'd done to previous opponents. The victory wasn't Tanner’s last bout in Pancrase, but it did confirm that he wasn't about to get a fight with the likes of Masakatsu Funaki, Minoru Suzuki or then-young star Yuki Kondo.

If you notice, all of Tanner's early fights look almost exactly the same: close the distance, knee from the clinch, get a takedown, achieve dominant position, secure a submission. It's all very rudimentary and textbook in 2008, but 10 years ago Tanner's style, cobbled together from instructional videos, gave him a massive leg-up on the competition.

Most guys with a decent submission game couldn't strike to save their soul, and most guys with decent muay Thai styling were converted kickboxers who were putrid on the ground. The closest you could get to the best of both worlds were some of the Brazilian vale tudo products who had actually cross-trained. However, unlike 99 percent of the Brazilians, Tanner could actually wrestle. The style he synthesized by training in his garage was a precursor to the well-rounded essentialism that is preached in MMA today.

Bearing Tanner's trailblazing training in mind, this interview discusses his goal to start a training house for young, underprivileged fighters. The idea will unfortunately never get the chance to pan out with Tanner's death, but nonetheless, when I first heard him discuss the idea a year and a half ago, I was both interested and invigorated.

One of the most difficult differences for me as both a boxing and an MMA fan has long been the fact that boxing has been able to capitalize on young, dynamic but socially or economically disenfranchised talent while MMA has not. The operative difference is the fact that boxing has a rich inner-city tradition globally, and all over the world you can find gyms in disadvantaged urban centers where training and tutelage come for free. Meanwhile, MMA in North America has traditionally been a sport of the white middle class -- a status that is unfortunately becoming further entrenched by the fact that kickboxing and jiu-jitsu instructors can get away with charging wannabe "ultimate fighters" exorbitant fees to cash in on the sport's growth.

Would Evan Tanner have been MMA's Emmanuel Steward with a houseful of young talent ready to be sculpted into world champions?

That I can't be sure of. But the fact that he was willing to take on such a task rather than adopt the industry standard -- opening his own gym and overcharging for some BJJ purple belt to teach "his" students -- is admirable at the very least.

Finally, I've been swarmed with e-mails from readers and radio listeners to sign this petition in order to get Tanner posthumously inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. To be honest, I was initially reluctant.

Tanner is not one of the greatest fighters this sport has seen, but rather one of its greatest characters. While Tanner was a UFC champion, his real magic was that he was MMA's quintessential free-spirit, marching to the beat of his own drum while most are more than happy to mosey to a familiar tune.

However, Hall of Fame status is relative to the shrine itself. Since the UFC Hall of Fame features Ken Shamrock, whose only real noteworthy win in the Octagon was over Dan Severn and whose most tangible contribution to the UFC is the fact he served as a promotional causeway for pro-wrestling fans, I see no reason to be an elitist about it.

So sign on up, or as Evan Tanner might tell you, believe in the power of one.
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