Tanner, According to Those Who Knew Him Best

A Self-Taught Texan

By Sherdog.com Staff Sep 10, 2008
MMA will never have another Evan Tanner.

To chronicle his compelling life, Sherdog.com turned to some of the people who knew him best, including those who grew up with him and watched him wrestle in high school before he began his fight career inside a rowdy rodeo coliseum in Amarillo, Texas.

A Self-Taught Texan

Deana Epperson grew up across the street from Tanner in Amarillo and kept in touch with him throughout the years: He was a good kid. He really didn’t mess with anybody. He didn’t even wrestle -- he pole-vaulted in junior high. He didn’t even start wrestling until our sophomore year in high school, and we were a big school. We were 5A. By our junior and senior year, he was a back-to-back state champion in wrestling. Texas is no joke with wrestling and for him to have never wrestled till 10th grade and then been a state champion in 11th and 12th grade -- that’s just incredible.

He was such a renaissance man on the most basic level. He didn’t really like to admit this to people, but Evan had a photographic memory, and that’s how the big legend of Evan Tanner was true. He was a big wrestler in high school and he got the Gracie jiu-jitsu videos, and whatever he would watch somebody do, he could instantly put that into his repertoire. He was genetically gifted, he was amazingly smart, and he remembered everything he read and saw. That really explains how a guy who never really went to a dojo till he was 21 was able to do what he did.

He was the first one I ever saw grab wrists to reign down elbows. And later on I saw Tito Ortiz in the corner with one of his fighters yelling, “Tanner elbows! Tanner elbows!” That’s when you know you’re the s---, is when someone is referencing you when they’re cornering someone else.

Jason Leigh met Tanner after a USWF event and was friends with him for the decade that followed: If Evan didn’t know how to do something, he would get a book and read it and do it. I watched him basically re-plumb his house. I asked where he learned to do it, and he pointed to a book on the table -- “How to Plumb Your House.”

Paul Buentello, a veteran heavyweight who fought Tanner in 1997: I came up right behind him in high school. He never passed himself off as the baddest dude in the school. He was so quiet you didn’t even know he was there. You would always see him on the other side of the schoolyard. He was always bundled up, whether it was winter or in the dead of summer. He always wore a beanie and a sweater. He was always cutting weight. He liked to be alone, do his own thing. Every time he wrestled, he pretty much had the place full.

Kit Cope, a UFC veteran: I remember when I first met him up at the gym to start training. I was holding the pads for him, and it was the most awkward thing. The timing was off, and we couldn’t jive at first because he was completely unorthodox. And I mean completely unorthodox, like he was throwing punches from the wrong angles, with the wrong speed, with the wrong tells, with the wrong hip movements and everything.

I finally asked him where he learned his muay Thai, and then he tells me this story -- and I don’t know if everybody knows this or if I was the only person who didn’t know this -- but he lived in a cabin up in the boonies. And I mean he was in the boonies where he ran everything off of a generator. He self-taught himself how to fight in his one-room cabin with a VCR and some tapes and some books. Seriously! And that guy literally made it all the way into the UFC and won the title!

He was completely self-taught until he got into the UFC (and) started training with Team Quest. I knew that’s why everything looked different because he, well, made everything up. His entire fighting style he made up taking scraps from books and VHS tapes. The end result was that (his style) was the most awkward thing. Like when he would throw his jab, it would have four different kinks, but it would end up in the right spot. Even funnier, the first few times we did light sparring, I got hit with everything. Literally everything because I had never seen it thrown like that before.

Scott Holmes, a Sherdog.com radio host and contributor, watched Tanner’s April 1997 MMA debut in Amarillo and followed him through the ranks of the USWF and into the UFC: These were very, very raucous crowds in Amarillo. Lots of beer drinking. It was on a rodeo dirt floor. A mat constructed on a dirt floor, and there were more fights in the crowd than there was on the card. This was one of those no air-conditioning (arenas) set up for livestock to be traded around. You got chairs on a dirt floor, and quite often guys would get into fights as they walked to the ring. Back then you didn’t back down … you went into the crowd. It was that kind of a venue. The majority of the people in the audience, 95 percent, had no idea what they were coming to see.

I ran into another friend of mine who was an all-state wrestler and just asked him casually who he thought would win. He said Evan Tanner. When I heard the name -- he was legendary, from a rival high school, a wrestling badass -- we knew who Evan was. Evan looked every part a fighter, and he took apart everybody.
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