The road to being the champion is a lot like an arduous battle comprised of highs, lows, and everything in between. The blood, the sweat, the pain, the training – all leading to that fateful moment, when the fight is called and the belt is wrapped about one’s waist. Evan Tanner, once known as the King of Caprock and a champion of the UFC, realized his goal – the Hollywood ending in most people’s eyes. However, the story does not end there. The real fight he faced was a struggle within; a battle he’d contend with for the rest of his life.
Many documentaries tend to focus primarily on the achievements and the series of fortunate opportunities that culminated in one’s success. Once I was a Champion, however, highlights Tanner’s career, while balancing it with the faults and challenges he faced outside the ring, as told by those closest to him. Whether you are a fan of MMA (mixed martial arts) or not, Tanner’s struggle with alcohol is a real and relatable subject with many people.
It is saddening to witness the fall of this great fighter. I initially ventured into this film thinking I would see a celebration of Tanner’s life–a recounting of his heroic deeds on and off the stage–followed by the details of his untimely death. Instead, the documentary served more as a cautionary tale, whether or not that was its purpose. Had alcohol not been an uncontrollable factor in Tanner’s life, it makes me wonder if he would be talked about today as one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in the world. Having battled his way to the top of the UFC, his greatest opponent did not come from the ring. His losing fight with alcoholism proved to be his undoing and the source of his rapid descent. One of the low points mentioned in the film came from a tearful teammate recalling a training session when he and others tried to sneak water into Tanner’s bottle, because Tanner could not be dissuaded from liquor.
By the end, I was hoping for a moment of redemption for Tanner, where he would stand victorious over his disease and reclaim his being. I expected to see him touring the country bringing awareness to alcoholism and serving as a role model for others facing the same demon. As stated early on in the film, I wanted to see his philosophy of the power of one to evoke change, to come to fruition. Instead, much to my dismay, Tanner ventured into the desert east of San Diego without any supplies and never returned. It is inconclusive as to whether or not Tanner had been drinking when the desert took his life. Regardless, it is hard to see his life as anything but another tragic chalk mark in the win column of alcoholism. Therefore, instead of being inspired by this “champion,” I was left to extrapolate meaning from his life and death.
Ultimately, it is remarkable that Tanner became champion in one of the most competitive and volatile sports today, but I found his private life to be disappointingly unremarkable. His, is the story of an incomplete life. A testament to the indelible mark and legacy he could have been. In the end, as Tanner explained to a friend, we are all just a tiny grain of sand on the beach of time. If it were not for this film, he probably would be that grain of sand, washed out to sea, and never to be seen again.
Once I was a Champion will be released on Pay-Per-View on Friday, December 28th, 2012 at 9 PM.