The strange rise and fall of mixed-martial-arts superstar Evan Tanner is elegantly captured in filmmaker Gerard Roxburgh’s “Once I Was a Champion,” one of several recent sports docs (most prominently, “Senna”) that remind that some great athletic careers end in tragedy. Roxburgh constructs his film as a canny blend of portraiture and detective story, attempting to fathom the complexities of MMA’s most haunting and haunted character. Doc’s excess of talking heads may hurt its theatrical prospects, but fest bouts and cable biz should be fast and furious.
The film addresses Tanner’s fate immediately, framing his death — during a September 2008 hike through the Southern California desert — as a great loss to his sport. Whether by accident or design, Tanner takes on the stature of a doomed figure out of Greek tragedy — a man of contradictions, a remarkable physical specimen, a great life self-destroyed.
His Muay Thai partner Kit Cole says Tanner was “a smart guy, but this wasn’t a smart-guy way to go.” Cole is one of about four dozen talking heads interviewed; while they disagree on aspects of the fighter’s life and personality, the consensus is that Tanner was an alcoholic who, emblematic of his go-it-alone lifestyle, tried to find his own ways of controlling his addiction.
His early career, as described here, saw him move from strength to strength: He was a BMOC in high school, and his friend Jason Leigh says Tanner’s early goal was the Olympics (never achieved). Instead, his entry into the U.S. Wrestling Federation led to the first serious phase of his career in the ’90s, when he won the federation’s championship and proceeded to dominate all facets of the biz, managing, promoting and fighting simultaneously — unheard of in the pro end of the sport before or since.
Echoing the UFC’s Randy Couture, perhaps the pic’s best-known face, mixed-martial-arts fighter and Olympian Matt Lindland observes that Tanner “fancied himself more as an intellect than just a fighter,” and this notion of the thinking man’s MMA hero is fundamental to the film’s characterization of Tanner as a unique figure. Tanner had a curious mind to match his athleticism, a blend of tremendous wrestling skills and iron will made evident in the pic’s plentiful fight footage. During a stint living in a camper next to a Portland, Ore., training facility, Tanner would split his time between heavy workouts and reading “Moby-Dick.”
Like most of his fellow athletes, Tanner thrived on a strong connection with his fan base, and even created a slogan that became something of a spiritual mantra: “Believe in the Power of One.” (Translation: One man can change the world.) Tanner’s roller-coaster career, however, begins to define this narrative, which effectively serves as a cautionary tale on the enormous cost of alcoholism.
Such a figure attains near-mythic proportions, especially in death, and it’s easy to imagine the future feature film on Tanner’s life. Still, since Roxburgh injects enough cinematic technique via his artful editing (tracking shots against voiceovers), complex sound design, firm pacing and handsome lensing (by Matt Irwin), this particular feature may suffice.