–Kenny Rice

An introspective man who blogged about the most personal of demons. A champion who felt empathy for the opponent he had just defeated because he understood the bond of training and sacrifice. A rough hewed Texan who was kind and gentle to those who encountered. A walking contradiction of violence and peacefulness. He was a rational, deep thinker who for reasons that will never be known even to his closest friends, died in the most inconceivable manner, abandoning his out of gas dirt bike and walking in the 118 degree blistering California desert to his demise on September 8, 2008 at age 37.

If ever there was an athlete who appeared outwardly to be perpetually fighting within himself, it was Tanner.His life and times begged for a movie to if not set any record straight, at least offer a linear glimpse into a nonlinear and far to brief existence. “Once I Was A Champion,” from director Gerard Roxburgh powerfully deals with the man, the fighter, the free spirit, the many evolving facets of Tanner.

The filmmaker was a student at California Long Beach when he read one of Tanner’s soul exposing blogs about dealing with alcoholism and preparing to return to the UFC.

“I contacted Evan through email about wanting to do a movie about this ordeal he was facing, how he coped with it, what he hoped for himself through all of this. He wrote back and was very open to this project,” Roxburgh recalls outside the Inside MMA studio in Los Angeles.

Perhaps in a fashion that can only add to Tanner’s mystique, Roxburgh never had the opportunity to meet his chosen subject in person. His uncle passed away and Roxburgh returned to his native Scotland for the funeral and chose to stay there and do a documentary on his special relative.

After learning about the death of Tanner, Roxburgh was determined this was the story he had to tell, the conflicted gladiator who was a puzzle to most of his fans. “When you knew him, it changed your opinion of him. He was so different from what people perceived.”

The most misunderstood layer he peels back is Tanner’s growing reluctance to bask in his successes. “He had a hard time celebrating winning. He felt bad that someone had to lose. That reveals a lot about Evan.”

Roxburgh has spent the past two and a half years interviewing friends and family, visiting Tanner’s old high school and even going to the barren area near Palo Verde where Tanner took his final breath. Immersing himself so much into telling this fascinating and tragic story that he has felt “surreal about it all. Having never actually met Even but I feel I have, that I know him through the making of this film.”

What has given Roxburgh the passion for this is the father who trained him in mixed martial arts growing up. He had planned a career as a fighter until an injury at twenty-one changed his life course to tackling the stories of others via film. That might change soon, he is back in training, perhaps even channeling some Evan Tanner is a perfectly, appropriately unorthodox way by hoping to make his professional fighting debut within the year.

For now his focus is on the celluloid battle of festivals, to bring attention to Evan Tanner’s story, the stranger who posthumously became a friend,  the man many of whom did but never fully appreciate even after meeting him in life. “Once I Was A Champion” premieres at the Los Angles Film Festival June 18, with additional showings June 23 and 25.

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