NOW PLAYING: Once I Was A Champion

Once I Was A Champion (2012)
Dir: Gerard Roxburgh
Stars: Evan Tanner – and multiple MMA stars

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Now Playing on Pay-Per-View, Video On Demand, and multiple Movies on Demand digital networks. Click here to see a list of providers: http://onceiwasachampion.com/screenings.aspx

I have to admit, when I was given the opportunity to watch this title and provide a review, I was a little dubious.  See, I’m not an MMA fan, and just the sound of the film reminded me of another documentary I saw years and years ago on Mark Kerr, which was kind of my introduction to the world of mixed martial arts competition.  In that movie, I saw elbows to the throat, kicks to the stomach (and lower) and headbutts to the face amongst other action you see when watching an MMA fight.  I don’t mind admitting that watching these things on video makes me a bit queasy and ill at ease.  Perhaps having this apprehension towards Once I Was a Champion is a tribute to what an excellent documentary it is: because by the end of the movie, I was thinking to myself, “There’s no one I wouldn’t recommend this to.”  Let me put it another way:  I am in no way, shape or form a Notre Dame fan – but I adore the film, Rudy.

The subject of Once I Was a Champion is a fighter, philosopher and businessman named Evan Tanner.  He died in the desert east of San Diego in September of 2008 at the age of 37.  In the early portion of the documentary, it’s clear that most of his friends just don’t want to believe that he’s gone – even all these years later.  He was driven, loved a challenge and his friends maintain that he was no fool.  So, the fact that he died, most probably of dehydration, somewhere in the desert all alone is truly a tragedy.  As I’ve mentioned, I don’t follow this sport, but I know these names – Dana White, Bas Rutten, Randy Couture – and they all have the utmost respect for this guy.

The early portion of the film covers how Evan was known as the King of Caprock from his excellent wrestling skills in high school back in Amarillo, TX.  And he was a genuinely nice guy, even welcoming the geeks and social outcasts in high school into his crew.  In interviewing one of his early business partners, the film covers the USWF, a pre-UFC kind of league, which Tanner started promoting himself.  In other words, Tanner would not only fight on the card – and train as you must for such a fight – but also handle all of the administration and public relations involved in getting a crowd to show up for the fight!  Hopefully, that starts to illustrate the kind of intense, natural motivation this man had.

Then came Pancrase, the Japanese version of the UFC, which in the late 90s and early 00s was much more sophisticated and mainstream than the now popular U.S. version.  Tanner apparently had no fear.  The footage of these fights, in which the fighters look more like WWE wrestlers with shoes and shin guards on, is probably the most graphic in the film.  But again, Champion is much less about the fights and much more about the man.  He won his fights in Japan and did so with great humility: in fact, if I understood the film correctly, he was a little too gracious in his victories for the Japanese’ taste.  They kind of like their fighters to talk some shit, and Tanner was just above it.  Further, when his tour of fights for Pancrase ended, he was hanging out with his pal in Japan when he abruptly got up and said, “You know what, I think I’m done here.”  Then, he caught a train and flew home.  Apparently, his friends all agree that kind of behavior was pure Evan.  He was focused like no one else, then it was on to the next goal once this one had been reached.

However, none of us is without his faults.  The film’s best parts, in my opinion, are the scenes in which they cover Tanner’s alcoholism.  You can feel the frustration in Tanner’s friends’ demeanor and their voices as they discuss his Jekyll and Hyde nature.  They pull no punches in describing how unpleasant it was to be around him after 10-plus shots of tequila (I’m not exaggerating) in one sitting.  At one point, he would sleep under the ring in the gyms where he would train because he was so poor.  He alienated his girlfriend of seven years and never even told her he loved her.  There’s definitely a cautionary portion to this man’s legacy.

But, I think the element to Champion that makes me want to recommend it is the triumph of Tanner’s philosophy.  This introspective side to Tanner makes me think of him in the way I think of the samurai: his combative side in the ring and the cage couldn’t have been so successful without this spiritual and reflective side.  At one point during the height of his fighting career, he told his old USWF partner that he was seriously thinking of giving it all up and becoming a monk: wait’ll you see the look on this guy’s face as he tells that story!  One key piece of his philosophy (see note 1) was this idea of “the Power of One.”  Essentially, Tanner really believed that if you take something you’re passionate about and you work, eat, sleep and breathe it, you can change the world.  I was pretty impressed when they showed multiple friends of his reveal where they had this little saying tattooed on their body.

Like I said earlier, I’m not a fighter.  Me, I come from tennis for crying out loud.  And the one interview in the film that resonated with me most was when Tanner’s promoter is quoted as saying that Tanner asked him to cancel some dynamite fights he had coming up at the height of his career.  Why?  Because Tanner felt like he didn’t have the same fire inside that he would need to win them.  That’s a sportsman.

Note 1: As I may have mentioned at some point, I work in an ad agency, and I was particularly impressed with Tanner’s philosophy about promoting fights.  If you’ve seen an MMA fighter in shorts, then you’ve probably seen the logos of the multiple brands sponsoring that fighter.  Several different shots in the film showed Tanner wearing his own, homemade tee-shirt with, “The Power of One” on it.  Basically, he promoted himself with the support of his fans and friends – that is indeed a radical idea, and one that some of us in the marketing world could take a note on…

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4 Responses to NOW PLAYING: Once I Was A Champion

  1. Adam says:

    Evan was an innovative thinking man. His idea to be sponsored by the fans is an amazing one, as he did not want to give in to corporate sponsors to make money. I am glad this film has reached non MMA fans in a big way, it is truly more about the man and his philosophy than it is about the sport of fighting. Great review, I could not agree more about Tanner’s samurai spirit.

  2. Matthew Robinson says:

    Funny the reviewer has a tennis background because that’s my background as well!
    I caught a screening of this film as well, and I have to say it is one of the most inspiring/interesting documentarys I have ever seen! It reminded me of ESPN’s 30 for 30 and the way it dealt with its subject. It’s coming soon to PPV on Dec 28th, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is a fan of real life heros!

  3. Marcia says:

    I like this post, enjoyed this one appreciate it for putting up.

  4. Dan says:

    Beautiful review of a great movie!

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