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By Ryan Mason · June 27, 2011
Having already spent the nearly ten bucks to park downtown, there was no way that I was going to drive to a new location to re-park once I found out that I mistakenly went to the Regal Cinemas to see How To Cheat when I should’ve been at the Downtown Independent. Not only would it have cost me a small fortune (seriously, one night the parking lots charge four bucks and the next night the same lot demands fifteen), I wouldn’t have even made it there in time before the film started. Luckily, there were plenty of other films starting in the venue I was actually at. So, without any knowledge of what it was about, I stepped into Once I Was A Champion and couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised or moved.
Director Gerard Roxburgh started working on this documentary two days after MMA world champion Evan Tanner was found dead in September 2008 and was still working on tweaks to the final cut just hours before its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Drawing inspiration from other “talking head” documentaries like Man On Wire and The Fog Of War, Roxburgh crafted an honest, unflinching yet loving look back on the life and legacy of Tanner, an introspective fighter who wrestled with the fact that he was a fighter. His mysterious death left many wondering if, when he went out into the California desert with not much more than a bag and his motorcycle, he intended to never make it back alive. Roxburgh uses this as a jumping off point to interview dozens of friends, family, and fellow fighters in the MMA and UFC world to explore just who Tanner was.
But Roxburgh doesn’t spend much time trying to explain why Tanner went off on a potential suicide mission; instead, he focuses on Tanner’s unique life and personality. Which was, by far, the better way to go. Spending too much time hearing everyone’s theories as to what was going through Tanner’s mind as he went out into the wilderness ill-prepared for the elements would’ve cheapened the story, demoting it to more of a History Channel documentary rather than the feature that it was. Instead, Roxburgh delves into Tanner the person, who was conflicted by being this philosophical figure who loved to read classics like Siddhartha and Moby Dick when he wasn’t training for fights – and winning them. He also loved to drink. In one anecdote, a friend remembers watching Tanner order six shots of Patron tequila at the bar before a fight, thinking that he was going to bring them over to the table for everyone; instead, Tanner knocked them all back himself and, supposedly, another six an hour later. He then proceeded to fight and win in the ring.
One aspect of the film that felt a bit forced was this notion that Tanner was this extremely articulate, well-read man. Nearly everyone interviewed, including filmmaker John Herzfeld, confirmed this Tanner trait even though nothing involving Tanner in archival footage or the reading of his emails backed it up. Perhaps that’s more due to the fact that Tanner was such a quiet, shy man in public and that there just wasn’t a whole lot of footage of him available — and what images there were just didn’t capture that side of him.
Regardless, Roxburgh didn’t shy away from Tanner’s flaws and neither did those who talked about him. And that’s what made the film so successful, capturing the true sense of who Tanner was rather than just being just an ode to this revered, beloved MMA fighter.