Tanner, a former light heavyweight, had moved down to middleweight in late 2003 and won three straight bouts over Phil Baroni (twice) and Robbie Lawler, earning himself a shot at the vacant 185-pound title against David Terrell at UFC 51.
It was a contrast in careers, styles, and personalities.
Terrell was seen as one of the sport’s top up -and-coming talents. A Cesar Gracie-trained black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he earned his title shot by knocking out longtime UFC middleweight contender Matt Lindland in his promotional debut at UFC 49.
Tanner, for his part, had been in the UFC for four years at that point, having fought nine times for the promotion. Coming out of the famed Team Quest in Oregon, Tanner was seen as the veteran presence in the match-up. Many, however, considered him the stepping stone for Terrell’s ascension.
It took just under one round for Tanner to stop Terrell via TKO and claim a UFC championship that he had been chasing since losing to Tito Ortiz at UFC 30 three years prior.
Tanner held the title for only four months before losing it to Rich Franklin at UFC 53 by doctor’s stoppage.
Over the next three years, Tanner would lose three of four fights, officially picking up his last victory over Justin Levens at UFC 59 in 2006 by triangle choke, and falling to Kendall Grove via split-decision in his final fight at The Ultimate Fighter 7 Finale in mid-2008.
Tanner left the sport with a 32-8 record, having gone to decision only three times during that span. It was an amazing ride for a man that didn’t think he’d ever continue to compete beyond his first fight in a small Texas fight promotion in 1997.
While Tanner’s in-cage performance was steady most of the time, things weren’t quite the same outside the cage.
Prior to his bout with Terrell, Tanner left Team Quest and began employing his own independent coaches. He then bounced around to American Top Team and Chute Boxe, before finally settling into his own gym and team in Las Vegas.
Throughout late 2006 and into 2007, Tanner focused on building a foundation to help house and train disadvantaged athletes in Gresham, Oregon. Unfortunately, due to his commitments with his own training and a bad experience with the first fighter invited to his home, Tanner suspended his vision and focused on his MMA career.
In late Summer 2008, Tanner ventured into the California desert on a solo camping expedition. While people were concerned he was going off on a potentially dangerous excursion to find himself, Tanner reassured his friends that he was merely going out to ride his bike, shoot some guns, and have fun.
After losing contact with Tanner, his friends contacted Search and Rescue, and on Sept. 8, 2008, Tanner’s body was found by a Marie helicopter. He apparently succumbed to heat exhaustion in the 100-plus degree desert.
Later in September, a series of memorials were held for Tanner, including one in his native Amarillo, Texas. Four years later, a documentary about his life and ideology would be released.
Throughout his life and career, Tanner experienced the highest of high and lowest depths of low. But throughout it all, he remained a positive influence to countless others.
His aloof nature often created cause for concern, but Tanner was steadfast in his beliefs and for a short time, it took him to the top of the MMA world as a UFC champion.
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