UFC champ Evan Tanner's final test.
Credit: Courtesy Evan Tanner
Evan Tanner took on his first notable challenge – and, as became clear later, his earliest demons – many years earlier, on another remote roadside.

It was the 1970s, somewhere in Arkansas. He was about six years old, riding with his mother in the family's Volkswagen van while his stepfather, a man he regarded as a stranger, sat at the steering wheel. A tire blew out, forcing them to the shoulder. On closer inspection the parents realized they didn't have a working jack.

"What we need is a big, flat rock," the mother said.

The quiet boy spoke up. "I saw a big rock back there," he said, pointing back down the road.

"Get back in the car," one of the adults said. They returned to the task of lifting the crippled car.

It's impossible to say what passed through the boy's mind in that moment, beneath his buzz cut. Almost certainly, though, he sensed in those days that his family was fracturing around him. His father had left when he was a baby, and his mother moved in with his stepfather, but the boy and the new man never developed a relationship. Later his mother, who struggled with depression, would move out when Evan was in high school, leaving him to more or less raise himself while living with his older brother.

On this day, though, on an Arkansas roadside, Evan could do something.

His mother looked up and saw her little boy staggering toward them. In his arms he carried an enormous, flat rock, so heavy that his legs bowed under the weight. A rock that could, he hoped, solve their troubles. A rock to prop them up, if only for a little while.

He differed from other fighters in striking ways. He studied philosophy and felt he had a message to share with the world.

He grew up shy, so quiet in school that his classmates overlooked him. He loved to read and surprised his friends with a memory they all – to a person – describe as "photographic." He could learn how to replumb a house, fix a car, or analyze the major religions in just one reading. "He was an anomaly," one friend said.

His great intelligence came with great anxiety, and he often hid in the deep folds of a big sweater and cap, even during hot weather. His mild nature made him an easy target for bullies. His friend Deana Epperson, who grew up across the street, asked him once why he never fought back, and he told her he couldn't, "because God would be mad at me."

Then one day in middle school a pair of boys cornered him behind a dumpster and unleashed something larger and darker in him than they could have possibly understood. "He proceeded to whip them both, badly," Epperson remembers. "Nobody could believe it. Sweet Evan Tanner? In his penny loafers? We really didn't understand."

As he grew his physical prowess became undeniable. He excelled at pole vaulting, cycling, football, snowboarding, surfing, and even bowled a good game. He ran home from school each day, five miles. Midway through high school he took up wrestling, and in his junior and senior years he won back-to-back state championships. He appeared out of nowhere, the finest wrestler in the state of Texas.

"It was unprecedented," says Brent Medley, a close hometown friend who wrestled as well. "Most of those guys had been wrestling since they were knee-high, but none of us understood what Evan was doing."

As quickly as he had taken up the sport, he dropped it. Tanner's physical skill couldn't calm the restlessness that drove him, eventually, to become a self-described drifter – someone who, as he put it, had "gypsy blood." He left Amarillo to attend tiny Simpson College in Iowa, thinking of becoming a doctor, and he triumphed there by making the dean's list. Then, with no explanation, he left.

He roamed. He visited towns that interested him and made money doing hard, physical work: construction jobs, laying cable, day labor. He traded the strength of his body for a chance to feed his mind. And when anxiety came, as it did from time to time, he would find a poorly lit corner of some local bar and drink until the demons fell silent.

In 1997 he passed back through his hometown, Amarillo, to do some work climbing telephone poles, and he attended a fight of the sort that would eventually be called mixed martial arts. Tanner didn't particularly care for fighting as entertainment. But he did love the sense of battle. What could be more existential than two men grappling in a cage?

People in town still remembered Tanner for his wrestling as a kid, and a fight promoter approached him about climbing into the ring again. He gave it a try – and swiftly dispatched every hard-swinging hoodlum in sight. He fought three times in one night, winning a hometown tournament.

Encouraged, Tanner bought a videotape about grappling that featured the famous Gracie family of Brazilian jujitsu masters. He lived alone in a cabin in a Texas wasteland at the time, so remote that he powered his VCR with a generator. People laughed – what sort of rube teaches himself to fight by mail order? – but Tanner absorbed the leverage, the pressure, the physics of it all, just by seeing it done. Then he proceeded to lay waste to anyone who stepped up to meet him, working his way in one year from Amarillo to Japan, where he manhandled the Japanese in something called the Neo Blood Tournament.

He only needed one thing as a fighter: better opponents.