UFC champ Evan Tanner's final test.
Credit: Courtesy Evan Tanner
Tanner arrived at the UFC in 1999, at a time when it was trying to rehabilitate its underground image, and he couldn't have been better suited for it. Here came a handsome, articulate young Texan who looked like an athlete, not a street fighter.

Tanner thrived at the UFC over the next few years, bringing his professional record to 30-4, and in 2005 he gained a shot at the world middleweight title. He fought as an underdog against David Terrell, who early in the match placed Tanner in a painful "guillotine" choke. Tanner managed to escape, climbed atop Terrell, and pounded him until the referee called the fight for Tanner.

He was a world champion now living under the bright lights of Vegas, but none of it mattered to him. Ian Dawe, a Canadian fighter and friend who at one point lived for three months with Tanner, arrived to discover him living a monastic lifestyle in the heart of Sin City. Tanner had a one-bedroom apartment with one mattress – minus the frame – for himself and a futon for visitors, one plastic plate and cup for each, and a pile of books.

"He knew I wanted to see the glamour side of Vegas," Dawe says, "so one night when he was invited to a party at the top of the Palms, he went so I could have a look." There the young Canadian stared at UFC superstar Tito Ortiz, porn star Jenna Jameson, and other self-promoters who reflected light like disco balls, all teeth and cleavage and sharkskin. Tanner, a champion fighter, walked in wearing a T-shirt, blue jeans, and work boots. "He really didn't care," Dawe says. "And that shocked people."

Tanner had triumphed in mixed martial arts, and so, true to form, he abandoned the sport. His timing couldn't have been worse, really. The title bout had paid him only $38,000, but just afterward the UFC exploded into the national consciousness as a full-fledged sport, with millions of lucrative pay-per-view subscribers and much larger purses for its champions.

Tanner didn't care. Fighting, to him, had been like working in a construction yard or laying cable, but with an audience. "He never really wanted to be a fighter," his friend Brent Medley says. "That's the irony. He was good at it, but he didn't particularly like it. For him it was just a way of traveling the world. People recognized him on the street for his fighting, but he wanted to be remembered for his ideas."

Tanner had one particular idea that he wanted to convey to the world, which he called "the power of one." It's the notion of small kindnesses, or as he later explained: "Your words and actions resonate out eternally, in a sense. It reaches one person, then two people, then four, and it expands out exponentially."

The books in his apartment would have surprised the opponents whose faces he had pounded: 'Pride and Prejudice,' 'Doctor Zhivago,' 'Siddhartha,' 'Crime and Punishment,' and, most unexpectedly, 'The Tao of Pooh.' Tanner had always guarded his sensitive, philosophical side. Once, when he was in grade school, his mother had found him reading a biography of Chief Joseph, the 19th-century peacemaker. The boy had turned away, with tears in his eyes.

"Right now I'm just like a student," he said later, as a man. "I'm doing the best I can with what's put before me. Just getting ready."