UFC champ Evan Tanner's final test.
Credit: Courtesy Evan Tanner

Tanner decided to try the life of a sailor next, even though he'd never sailed. He tackled it in two steps. Step one: He bought a series of books about knots, rigging, navigation. Step two: He bought an antique 30-foot wooden-hulled, two-masted ketch.

His friends advised him against it. "It was crazy, but hey," says Jorge Gayoso, a Uruguayan boat repairman who worked with Tanner on his ketch in Oceanside, California. The two men, along with another friend, Dan Elliott, sanded and filled and painted the 70-year-old wooden hull and repaired the engine, and with time the three grew close. "That boat needed a lot of work," says Gayoso with a laugh.

Tanner and Gayoso hit it off particularly well. They were both wild men and scholars, tattooed thinkers who spent their days working on the old sailboat, riding their Harleys along the beach road, surfing, and arguing existential questions.

And in the evenings, Tanner drank himself into oblivion.

He always kept himself physically fit, but he'd been drinking hard for a dozen or more years. Once at a postfight party, Tanner – so shy when sober – picked up the wife of legendary UFC referee John McCarthy, then dropped her, hurting her head. The incident horrified Tanner, who fled further into alcoholism. Now he was drinking at an almost suicidal clip.

On the nights he couldn't make it back to his boat in Oceanside, he stayed with Gayoso or Elliott. Elliott worked a night shift as a physician's assistant and sometimes came home at sunrise to find Tanner starting into a case of beer. At midday he'd go out for another. Then a third, in the evening. Elliott felt powerless to stop him.

"Look," Tanner told him. "I drink harder and deeper than most people with a drinking problem could ever understand." He drank with a sense of purpose, calling it another challenge to himself. An adventure. He told friends he did it as an intellectual exercise, so that one day he could warn his own children – which he wanted someday, when he felt qualified – of the ravages of alcohol.

However worthy his stated aims, his actions undermined them. He sometimes slept on a park bench. His friends had to check his refrigerator to make sure he had enough to eat. His teeth started to loosen in his skull. Tanner was a good-looking guy with a strong jaw and blue eyes, but he grew a long, gnarled beard that gave him the look of a homeless man, which, in a sense, he had become. And the one subject Tanner never spoke about, even in the deepest stupor, was his own childhood: the abandonment, and the pain.

As months went by, Tanner and his wooden boat wore out their welcome at Oceanside's guest docks, so one afternoon he launched himself into the heavy swells of the Pacific, hoping to sail for a more forgiving destination. Elliott went along, worried his friend would die if left alone. He had only sailed once before, during a lesson.

About 10 miles out to sea the old boat hit a big wave – crack. Then came another: crack.

Elliott looked below, into the hull. "The bilge pump isn't pumping," he told Tanner. "This thing could go down, man."

Tanner leaped below the deck to see, and sure enough the whole ocean seemed to be pouring into the hull. He grabbed an old tool bucket nearby and began bailing out the water. "I stayed up all night," Tanner said later, "much of it spent down in the hold in the cold water, trying to save her."

He bailed water just long enough for the old boat to limp closer to shore, where a man in a dinghy rescued them. Then Tanner's boat sank in spectacular fashion, within sight of a San Diego marina. The episode made the pages of a local boating journal and then into mixed-martial-arts circles online, where it made Tanner a laughingstock among baffled fight fans.

Tanner publicly set a date to quit drinking: October 10, 2007. "And he did," Gayoso said. "He just quit."

Tanner felt he'd had a voice as a champion fighter and lost it when he started drinking full-time. So he started training again. He joined gyms in Oceanside and Las Vegas and set up a network of friends and fans he called Team Tanner. They were his sponsors, because he refused to wear the logo of any product he didn't believe in or use himself. Instead of slogans for energy drinks and online casinos, his T-shirts bore the phrase "Believe in the Power of One."

That astonished the mixed-martial-arts establishment. "I'd say, 'Evan, these people want to give you free money.' But nope," says John Wood, a fighter and owner of Warrior Training Center, where Tanner worked himself back into shape. "He could have made a lot of money."

Tanner returned to the UFC last March when he took on Yushin Okami from Japan. The fight's commentators noted Tanner's incredible return to form. "Got himself way out of shape," Joe Rogan said, ringside. "No training at all for two years. Just beer."

Few people knew, though, just how thoroughly alcohol had ravaged Tanner's body. His hemoglobin – the oxygen-bearing protein that gives blood its red color – had fallen dangerously low. On television he looked fine, but internally his body struggled to move oxygen.

The fight seemed balanced, for a while, but in the second round Okami wrapped his hands behind Tanner's head and brought it down hard, smashing it against Okami's upward-moving knee. Tanner dropped to the mat, unconscious.

"It's just so hot here," Tanner kept saying to his friend on the phone, as the temperature hit 115 degrees. "There's no water."

The second fight of his comeback ended only slightly better, when Tanner lost by split decision to American Kendall Grove. None of that really mattered. Tanner had triumphed again; he had drifted into drunken, sunken despair and then, at 37 years old, fought his way back to clear-eyed validation.

He searched, once again, for a more difficult challenge.