UFC champ Evan Tanner's final test.
Credit: Courtesy Evan Tanner
In October, in Amarillo's dirt-floored cattle arena, a man with a microphone shouted a question to the crowd of about 4,000: "Are you people ready for a fight?"

Yes, they shouted. They were ready.

"I said, are you ready for a fight?"

Yes!, they shouted. And this time they meant it.

The fight's promoters had known Tanner and organized the event as a tribute. They invited his family into the cage, then announced the creation of a college scholarship in Tanner's name. The moment came with some awkwardness; Tanner hadn't spoken to his family in years, and his friends say he didn't care for them very much.

Tanner's mother, Sue Craig, is reluctant to talk about her son. "I guess what I'm wondering is, what's in it for us?" she says. There may be money down the road, she explains, when Hollywood gets word of Tanner's life.
She offers some broad sketches, some sense of how his childhood had unfolded. The father gone, the mother gone. The cold relationship with the stepfather.

She pauses, then adds, "I'm not sure how that's relevant, though. I'm not sure that affected him."

Except of course it did. Throughout his life Evan Tanner drifted – geographically, emotionally, physically – searching for a home. Searching to calm his restless mind, to prepare himself for a fatherhood that never came, to discover a purpose for his great and varied talents. And then, when he came near to any acceptance, he abandoned it.

The crowd in Amarillo was getting twitchy, after a few undercard matches and innumerable beers. Fights broke out in the audience and drew as much attention as the contests in the ring. A rowdy bunch, spoiling for action. Then, almost at the end of the night, Evan Tanner appeared on two giant screens, at each end of the stadium. When the crowd saw him they exploded with cheers. "Evaaan! Evaaaaan!"

His soft-spoken voice filled the place. He had something to say.

"One of the ultimate things a human can learn," he said, "is kindness for their fellow humans."

He might as well have delivered 4,000 simultaneous knockout punches, so complete was the silence.

Onscreen he paused. He looked down, as though speaking to himself now.

"I'd like to teach those things to my children."

The great tragedy of Tanner's life, in the end, was that he was right about himself. In each of his endeavors – his adventures, his challenges – he was indeed only a student, preparing for some later task. But that was also his greatest triumph: At the end of his posthumous message in Amarillo, the restless, hard-bitten crowd rose to its feet and cheered, against all likelihood, for the abstract cause of simple kindness.