Tuesday, February 26, 2008


For a time, Evan Tanner (32-6 MMA, 11-4 UFC) was perhaps the most popular fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

A clean-cut, intelligent and humble all-American who shattered every preconceived notion of an "ultimate fighter," it was easy to root for him. Even among UFC fighters, he was a role model — the big brother the younger guys wanted to emulate.

When he won the UFC's middleweight title in 2005 — his eighth victory in nine fights — the 37-year-old fighter reached the zenith of his success and popularity. However, he'd lose his title and two of his next three fights, and an unfortunate and all-too-public downhill slide began.

Tanner hasn't competed in the UFC (or anywhere for that matter) since an April 2006 fight with Justin Levens. A well-documented battle with alcohol — one that Tanner himself continually wrote about on his Web site — kept him too busy for any battles in the cage.

As the UFC's middleweight division was slowly depleted of talent, and as new champ Anderson Silva continued to separate himself from the pack, the rumblings began. The fans wanted Tanner back in the octagon.

Rumors of his possible return came and went. Rumored fights even heated up — only to be extinguished by the UFC or Tanner himself.

Then, in November, the Texan announced he had signed a four-fight deal. Now, his long-awaited return is set for the Saturday, March 1 UFC 82 event at Columbus' Nationwide Arena.

He could have competed sooner, but the UFC had a problem: no one wanted to fight him. "They approached four guys about a fight, and all four declined it," Tanner said.

For most fighters, it was a no-win situation. Despite Tanner being a former champ, a victory over him would do little to help a fighter's stock in the division. And a loss could be downright disastrous.

As it turns out, the only fighter willing to step in and take the bout was arguably its top contender: Yushin Okami (20-4 MMA, 5-1 UFC).

Although the fight didn't receive top billing, don't be surprised when Saturday's crowd treats Tanner's return like the night's main event.

Dann Stupp
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