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Making the case for Evan Tanner to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame

During a public Q&A last week at the Sports USA Bar in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, UFC President Dana White revealed that the promotion is expected to decide soon on which fighter will be inducted into its Hall of Fame.

This past March, Mark Coleman, one of the organization’s most dominant heavyweight champions, was inducted at UFC 82.

With a new nominee potentially to be decided upon soon, I began to think about which fighter is most deserving. Keep in mind that the UFC decides who and who won’t be enshrined in its Hall, however, as a fan, I can certainly express an opinion.

While I believe that Pat Miletich and Frank Shamrock are the two candidates most deserving based on merit, the reality is that neither is on good terms with the current ownership of the UFC and both are unlikely to have their past contributions acknowledged anytime soon. Before they can receive an honor as esteemed as induction to the UFC’s Hall of Fame, we need to get to a place where Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan are allowed to talk about them on TV.

Since politics could be a factor in the nomination process, it’s wise to think from a realistic perspective and support a candidate with a legitimate chance. For what it’s worth, my support is going to the late Evan Tanner.

Tanner may not have the ideal resume needed for an inductee, but he began his professional MMA career in an environment that is varies greatly from the current incarnation of the sport.

The Texas native broke into the sport at a time when the sport was commonly referred to as “No Holds Barred.” The term “mixed martial arts” wouldn’t be adopted until several years after he began to compete.

While Tanner’s first fight was just slightly over ten years ago, that might as well be a completely different era based on how fast MMA has grown in that time. And being that Tanner comes from a different era, the standards in which he is judged for an honor such as the Hall of Fame should be different than the criteria you’d apply to a fighter whose peak transpired during the current era.

In the mid-90’s, there really weren’t any fight camps teaching MMA as a style of its own. Fighters looking to become well rounded had to piecemeal their training by running all over the place working their ground at one gym while going to another gym to work their standup.

But going to different camps was only a situation that transpired if a fighter was willing to become a complete fighter — which was not always the case in the 90’s. Back then it wasn’t uncommon to see a fighter break into the sport after having trained in just one discipline.

In today’s world, an accomplished amateur wrestler such as Ben Askren is going to train for a prolonged period time before he debuts in MMA. But if this was ’96, someone such as Askren probably would have gone from the Olympics straight to the Octagon a month later.

It really wasn’t until the formation of Miletich Fighting Systems by Miletich in which we would see all components of the sport taught under the same roof.

For Tanner, his introduction to the sport didn’t come inside of a fight gym, as his transformation from an amateur wrestler to a professional fighter took place in his garage. And he didn’t have someone like Miletich as his instructor, instead opting to learn the art of fighting courtesy of his VCR via instructional tapes produced by the Gracie family.

When talking about UFC fighters that began competing for the promotion during the pre-Zuffa era, the pioneer aspect of a fighter’s contributions to the sport should be taken into consideration. Tanner was a man ahead of his time, working hard towards becoming a dual-threat on the ground and on his feet. While the ground was Tanner’s strength, his striking was very respectable by early-2000s standards.

Fighters from the pre-TUF era are going to face many obstacles when it comes to garnering deserved recognition from the sport’s new generation of fans. They will be judged by the standards that exists for the sport’s current era and in many regards, they are standards that even the most skilled and accomplished of fighter from the NHB era will have a hard time living up to.

A fighter such as Tanner faced issues that include but are not limited to fewer weight classes, limited of accessibility to world class training, certain victories lacking luster because their opponent was a victim of under-exposure, and not having an overly-impressive record due to competing on an infrequent basis.

When Tanner started out, he was fighting men much heavier than him such as Heath Herring, Paul Buentello, and Justin McCully because you either fought over 200 pounds or under. There was need to cut to 185 pounds at the time because the weight class hadn’t been invented yet. Even in spite of the weight disparity, Tanner still recorded victories over the aforementioned three.

And there are wins on Tanner’s record which might have little relevance in today’s era of MMA but meant a lot at the time. The average American MMA fan has never heard of Ikuhisa Minowa but he’s a household name amongst the Japanese MMA and professional wrestling scene.

When Tanner defeated “Minowaman,” the Japanese fighter didn’t have the best record (and he still doesn’t) but it was a high-profile victory that meant something at the time. Tanner’s 1999 win over Daryl Gholar falls into a similar category. Gholar is currently a top wrestling coach for MMA but prior to becoming a coach, he was a fighter. And prior to fighting, he represented the U.S. Olympic team as an alternate in 1988 and was captain of the 1986 U.S. World Team.

Gholar isn’t a household name these days unless you’re a fighter looking for top-level wrestling instruction. He also finished his MMA career with a 5-6 record, but it was still a big win for Tanner considering he was facing a world class wrestler during a time in which being world class in just one style was enough to make you a threat.

Wins over Minowa, Gholar, and Homer Moore transpired during a time in which the media paid little attention to MMA and fighters didn’t have the benefit of being built up through a marketing machine. Not to mention that during Tanner’s heyday, fighting opportunities were often scarce and a fighter that wanted to remain active was often forced to accept fights against competitors of all shapes, sizes, and experience level.

But even in spite of some of the issues that are inherent to a fighter’s resume that was built up during the pre-Zuffa era of the UFC, Tanner still has strong credentials. Not only was he a former UFC middleweight champion but he held the USWF heavyweight title while also becoming the first-ever winner of the Pancrase Neo-Blood tournament. Meanwhile, victories over Robbie Lawler, Phil Baroni, and David Terrell during MMA’s current era also carry a lot of meaning.

At the time, Lawler, Baroni, and Terrell were all top contenders in the UFC middleweight division. Maybe his win list could be a little more impressive, but Tanner could only fight those that were put in front of him. When Tanner won the UFC middleweight title in 2005 against Terrell, there weren’t nearly as many shows or anywhere near as many fighters under contract.

Outside of the cage, Tanner’s struggle with his own personal demons is well-chronicled. However, he primarily hurt only himself as opposed to others. And despite some bad decisions that had an adverse effect on his career, he was still good enough to have accomplished a great deal.

When you look at Tanner’s career from a panoramic perspective, it would appear his only fault when it comes to garnering public support to be inducted in the UFC Hall of Fame might be that his peak occurred before the sport had reached its own.

Tanner gave a lot to the sport of MMA during times in which it gave him little in return. Now that he’s gone, there are very few ways to repay him for the impact he made. One of the few ways to give him the recognition he so richly deserves is by making him the latest fighter to be inducted into the UFC’s Hall of Fame.

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