Once I Was A Champion – Gerard Roxburgh Interview

Director Gerard Roxburgh talks about his documentary chronicling the career of UFC legend Evan Tanner.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

The Los Angeles Film Festival premiered a new MMA documentary, Once I Was a Champion. Gerard Roxburgh chronicled the career and passing of UFC fighter Evan Tanner, including clips of his fights, interviews with his opponents and families, and even some footage of Tanner himself. I spoke with Roxburgh after he introduced his first festival screening, the night of the Strikeforce fight on June 18.

Crave Online: It looks like there are a few soundbites of Evan talking to you. Did you start this process while Evan was still alive?

Gerard Roxburgh: No, that was archival footage that I actually licensed, footage that this guy just had and he never actually ended up doing anything with it. So he just cut together a little 10 minute video and he posted it on YouTube. That’s how I found that there was actual footage out there, which turned out to be an hour long interview that I managed to pick the best parts from.

Crave Online: How did you first hear about Evan?

Gerard Roxburgh: I’d been a fan of mixed martial arts for years and I also train. I injured myself and was looking for some motivation to get back into training and I started reading Evan’s blog thinking I’d find that, but his blogs are all about alcoholism so I wrote him a letter about making a documentary about him trying to get sobered up and get back into the UFC. He wrote me back and seemed really up for the idea. My uncle ended up dying back in Scotland so I decided to fly back there and make a film about him. During that process, Evan had sobered up and gotten back into the UFC and had lost his fights. Then he died, so I just felt like I needed to pick up where I left off. I felt it was my job to tell that story.

Crave Online: Have you updated the film since it screened for press already?

Gerard Roxburgh: There was a pretty major change at the very eleventh hour. We had a third pathologist come and say there might be another explanation for why the alcohol was present in his system. When the body decomposes, the sugars in your stomach can ferment and create that level of alcohol. So I couldn’t conclusively state that Evan had been drinking, so now it remains a total mystery as to whether or not he was actually drinking.

Crave Online: Right, the point of the film is still that he died, whatever the cause.

Gerard Roxburgh: Yeah, the point of the film isn’t necessarily about whether he’s sober or not. The point of the film is about here’s a guy that led a tragic life and never realized how much people cared about him and how many lives he managed to actually change. The irony is he always wanted to make this change in the world but I don’t think he felt like he could do it, but he actually kind of did do it just by all the people he touched.

Crave Online: Does training to that extent and having that much muscle numb the effects of alcohol?

Gerard Roxburgh: I wouldn’t say that, no. I train really, really hard. I don’t even really drink, I drink very lightly. I don’t think the two had any correlation. It just happened that he did both.

Crave Online: Why do you think so many MMA documentaries are being made now?

Gerard Roxburgh: I mean, it’s been around 15 years and back in the day when it first came out, it was a really violent sport. There wasn’t a lot of rules in place. Within the past 10 years and even more, six years, we’ve really narrowed down the rules and it’s become a lot more mainstream. So I think because of that, it’s become a lot more socially acceptable and therefore people are paying attention to it. There’s a couple of good documentaries done about it thought for HBO. One was The Smashing Machine, done about 10 years ago.

Crave Online: Since you train yourself, what eye do you have for the perfect clip to illustrate Evan’s fighting?

Gerard Roxburgh: It’s kind of funny you ask that. I wanted to mostly showcase the fights that showed you Evan winning the fight by whatever means necessary, but also not celebrating in those victories. I wanted you to see that side of Evan that shows you he’s really compassionate towards his opponent. So I thought more on that rather than the actual techniques of the fights per se.

Crave Online: Will that go a long way to showing people how sportsmanlike this sport is? Once it’s over, it’s over.

Gerard Roxburgh: Hugs and hanging out and go have dinner and a drink afterwards, for the most part. People don’t really walk away enemies.

Crave Online: Are they still fighting that misconception these days?

Gerard Roxburgh: Absolutely. Even when I tell people I’m doing a movie about an MMA fighter, they go, “What’s that? A cage fighter?” You get that look of “that’s kind of crazy.” Everybody accepts boxing. Nobody thinks boxing’s crazy but MMA, I would go on the record and say that I think it’s safer than boxing. I have a pretty legitimate reason to back that up. Boxing you’re using big gloves. Those big gloves, you get hit several times and you don’t get knocked out but your brain’s just getting rattled and rattled and rattled. In MMA, you get flash knocked out and it’s over. Whereas in boxing, they let you hit the floor and then they give you 10 seconds to recuperate but you’re not really recuperated. Then they give you another 10 seconds to recuperate and you’re not really. They do that three times before they call a fight. So by those merits I think that boxing’s more dangerous.

Crave Online: Are there any other fighter’s you’d make a documentary about?

Gerard Roxburgh: Not a documentary at this point. I’m really looking to switching to narrative film. The story would have to really jump out of at me to want to do another MMA doc. I’m interested in doing a movie narrative at some point but I’d have to find a really compelling subject.

Crave Online: Do you think movies like Haywire and Warrior could get the sport right?

Gerard Roxburgh: I heard Warrior’s a good film. I heard it’s the best film that has been out there or ever made thus far, so I’m really excited to see it. It’s hard to have really high hopes when you see all the other terrible MMA movies that are out, but I think it’s got a really good director, Gavin O’Connor who’s working on it, and Tom Hardy’s in it so I think that kind of legitimizes it.

Crave Online: I think it could be better than Never Back Down.

Gerard Roxburgh: Yeah, Never Back Down, I actually had a couple of friends in that movie so I’m not going to talk bad about it.

Crave Online: Who are you following in the sport as a fan?

Gerard Roxburgh: It’s so funny that you mention that because my favorite fighter is fighting tonight and I never got to see the fight. I’m heartbroken about that. His name’s Alistair Overeem. He’s a Dutch fighter and he just won tonight. He won a decision. I heard the fight wasn’t that good but he’s one of my favorites. I think he’s a guy that handles himself very well inside and outside the ring. That’s important to me. I don’t like guys that act like d*ckheads outside of the ring or they get cocky. I’m not a fan of the Floyd Mayweather’s of the world.

Crave Online: What sort of training do you do?

Gerard Roxburgh: I do mixed martial arts. I started off with Judo, boxing, Muay Thai and Jujitsu. I suck at wrestling but I’m starting to learn it.

Crave Online: Is it just for fitness, or to compete?

Gerard Roxburgh: I’ve competed in several grappling competitions and I’m hoping to have an MMA at some point in the future. Not that I want to make a career out of it whatsoever. I just want to be able to experience it.

Crave Online: What was the process of getting into LA Film Festival?

Gerard Roxburgh: I have no idea. I just submitted and Doug Jones called me and said he loved the film. I felt really, really happy to get selected.

Crave Online: Have you come to LA Film Fest in previous years?

Gerard Roxburgh: I haven’t actually but I’ll be here pretty much every year from here on in. I absolutely love these guys and I hope that I can keep making films that these guys are going to be interested in because it’s a phenomenal experience so far, especially the Skywalker Ranch filmmaker retreat was one of the best experiences of my life.

Crave Online: What do the filmmakers do at Skywalker?

Gerard Roxburgh: That’s a secret. It’s basically just an opportunity to get to meet all the other filmmakers before the festival starts so that you’re rooting for these guys that you meet on a very intimate setting without all the hoopla. It’s just the directors so you make a lot of friends there and you want to see their films. So it really encourages you to go to all their films. I basically was running late because I was going to catch one of my friend’s films.

Crave Online: Which one did you see?

Gerard Roxburgh: David Nordstrom’s Sawdust City. He’s a very cool guy.

Crave Online: The interviews with people close to Evan got so emotional, did you ever have to stop taping?

Gerard Roxburgh: Never. I never stopped taping. The only person I think we paused taping for, and the only reason we paused is because she left the room, was Danita. But we just kind of had this policy, keep rolling until I say cut. I wouldn’t stop. I would guide the people emotionally. I would try to bring them back up if they were talking about something really dark and depressing. I would remind them of the good times. I would play that kind of mediator.

Crave Online: Emotion can be so random also, did you have to focus them?

Gerard Roxburgh: Oh yeah, absolutely. You remember the start of the film with Joe? The guy screams at the camera. That was out of nowhere. I was like wow, where did that come from? So yeah, sometimes you’ve got to wrangle people. Basically it just became a conversation between me and these people because I got to know Evan so well. I went to everywhere that he’d ever went to, talked to everybody he ever talked to, read everything he ever wrote other than his private journals. So basically it was like I was sharing information with these people. I could tell them stuff they didn’t know. So they really opened up to me in that respect.

Crave Online: What was illuminated for you?

Gerard Roxburgh: I want people to come talk to me after this, try and make as many friends as possible. I learned a lot from Evan how to be a good man, how to be a truthful man. I learned that you really need help for alcoholics. They need to reach out and get help but for me personally, it reminded me to keep in touch more because I’m really bad at it. Constantly my friends are like, “Dude, you never call me anymore.” That’s something I really need to work on because that’s something that Evan was terrible at and a lot of people miss him. They never had closure. Hopefully this film is about that closure. Just get out there, touch people, meet people, make friends. We’ve all got Facebook now. Let’s just all send each other friend requests.

Crave Online: Do most MMA fighters now have blogs and connect with their fans that way?

Gerard Roxburgh: I believe the UFC is actually giving bonuses now to fighters that tweet so yeah, there’s a lot more social media interaction with fighters but back when Evan was doing it, there was only a couple guys that were doing it, so it was really out of the ordinary. Especially because I don’t blame a lot of these guys. They go on and say what’s up to the fans, and three fan responses, the fourth guy’s like, “You suck.” You get that all the time, just people trolling on the internet. They go on and just throw out a bunch of sh*t.

Crave Online: Do you have any extra stuff that can be on the DVD?

Gerard Roxburgh: Well, I have 200 hours of footage so yeah, I’ve got tons of stuff that never made it into the final film that I think especially as MMA fans, they would be really interested to see Evan’s training techniques and all that type of stuff as well. I never got to really touch on how Evan would train and what his secrets were. A lot of that stuff would be really cool to show.