Lightweight boxer Leavander Johnson made dramatic improvement Sunday, but remained in “guarded condition” at the University Medical Center trauma center after undergoing surgery Saturday night to remove a large clot pressing against his brain.
The 35-year-old Johnson suffered the injury -- a subdural hematoma -- during his International Boxing Federation championship match against Jesus Chavez at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“I didn’t think he was going to make it when he was first brought in,” said trauma surgeon William Smith, who performed the operation of approximately 90 minutes. “Based on the numbers in this type of case, the survival rate is about 15 percent. He is a sick young man, but he is fighting through it.”
The force of Chavez’s blows -- he landed 409 punches, including 229 power punches, before the fight was stopped by referee Tony Weeks 38 seconds into the 11th round -- caused a clot that pushed Johnson’s brain across his skull.
“It was quite a large clot,” Smith said.
Although there remains some swelling in the brain, it had returned nearly to normal size by Sunday, according to Smith.
“Fortunately, everything worked in his favor,” Smith said of his patient. “He couldn’t have gotten here any faster. We were able to operate about 40 minutes after the fight. And I just happened to be here [at the trauma center] when he arrived.”
Johnson, who has four children ranging in age from 6 to 15, remains in intensive care in a medically-induced coma. Barring any setbacks, doctors will begin weaning him out of the coma in two to three days, a process that could take an additional three to four days. Only then will the true extent of the damage be known.
A parade of some of boxing’s biggest names made their way through the waiting area at the trauma center late Saturday night and early Sunday. Bernard Hopkins, a partner in Golden Boy Promotions, which staged the fight, was there Saturday night, as was Shane Mosley, who fought on Saturday’s card.
On Sunday, Chavez came, as did Oscar De La Hoya, the head of Golden Boy.
Chavez said he had slept for only about three hours Saturday night, any joy over winning the title dissipated by the sorrow over Johnson’s condition.
“It’s a big shock,” Chavez said as he was driven to the hospital. “I sure as heck didn’t expect this to happen. It’s so unfortunate. You’ve got two guys just doing their job and looking for glory and neither one of us gets it.”
Any unease Chavez felt as he entered the waiting room was relieved by a warm greeting from the Johnson family: Leavander’s father and trainer, Bill, his brother and manager, Craig, and his other brother, Cade.
“My prayers are with you,” Chavez said as he embraced each of the Johnsons.
“God bless you,” Cade said.
“Don’t feel you are to blame. This is just the state of the game,” Bill said.
“Now, you be a good champion,” Craig said.
De La Hoya, who is contemplating retirement after two more fights, talked about his mortality and desire to prevent future head injuries.
“Something like this speeds up the process for me,” De La Hoya said. “I have to get out while I’m still young and have what it takes to not get hurt in the ring. You have to know your body, know when you can’t fight anymore.”
De La Hoya is calling for stricter neurological exams before permitting a fighter to get in the ring.
“It has to happen,” he said. “We must run more extensive tests. If all the promoters pay for it, it might cost a few thousand dollars to run those tests, but what’s a few thousand dollars if it saves lives?”
While Bill Johnson sat in the waiting room, hoping that doctors can save his son’s life, knowing that Leavander’s life as a fighter is over, he reminisced about how it had all begun.
Never a professional boxer himself, the senior Johnson had nevertheless spent countless hours in the gym before drifting away from the sport for a decade.
“It was my sons who brought me back,” he said, speaking in a soft voice in the hush of the waiting room. “They told me, ‘We want you to come back to the gym. We might be able to take this all the way to the pros and we want someone we can trust to help us.’ I didn’t have to pull them back to the gym. They pulled me back.”
With Bill in the corner and Craig in the background as the manager, it was Leavander who prospered in the sport, beginning at age 8 and winning his first major title just three months ago.
Both Bill and Craig were there Saturday, but neither was second-guessing himself Sunday about allowing Leavander to fight into the 11th round.
“His training was fine and his condition was good,” Bill said of the days leading up to the fight. “He was two pounds over weight the day before the weigh-in, but we shook that off. He was ready to work, eager to fight. He always came prepared because he always said that all fights were hard fights.
“But after the eighth or ninth round, I said to him, ‘Leavander, what’s happening? You are taking a few shots. Do you want me to stop the fight?’ He said, ‘No, no, I’m going to wear him down, go to the body.’ I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to show me some improvement or I’m stopping this fight.’
“In the 10th round, he was a little sluggish, but then he seemed to pick it up, so I said, ‘OK.’ I left him alone after that. Leavander fights with a lot of heart, so it wasn’t in my mind that he might be in trouble.
“But then, in the 11th, he went back up against the ropes and I saw his legs dipping. I turned to my second in the corner, Arnold Robbins, and said, ‘Man, he might be in a little trouble here.’ But just then, the referee stepped in and stopped it.”
Bill said his son was coherent in the ring immediately after the fight. But then Leavander collapsed in the dressing room.
“When they laid him down,” Bill said, “I thought it was just a precaution. I didn’t expect this kind of damage until the doctor showed me the X-rays.
“The one goal he set for himself was being a world champion and he accomplished that. That can’t be taken away from him. But he wanted to reap the benefits of that championship and that won’t happen now. That is the sad ending.”