Boxer Leavander Johnson died Thursday afternoon at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas, five days after suffering a brain injury while defending his lightweight title against Jesus Chavez at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Johnson, a 35-year-old native of Atlantic City and a father of four, had left the ring under his own power but collapsed just outside his dressing room. Rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with a subdural hematoma, Johnson immediately underwent a 90-minute surgery to dissolve a large clot pressing on his brain.
“He was a wonderful kid,” said Johnson’s promoter, Lou DiBella, crying as he spoke, “a fighter his whole life. As horrible as this is, the kid died doing what he loved, died a champion. Poor kids fight to get out of poverty. This is a kid who could have lived on the street, who could have died on the street. Instead, he died after achieving his dream.”
The prospects for Johnson’s recovery ebbed and flowed as did his condition. William Smith, the trauma surgeon who operated on the fighter, said that, upon Johnson’s admittance to the hospital, “I didn’t think he was going to make it.... It was quite a large clot.”
The force of the blows had moved Johnson’s brain from one side of his skull to the other, according to Smith. The surgeon said the survival rate for cases of that nature was 15%.
By Sunday, however, there was noticeable improvement, according to Smith. The swelling in Johnson’s brain dramatically reduced. The fighter was placed in a medically-induced coma to minimize movement and maximize the reduction in swelling.
But as the week wore on, the pressure on Johnson’s brain rose and fell. He developed kidney problems.
Early Thursday morning, Johnson’s family was informed that death could come within the hour.
Then Johnson rallied one more time, his condition stabilizing.
Finally, sometime after 4 p.m., he was pronounced dead.
Chavez had connected on 409 punches in the fight, including 229 power punches before referee Tony Weeks stepped in to stop the match 38 seconds into the 11th round.
Ringside physician Margaret Goodman came into the ring at the end of the 10th round to check on Johnson’s condition, but said she saw no signs that he should not be allowed to continue. Johnson’s father, Bill, was in his corner as his trainer and his brother, Craig, who served as his manager, was ringside. Both said that they were concerned earlier in the fight, but took into consideration Johnson’s history as a brawler who was willing to trade punches with opponents.
Although he had no comment after his son’s death, earlier in the week, Bill Johnson described a conversation he and his son had had during the fight.
“After the eighth or ninth round,” Bill recalled, “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.’ ”
Bill said he saw improvement. It was only in the 11th round, when he saw his son helpless on the ropes, Leavander’s legs dipping, that Bill became alarmed. And by then, Weeks was moving in to halt the fight.
“What a tragedy to be involved in something like this,” said Richard Schaefer, who runs Golden Boy Promotions, which staged Saturday’s event.
“It’s very sad. We hoped he could win the battle that matters most, the battle for his life. It was in God’s hands.”
When Schaefer took the call from DiBella, informing him of Johnson’s death, DiBella had a message for Chavez, a Golden Boy fighter, from Bill Johnson.
“He wanted Jesus to know,” Schaefer said, “that he should not feel he is to blame for this. Bill Johnson told Jesus to hold his head up high, defend his title and be a good and proud champion.”
Such words did little to soothe Chavez, according to Schaefer.
“He’s shaken up, devastated,” Schaefer said. “We all are. It’s such a helpless feeling because there is nothing we can do for Leavander.”
Chavez did not talk to the media Thursday. Oscar De La Hoya, head of Golden Boy, has flu and did not comment.
Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, learned of the fighter’s death while making one of his regular visits to Johnson, who had been in intensive care since his arrival at the hospital.
“My heart goes out to the family,” said Ratner. “We are all devastated by this. I had been very optimistic for Leavander in a cautious manner. This breaks our collective hearts. It’s just a shock. I shouldn’t be shocked, but I am.”
Then Ratner planned to phone the five Nevada commissioners to inform them of Johnson’s death.
Johnson, who had entered the ring with a 34-4-2 record and 26 knockouts in a career that began in 1989, had fought three times for a major title and lost on each occasion before stopping Stefano Zoff via a seventh-round TKO in Milan, Italy, in June to win the vacant International Boxing Federation lightweight championship.
Johnson’s match against Chavez was his first title defense.
Johnson was the seventh boxing fatality in Nevada since 1982, according to Ratner. Two of the highest profile cases were the death of Duk-Koo Kim in a 1982 match against Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and Jimmy Garcia in a 1995 fight against Gabriel Ruelas.
Johnson is the fourth fighter to suffer a hematoma in the ring in Nevada this year. Martin Sanchez died after a fight in July. The other two survived.
A match in May between Brian Viloria and Ruben Contreras at Staples Center ended with Contreras’ suffering a serious brain injury.
After emergency surgery, five weeks in a hospital and five more in a rehabilitation center, Contreras has regained much of his mental awareness and muscle control.
“We have to see if we can do something about this,” Schaefer said. “All of us as promoters have to pull together to see if there are any medical advances that can minimize these tragedies.”
In a statement, DiBella said that “national uniform health and safety regulations must be instituted and enforced” for boxing.
DiBella is instituting a fund for the fighter’s four children.