- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's note: This story originally was published Sept. 20, 2005. On Sept. 22, Leavander Johnson died at a Las Vegas hospital from injuries suffered in a Sept. 17 fight.
Leavander Johnson celebrated the happiest day of his pro boxing career June 17, when he finally won a lightweight world championship after losing three previous title shots.
Then last month, during an appearance at one of promoter Lou DiBella's monthly "Broadway Boxing" cards in Manhattan, came the highlight of Johnson's brief title reign.
Johnson and undisputed middleweight champion Jermain Taylor, another of DiBella's fighters, were guests of honor. During a break in the action, the two champions were brought into the ring and introduced to the crowd to loud applause.
"You should have seen the glow in his eyes," said Joe Quiambao, the DiBella Entertainment matchmaker. "He had that look like, 'I've arrived.' I know how hard he worked for it."
Johnson, 35, suffered a serious brain injury Sept. 17 during an 11th-round TKO loss to Jesus Chavez at the MGM Grand on a card headlined by Marco Antonio Barrera's junior lightweight unification victory against Robbie Peden.
While Barrera and Peden were engaged in their fight, Johnson was undergoing surgery to relieve pressure from a subdural hematoma (bleeding on the brain).
Johnson was a fighter at heart, and he was doing what he had done throughout his 16-year career: Fighting.
"I don't think there is anyone to really blame," said DiBella, who promoted Johnson's past four fights and has grown close to him.
"This is one of those instances where fingers can't be pointed. This was a circumstance of a champion being victimized by what made him a champion -- his courage and unwillingness to quit. There is no other way he would have done it. We're in the hurt business, and sometimes this happens."
Johnson, a father of four, might have been a world champion for only three months, but they were three months -- highlighted by the appearance at the card in New York -- that he thoroughly enjoyed.
The Atlantic City, N.J., native had gone to Milan, Italy, as an underdog to challenge Italian hero Stefano Zoff for the vacant IBF 135-pound crown. In a career of ups and downs, it was Johnson's fourth, and probably last, shot at a title.
Three previous times, he had come up short in his quest to become a world champion:
• Aug. 6, 1994: He was stopped in the eighth round by Miguel Angel Gonzalez in a WBC title challenge.
• May 10, 1997: He was stopped in the seventh round by Orzubek Nazarov in a WBA title challenge.
• Nov. 22, 2003: He was stopped in the 11th round by Javier Jauregui in a match for the vacant IBF title.
The Jauregui fight was brutal and Johnson took a lot of punishment. DiBella said that after the fight, Johnson asked him to try to get him one more title shot.
DiBella agreed, and four months later he made a fight for Johnson against Roque Cassiani on a Taylor undercard. Johnson won a 10-round decision. The victory positioned Johnson to fight Zoff for the title, which had become vacant after Jauregui lost to Julio Diaz, and Diaz subsequently relinquished it to fight then-WBC champion Jose Luis Castillo.
"I just never saw him look the same after the Jauregui fight," said Mike Marchionte, the former DiBella Entertainment matchmaker who still works for the company on a freelance basis. "That was World War III. It was a bloodbath, a war. It took a lot out of him, no doubt."
But Johnson still had enough left to get the job done against Zoff. Although he lost some of the early rounds, Johnson began to come on stronger as the fight progressed. Finally, he knocked Zoff down in the seventh and won on a TKO.
"I won't say that he didn't look right against Zoff because maybe he was taking his time, being careful," Marchionte said. "But he was moving a lot slower in the first four rounds against Zoff than he did in the Jauregui fight. But he was a true warrior and won his world title. Now I just want to give the guy a hug."
Chavez hit Johnson with more than 400 blows, many of them accurate head shots. Bill Johnson, Leavander's father and trainer, told the Associated Press that he told his son he was going to stop the fight after the eighth or ninth round. But Leavander Johnson insisted he could continue fighting because "I'm wearing [Chavez] down."
In truth, it was the other way around. Chavez was landing at an alarming rate and Johnson was not throwing much back in return.
But he was still lucid enough between rounds that the ringside physician allowed him to continue. In the 11th round, Tony Weeks, widely considered one of the best referees in the world, stopped the fight. The Nevada State Athletic Commission supported Weeks' action.
"The referee did a great job. We support his stoppage," commissioner Dr. Tony Alamo Jr. said in a statement.
While Johnson was on his way to the dressing room under his own power, he began having trouble walking, DiBella said.
"He was talking to me, chatting and then he said he had a bad headache," DiBella said. "Within seconds he collapsed. The commission did an unbelievable job. The kid was in ambulance within five minutes and was in surgery within 40 minutes. God willing, the quick action will save his life."
The Johnson family -- including Leavander's parents, brothers and girlfriend -- had kept a vigil by his bedside.
"The father loves boxing and the father loves his son and he is praying very hard right now," DiBella said. "He is a very religious person. The father understands the game and is not blaming the game. The rest of the family is the same way."
A few days before Johnson (34-5-2, 26 KOs) made his first defense against Chavez -- for which Johnson earned a career-high $150,000 -- he recounted his crowning moment.
"It was an honor to be going over to Italy to fight for the title, and I took care of my business," Johnson said with a degree of pride in his voice.
"It was a good fight. I wasn't fighting over there to leave it up to the judges. My hands were my judges. When I won the title, it was just exciting, and I was just speechless. I just threw my hands up in the air."
Marchionte, who represented DiBella in Italy for the fight, remembers the night well.
"There were only four or five of us over there with him for the fight, and everyone was just elated," Marchionte said.
"It was a sensational victory for him, especially coming overseas, where you know it's hard for a foreign fighter to win. I thought the odds were against him, but he did it. Later that night I saw him outside the hotel and I put him on the phone with Lou. We were all very happy. It was just a wonderful night."
Johnson didn't have much time to celebrate, however. The fight had taken place at night and at an arena more than an hour from the hotel. By the time Johnson and his small group returned "everything was pretty much closed. There was no big party," Marchionte said, adding that had there been a party it would have been a short one.
They had an early morning flight back to the U.S. and had to leave the hotel at about 4 a.m.
Even as champion, Johnson remained humble, loaning his precious belt to Taylor for a series of public appearances.
Taylor had outpointed Bernard Hopkins for the undisputed middleweight title in mid-July, and when he was making the media rounds in early August, had yet to receive his official IBF belt.
One of the appearances was an invitation to meet President Clinton -- a fellow Arkansas native like Taylor -- at his Manhattan offices, and Taylor needed all of the belts for a photo.
Johnson to the rescue.
"Leavander loaned his belt to Jermain because he's a good guy, one of the best guys I've ever worked with," DiBella said. "Jermain was part of the DiBella team, he needed the belt, so no problem."
It is that kind of fraternal attitude that made Johnson popular within the boxing industry. Among those who have visited him in the hospital: The Golden Boy Promotions team of Oscar De La Hoya, Richard Schaefer, Hopkins and Shane Mosley; former cruiserweight and light heavyweight champ Virgil Hill; Nevada commission executive director Marc Ratner; and DiBella. Even Chavez paid a visit, in a classy move during a tough time.
Chavez's appearance at the hospital was comforting to the family, according to DiBella and others who were there.
"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I'm just praying for him," Chavez told the family. "He's in my thoughts."
"You fought a great fight. You're a true champion," Bill Johnson told Chavez. "This is one of those things that happens in this business. We knew the risks. Don't let this bother you. You go do what you have to do. You're a great champion."
So while the boxing community offers whatever support it can, DiBella is just grateful that Johnson received the recognition as a world champion that he craved during that August card in New York.
"I think being introduced to the crowd as a world champion and hearing the applause was one of the prouder moments of his life," DiBella said.
"No matter what happens, he had his title. He was incredibly happy to have won it. It was the realization of a lifelong dream. He enjoyed the adulation. He was humble about it, but very, very proud to be acknowledged for what he had worked his whole life for."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
Leavander Johnson emerged from journeyman to become a lightweight champion. A year after his death from brain injuries suffered in a loss to Jesus Chavez, Johnson's memory still resonates.