Johnson dies from brain injury sustained in title fight

Updated: September 23, 2005, 12:16 PM ET
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

Leavander Johnson, who suffered a serious brain injury defending his lightweight world title last Saturday night, died on Thursday. He was 35.

Leavander Johnson
AP/Isaac BrekkenJohnson was in a coma less than an hour after his bout with Chavez.

Johnson died at University Medical Center in Las Vegas at 4:23 p.m. PT, five days after losing to Jesus Chavez, who scored an 11th-round TKO on an HBO PPV card at the MGM Grand.

Johnson, a 16-year pro, collapsed minutes after taking a one-sided beating from Chavez. Johnson was rushed to the hospital, and within 40 minutes was undergoing emergency surgery to relieve pressure from a subdural hematoma, or bleeding on the brain. He was placed in a medically induced coma, from which he never awoke.

"All of my prayers are with Leavander Johnson and his family in this difficult time," Chavez said in a statement. "He was a true warrior with a tremendous heart, and every day I will think of him and say a prayer for him. He will never be forgotten."

Although Johnson showed dramatic improvement a day after the surgery, he suffered a setback. Another blood clot was discovered in his brain, and he had a second surgery that left him weakened.

"We at DiBella Entertainment are devastated by the loss of our great friend and champion," said Lou DiBella, Johnson's promoter. "Our prayers are with his parents, children, siblings and loved ones. His passing is a terrible reminder of the dangers inherent in our sport of boxing.

"Despite the high level of medical care and regulation in Nevada, it is also a reminder that the health and safety of fighters must be protected to the greatest extent possible and that national, uniform health and safety regulations must be instituted and enforced. If there is any comfort to be taken at this time of great sorrow, it is that Leavander lived his dream and died a champion doing what he loved most."

Bill Johnson, Leavander's father and trainer, was at his son's bedside when he died, as was his mother, sister, two brothers and girlfriend. Funeral plans are pending.

"Bill Johnson, on behalf of the family, wishes to thank the public and boxing community for the love and support that they extended to Leavander and his team," a DiBella Entertainment statement said. "Bill would also like to wish the best of luck to Jesus Chavez, a great champion, and to tell him that he is blameless in this tragic situation. DiBella Entertainment and the family are establishing the Leavander Fund to support the essential needs and education of Leavander's four children."

There will be all these people who will come out and say this is the brutality of our sport. ... Nobody blames auto racing when guys die hitting walls driving 200 miles per hour because it's not poor kids who race cars. It's poor kids who fight.
Lou DiBella, Leavander Johnson's promoter

Details on the fund are expected to be released later.

Chavez, whose visit to Johnson in the hospital was comforting to his family, said he plans to honor Johnson.

"The best way I can do justice to the title Leavander and I both proudly held is to defend it well and to be a true champion in and out of the ring, like he was," said Chavez, who added that he would donate to the fund being set up a portion of each purse he makes as long as he holds the title.

Johnson's death is the second in Las Vegas this year. Martin Sanchez of Mexico died July 2, the day after he was stopped by Rustam Nugaev of Russia. It is the fifth ring death in Las Vegas since 1994.

"Leavander Johnson epitomized what all boxers should want to be, a courageous and skilled boxer who always gave his best every time he stepped through the ropes," said Oscar De La Hoya, the president of Golden Boy Promotions, which promoted the card. "His loss is a tremendous blow to the boxing community and to me personally. He was a class act and a good man. Leavander will be missed."

Said Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer: "Our prayers are with the family. We were hoping that he was going to make it through. Now we can just pray for the Johnson family and I wish them strength in this moment. It's a tragedy. It's something that should never happen."

Johnson turned pro in 1989 and finished with a record of 34-5-2 with 26 knockouts. After three previous unsuccessful title shots, he got a fourth opportunity on June 17.

Fighting as the underdog, Johnson stopped Italian Stefano Zoff in the seventh round to win the vacant IBF title on June 17 in Milan. Three months later to the day, Chavez stopped Johnson in his first title defense, for which he earned a career-high $150,000.

Chavez dominated Johnson, hitting him with more than 400 blows, many clean head shots. But Johnson was known for his huge heart and continued to fight.

Bill Johnson considered stopping the fight after the eighth and ninth rounds but Leavander convinced him to allow him to continue. Ringside physician Margaret Goodman also examined him between rounds and allowed the fight to continue.

But at 38 seconds of the 11th round, with Chavez punishing Johnson along the ropes, referee Tony Weeks interceded.

Johnson left the ring under his own power, but began to drag his left leg while walking back to the dressing room. Minutes later, he collapsed.

"He fought like a warrior when he was on death's door," a weeping DiBella said. "There will be all these people who will come out and say this is the brutality of our sport. It is, but this was also something where you can't blame people. Nobody blames auto racing when guys die hitting walls driving 200 miles per hour because it's not poor kids who race cars. It's poor kids who fight. But Leavander didn't want to be a drug dealer, he didn't want to hustle on the streets, he didn't want to do the wrong thing. He wanted to be a world champion, and that's what he became."

"He died living his dream."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.

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