Boxer dies five days after injury to brain

L. Johnson had suffered ailment Saturday during IBF lightweight title loss to J. Chavez

September 23, 2005|By Steve Springer

LOS ANGELES -- Boxer Leavander Johnson died yesterday at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas, five days after suffering a brain injury while defending his International Boxing Federation lightweight title against Jesus Chavez at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Johnson, 35, a native of Atlantic City, N.J., and a father of four, had left the ring under his own power, but collapsed just outside his dressing room. Rushed to the hospital, 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 percent.

By Sunday, however, there was noticeable improvement, according to Smith, and the swelling in Johnson's brain dramatically reduced. The fighter was placed in a medically induced coma to minimize movement and hopefully 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 yesterday morning, Johnson's family was informed that death could come within the hour. Then, Johnson rallied, his condition stabilizing.

Finally, sometime after 7 p.m. (EDT), he was pronounced dead.

Chavez had connected on 409 punches in the fight, including 229 power punches before referee Tony Weeks stopped the match 38 seconds into the 11th round. Johnson's record was 34-5-2.

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. Leavander's brother, Craig, who served as his manager, was ringside.

Although he had no comment after his son's death, earlier in the week, Bill Johnson described a conversation he and his son 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 that Bill became alarmed.

"What a tragedy to be involved in something like this," said Richard Schaefer, who runs Golden Boy Promotions, which staged last 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."

Steve Springer writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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