The last time Lavar Johnson
had an important fight, it was the one for his life.
Right now, Johnson is in the midst of final preparations for his Strikeforce Challengers main event against fellow heavy-hitter Lolohea Mahe
. But just last summer, during Fourth of July weekend, the Strikeforce heavyweight was attending a party that was part Independence Day celebration, part family reunion. There were over 50 visitors still present just after midnight as Johnson began the process of saying his good-byes when Bennie Elwood West, a 19-year-old who was wanted for rape, allegedly opened fire on the partygoers.
As the bullets sprayed the area of the home on First and T Street in Bakersfield, Calif., everyone scrambled for cover. The burly 6-foot-2, 260-pound Johnson began to do the same, but soon noticed a little girl nearby frozen in fear. He pulled her down to shield her. It was moments later when he realized he'd been shot three times.
After the gunfire ceased, Johnson's first concerns weren't for himself. Not far away, he could hear his uncle saying that his son -- Lavar's cousin -- was dead. Thirty-seven-year-old Anthony Mack Johnson died at the scene from multiple gunshot wounds, and three other family members lay wounded in a shooting that police attributed to West and two other teenagers, Laquiria Foreman and Darryl Stewart.
Even after knowing he was shot, that was the first time fear kicked in for Johnson, who initially didn't think he was badly injured.I knew if I could make it through the night, I was alive and I was going to wake up and be alright.
-- Lavar Johnson
"My first reaction was to get up and go to the car go to the hospital," Johnson said. "But my stomach felt real nasty and I couldn't move, so I laid there and waited for help. I didn't know how serious it was until I was in the ambulance. That's when I asked the EMTs, 'Will I be ok?' And he said, 'I don't know. It's pretty bad.'"
The bullets ripped through his abdomen, hip and forearm.
At the very beginning, when he was first brought into the emergency room, his life hung in the balance. The bullet that hit him in his abdomen caused the most serious injuries. It punctured his intestine, colon, stomach and forced the removal of his appendix.
"I stayed awake the whole time until they put me to sleep," he said. "I knew if I could make it through the night, I was alive and I was going to wake up and be alright."
As that critical time passed, it became clear that Johnson was going to survive. But now another concern was entering his mind, one that wasn't so prevalent during the early moments when survival was the most immediate thought: there was the possibility that his MMA career could be over.
Just two months earlier in May, Johnson had made his Strikeforce debut, and done so memorably, knocking out Carl Seumanutafa in just 18 seconds
. The end was startling in its swiftness; Seumanutafa had shot in for a takedown, Johnson side-stepped him, pushed Seumanutafa's head downward and landed a thunderous right uppercut that connected on the chin. Seumanutafa fell face forward, unconcious.
Johnson had been scheduled for a follow-up fight on a Strikeforce card in August, but by the time that date rolled around, Johnson had just been discharged from the hospital. All told, because of the massive internal injuries, Johnson spent an entire month in the hospital and lost nearly 50 pounds.
At that point, fighting still wasn't the primary thing on his mind.
"I was just worried about my health," he said. "Not so much the fighting, but as the days went by, I started feeling alright. I got cleared by the doctor and he told me to pace myself. They didn't want me to get a hernia or anything like that. It was all about healing up."
When he left the hospital, he still had an open wound on his stomach that needed frequent cleaning, his internal organs were still healing, and the scar tissue in his stomach made it impossible to stand up completely straight.
Because of those issues, his physical rehabilitation was nothing more strenous than walking. For five months, he did no hard training, prohibited from taking blows to the stomach. As soon as the wound closed, however, he was back in the gym.
Incredibly, Johnson holds no anger towards his assailants for what they did to him, though he acknowledges they have to face the penalty if convicted of killing his cousin. Police have never released a possible motive.
"For me, I could forgive them for what they did," said Johnson, who is 13-3 in his pro career. "I'm healed up, so no harm, no foul. I'm still here with my kids (Donovan, 8 and Bishop, 5). I lost some money and got a nasty scar. It was stressful for everyone but I'm OK. I'm alive and able to continue on. But they took someone's life. His family has no husband or dad, so the penalty has to be pretty severe for that."
Johnson says the tragic incident gave him time to consider some of his own decisions, and that as a result, he's taking his fighting career more seriously. He cut down on his drinking and is training with American Kickboxing Academy, alongside heavyweights like UFC star Cain Velasquez
and fellow Strikeforce fighter Daniel Cormier
. He says he hasn't lost any speed or power, and he's looking to showcase himself on March 26 on Showtime.
"Nothing's changed," he said. "I'm still an exciting fighter. I do what I do. I haven't lost a step. Hopefully, I'll come out and get another first-round knockout."