After Shooting, Johnson Working on Return

By Jason Probst Oct 2, 2009
For Lavar Johnson, it was supposed to be a night of family and Fourth of July fun. Settled into an Independence Day celebration with relatives in Bakersfield, Calif., Johnson was fresh off the biggest performance of his career, an 18-second knockout of Carl Seumanutafa at Strikeforce’s May 15 card. Televised on Showtime, the bout was an impressive performance on a huge stage.

But on this night, Johnson encountered the kind of violence that has no rules and operates entirely on the whims of those deranged enough to perpetuate it.

“We were just having a family reunion at my uncle’s house. It really was a lot of old people. I was one of the youngest guys, and I’m 32. We had people come from Chicago, my cousin was in from Texas,” Johnson said. “We were hanging out and about to call it a night at 12. Then three kids, two guys, 19 and 20, and a 15-year-old girl … they just walked up to the party and started shooting.

Five people at the party were hit, including Anthony Mack Johnson, Lavar’s cousin, dying from his wounds. Lavar sustained wounds to the lower back, forearm and abdomen. Anthony, 37, and a father of three, was in town from Texas to take part in the reunion.

“I was talking to Anthony when it happened,” he said. “He was sitting on his motorcycle by the gate to the house. It was the Fourth of July, so (initially) I didn’t pay attention.”

After the shooting started, Johnson still reacted admirably given the circumstances, jumping on a 10-year-old girl to shield her from the gunfire.

“After that I waited a while and then they came and got her,” he said. “That’s when I knew I was hit.”

Since the shooting, Bakersfield police arrested suspects Laquiria Foreman, 15, and parolee Darryl Stewart, 19, with another suspect, Bennie Elwood West, still at large. According to a report in the Aug. 29 Bakersfield Californian, police believe the shooting was a retaliation against gang members at the party who had been involved in a drive-by where an associate of Foreman’s was hit.

Police continue to search for West, 19, who’s also a suspect in a March incident where authorities say he and another man abducted and raped a woman.

Court documents obtained as part of a Sept. 28 report in The Californian state that none of the victims were gang-affiliated.

At the time of the incident, Johnson, 12-3, had a fight lined up for the Aug. 15 Strikeforce card featuring Gina Carano-Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos as the main event, with James Thompson as a probable opponent. Suddenly, it’d all gone south thanks to the senseless violence of the streets.

Johnson knew things were bad, but he was composed, if concerned, en route to the hospital.

“I was worried when I got into the ambulance. I asked the guy if it was gonna be OK, and he was like, ‘I don’t know. It doesn’t look too good.’” And I thought, if it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go,” he said. “I just prayed to God up until surgery. They told me after surgery I might have to have a colostomy bag on my thigh, and I’m like, ‘Whatever you got to do to keep me alive.’ I lost like three-quarters of my blood. They stopped operating on me and continued the next day, and just left me open through the night. They spliced my intestines in six different spots. My colon was damaged, and they took out my appendix. I still have a bullet in my forearm. It’s just deep in there, and they don’t want to damage any nerves. It doesn’t hurt.”

Normally a solid 250 pounds in fighting trim, the powerfully built fighter with the nickname “Big” lost 30 pounds recovering in the hospital. He’s back to 230 and hoping to return, building on a career that had just started to take off before the shooting.

“I’m already jogging. As soon as I’m in shape and get released from the doctors, I think I’m going to get licensed. I’m pushing the issue,” he said. “And looking to get back in there.”

“Looking to get back in there” is an understatement, given the prowess Johnson’s shown. While heavyweights in mixed martial arts run the gamut from overpowering wrestlers to jiu-jitsu stylists, “Big” has a slugger’s mindset, equipped with the tools to produce highlight-reel exchanges. Johnson doesn’t come out looking to play the takedown game and work for submissions -- he’s there to bang, and with powerful hands and an explosive delivery, the Strikeforce heavyweight division could get pretty exciting once he returns, given a clean bill of health.

That roster is especially important now that the organization has signed Fedor Emelianenko, who’ll be squaring off with Brett Rogers Nov. 7 on CBS, in what could be the most important non-UFC fight card in North American MMA history.

Ironically, Rogers, a virtual unknown to fans before his shock knockout of Andrei Arlovski, finds himself pitted against the game’s eminent heavyweight thanks to a sparse talent pool amidst Strikeforce’s heavyweight ranks. But one punch can change everything, and Rogers certainly brings that possibility against the supremely composed Emelianenko.

“With MMA that’s what I love: You never know what the hell’s gonna happen,” Johnson said when asked to handicap the bout. “These heavyweights, either one can knock each other out. I don’t know. Honestly, I think Fedor will win, but Brett Rogers, if he lets his hands go like he did against Arlovski, I dunno if Fedor can handle that."

Training at AKA in San Jose, Johnson is hoping to return to top form in the coming months. He doesn’t have anything lined up for now, as he’s just working on getting back into shape.

"I always knew I could (compete at the top level). Sparring with Cain Velasquez and Paul Buentello and those guys, I do really well,” he said. “There’s not a big difference. I wanted my game to be more well-rounded."

Whatever happens, Johnson’s return makes for an inspiring story given the tragic events of July 4. And given the considerable swings of fortune that can happen in the sport, he’s maybe an impressive performance or two away from the bright lights and big stage Rogers will step to against Fedor in a few weeks.

It’s be the biggest fight of his career, for sure.

But not his life.

He’s already won that.

Reader note: While Johnson’s recovery continues, a fund has been set up to help with expenses. Go to www.bloodymayhem.com and click on “Lavar Johnson Recovery Fund” to make a donation via Paypal.
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