Leavander Johnson: 1969-2005

By Francis Walker
Updated: September 24, 2005

Leavander Johnson NEW YORK — Leavander Johnson was a champion and a very courageous competitor under fire who left too soon. At age 35, Johnson died on Thursday after spending five days in a coma following a brutal eleventh-round knockout loss to Jesus Chavez on September 17.

Johnson took as many as two-dozen unanswered punches before the bout was stopped in the eleventh round. Johnson collapsed on his way to his dressing room before being rushed to the University Medical Center where he underwent emergency brain surgery to reduce dramatic swelling and bleeding of the brain. It was then Johnson was medically induced in a coma and would never again regain consciousness.

“His passing is a terrible reminder of the dangers inherent in our sport of boxing,” said Lou DiBella of DiBella Entertainment, Johnson’s promoter. “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.”

Johnson is the second fighter in less than three months to have passed away after a professional fight in Las Vegas, NV this year. In July, 26-year-old, super lightweight contender, Martin Sanchez of Mexico died after a knockout loss to Rustam Nugaev of Russia. Despite getting a clean bill of health after a post-fight examination, Sanchez collapsed and later underwent brain surgery.

Johnson Did Not Die In Vain

Recognized as just a journeyman, achieved tremendous success late in his career winning his first world championship in 2005. On June 17, Johnson traveled to Palalido, Italy to knockout hometown favorite Stefano Zoff in the seventh-round to capture the IBF lightweight championship.

Johnson made his professional debut on February 14, 1989 in his hometown of Atlantic City, NJ. He knocked out Jesus Rodriguez, also making his pro-debut, in the first round.

Johnson would remain undefeated for the next five years of his career. Johnson’s first loss occurred during his first world title fight in August 1994 when he was stopped in round eight by WBC lightweight champion, Miguel Angel Gonzalez.

Johnson after failed attempts at winning a world championship in 1997 and 2003, doubts began to swirl about Johnson as a world championship-caliber fighter. Between 1995-2004, Johnson had won only 13 fights, and had been knocked out three times.

Johnson was a fighter whom when he turned 30 (2000), he needed to continue to fight. He needed a way to make money to put food on the table for his family. His career, at one point, was in limbo. Not only did Johnson struggle to win a world title but also, he was not an HBO or Showtime fighter. Therefore, his purses were no where near the mega-dollars that Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, Zab Judah, and Floyd Mayweather made in their mid-20s.

Therefore, Johnson’s title-winning bid against Zoff is the most significant fight of his career. It took more than 17 years fighting exclusively as a lightweight (135-pounds). Johnson’s lifelong dream had finally come to fruition, hoping it would lead to fame and bigger purses.

Johnson (34-5-2, 26 KOs) passed away following only the first defense of the IBF 135-pound title against Chavez (43-3, 30 KOs), a former 126-pound champion who fought Mexican great Erik Morales (L 12) and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. (TKO 9). Johnson absorbed too much punishment; perhaps referee Tony Weeks should have stopped the fight much earlier than 38 seconds into the eleventh round.

Johnson earned a career-high, $150,000 for fighting Chavez. His life was valued much more.