When Lavar Johnson enters the Save Mart Center in Fresno on Friday as part of the Strikeforce Challengers card, some mixed martial arts enthusiasts might say it's the biggest fight of his life.
After all, each tussle on the way up the ladder can justifiably wear that description. One loss and who knows when your next shot will come?
Rest assured, the 33-year-old from Madera, Calif. is still on his way up.
Johnson has an impressive 14-3 record, with 14 stoppages (12 knockouts, a submission from strikes and a submission due to a guillotine choke hold), and has already tasted some semblance of championship gold—via the War Gods heavyweight title. Yet, he feels that his best is yet to come.
"I just feel good, ready to go. Like I'm gonna be on point for this fight," said Johnson.
Considering what the guy has been through since July 4, 2009, it's hard to argue against his confidence.
America's Birthday Ends in Tragedy, but Could've Been Worse
That was the day a hail of bullets at a celebratory barbecue threatened to end Johnson's burgeoning MMA career and—far more importantly—his life.
According to the father of two boys, one bullet hit him in the hip, one hit him in the forearm and the third hit him in the abdomen. Each one of which did significant harm—he needed surgery to splice together damaged ligaments and tendons, had a hole punched in his large intestine, and he lost nearly 50 pounds.
Sadly, the carnage did not end there, as one of Johnson's cousins was killed in the gunfire.
For a while, the gladiator's own survival was a matter of optimism, not fact.
But man nicknamed "Black Superman" by a high school football coach showed a toughness—mental and physical—that should serve him well as he continues his career in the cage. It's not quite steel, but Johnson is clearly made of pretty strong stuff.
"I was awake the whole time—I just tried to stay calm and save my energy."
With three bullets lodged somewhere in your body and bleeding badly. Kind of makes worrying about a rear-naked choke or armbar a little mundane by comparison, no?
Miraculous Comeback and Moving Forward
Ultimately, the former outside linebacker at Merced City College pulled through the ordeal with remarkable celerity and resilience. By his own understated estimation, Johnson was out "for a minute." In reality, that "minute" lasted several months before he was back in the gym training.
Three months sounds like a lot, but consider that Johnson's ordeal, from knocking on death's door to sweating in a gym, took a mere 90 days.
Nope, not too shabby at all.
I blew out my shoulder snowboarding about three YEARS ago and the joint still keeps me out of the gym from time to time (granted, that might be more of a statement about how incredibly tough I am, but I digress).
On March 26, 2010—less than 10 months after the near-fatal shooting—Johnson crowned his stunning recovery with a second-round devastation of Lolohea Mahe.
He proved the injury hadn't left him tentative about engaging or vulnerable to attack, as he weathered a back-and-forth affair (including some vicious body shots) before using a series of unanswered overhand rights to seal the deal by technical knockout.
Johnson's concentration and devotion to his rehabilitation demonstrated his determination to advance in MMA, but it also gave the big fella a sort of catharsis, a self-imposed detachment.
When asked about his involvement in the on-going investigation of the shooting that nearly took his life, Johnson said, "I really just want to put it behind me and focus on what's next."
What's Next? Another Fight and Beyond
In three days, the heavyweight prospect is set to square off against Virgil Zwicker, a "scrappy" opponent. Suffice it to say, he's excited to throw some leather.
"It's a big show, you know. We're fighting at the Save Mart Center which is probably one of the biggest stadiums that I've been in and it's live on Showtime, so it's a real big show," Johnson said.
A big show, indeed.
Not only will the audience be large, but "Big Johnson" (a nickname that needs less explanation than his other one) will also try to use the moment to follow in the footsteps of other Strikeforce Challengers—Sarah Kaufman, Luke Rockhold, Meisha Tate, Tyron Woodley and others who've established themselves, via the series, as competitors with bright futures.
There's quite a bit hanging in the balance.
Like I said, some observers would call it the biggest fight of his life.
Of course, Lavar Johnson wouldn't be one of them. My guess is he'd agree that he already fought that battle.