LAS VEGAS Leavander Johnson had worked a long time for his big night, 16 years to be exact. His first title defense turned tragic, however, leaving the veteran boxer in a fight that most with his kind of injury don't win.
Johnson was in a drug-induced coma Sunday following emergency brain surgery he underwent just minutes after losing his lightweight title the night before. He was in critical condition at the hospital's intensive care unit.
Doctors at first feared his condition was hopeless, but tests Sunday showed improvement in his brain and gave them hope that Johnson would survive.
''You certainly can't make predictions but I wasn't certain he would even survive last night,'' said Dr. William Smith, who performed the surgery. ''My thoughts are that he's dramatically improved today so he seems to be moving in the right direction.''
Johnson's family was keeping a vigil at the hospital, where he was rushed after being stopped by a flurry of punches Saturday in the 11th round of his IBF lightweight title defense against Jesus Chavez at the MGM Grand.
''He was fighting for a world title, then a few minutes later here he is fighting for his life,'' said Johnson's father, Bill, who is also his trainer.
Chavez also visited Johnson, as did promoters and fighters Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins.
''My heart goes out to Leavander Johnson and his family,'' Chavez said. ''It's very difficult to think that something like this could happen. It's very difficult for me to think it could happen in a fight I was involved in.''
Bill Johnson said he told his son he was going to stop the fight after the eighth or ninth round because he was getting hit too much but that the fighter told him not to because ''I'm wearing him down.''
The 35-year-old Johnson, a journeyman most of his career, went to Italy in June to win the title with a shocking knockout of Stefano Zoff to win the IBF 135-pound title. He was making the first defense on a card that featured fights involving Shane Mosley and Marco Antonio Barrera.
The $150,000 he made was his biggest payday in a career that began in 1989, but Johnson paid dearly, getting hit with more than 400 punches, many of them clean shots to the head.
''He's a fighter and he's fighting this,'' his brother, Craig said. ''He's not out of the woods yet but at least we can think optimistically now.''
A ringside physician examined Johnson after the 10th round and found no problems, but the fighter took as many as two dozen unanswered punches to the head early in the 11th round before referee Tony Weeks finally stopped the fight.
Johnson never went down, but began having trouble walking on his way back to the dressing room and was quickly taken to the hospital where a CAT scan showed a blood clot so big it was shifting the brain from the right to left side of Johnson's head.
Smith said the fact that Johnson had a chance at recovery was a testament to the speed with which medical personnel got him into surgery.
It took only about 40 minutes from the time Johnson first showed signs of brain trauma to the time he was in surgery in the trauma center at University Medical Center, where Smith just happened to be visiting a patient at the time.
Normally, Smith said, less than one in four people who undergo emergency brain surgery for injuries of his type make it.
''The system just happened to work for this guy,'' Smith said. ''An extra 30 to 45 minutes and he wouldn't have survived.''
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