This is the first in a series of stories about local mixed martial arts fighter Devin Johnson, who suffered a traumatic injury while training for his first professional bout.
The fist catches his cheekbone. He inventories the pain, dismissing it quickly.
Circling his adversary, he stays just wide of the strike zone. Fatigue is setting in. His body aches from days-old blows. But he refuses to quit.
Around him, other fighters are gathering their gear after mixed martial arts (MMA) practice at the Ultimate Fitness gym in midtown Sacramento.
But Devin Johnson has decided to go extra rounds, pushing himself to be in the best condition possible.
It’s May 14, 2012. Johnson is 22 and his first professional fight is a mere four months away in his hometown of Yuba City. After a year of intense training, the opportunity for a real payout is finally palpable.
Johnson locks eyes with his opponent, whose tall, muscular frame mirrors his own, and moves into a boxing stance.
His eyes and body telegraph a message: “I can beat you standing up.”
It’s a ruse.
Johnson sends a quick left jab toward the face of his opponent, who shoots up his forearms for protection, leaving his lower extremities unguarded.
This is it, Johnson thinks. All or nothing. A chance to move the fight to the floor. This is where Johnson, a former standout wrestler, is most comfortable.
Johnson drops to a low crouch. He launches himself forward, shooting toward his opponent’s thighs.
He’s a fraction of a second too slow.
Johnson feels his opponent’s arm curl around his neck before he sees it. He’s caught in a guillotine chokehold, an effective counter to a double-leg takedown. It’s meant to cut off his oxygen supply and force him into submission.
Johnson’s head is pulled into his opponent’s right hip. His opponent secures the hold, interlocking his hands and cinching his arms, and falls backward.
Johnson torques his body and struggles to break free, but he’s being yanked forward and down. He feels his chin being pushed into his chest. He feels his head being slammed into the mat.
Johnson hears the impact. The sound is unfamiliar, but reminds him of a car windshield shattering. The weight of his 195-pound body crashes down on his hinged neck.
He knows there should be pain.
Now he feels nothing.
His training partners from Team Alpha Male crowd around him. They’ve seen injuries before. They know. Their sport is dangerous. The unrivaled violence is part of the growing appeal of MMA to fighters and fans. Their coach, Urijah Faber, enjoys the fame that comes with winning a championship title, and they understand that reward is only earned through risk.
Johnson sees the concern on their faces. Lying on his back, Johnson asks for help but can’t hear his words. It’s as if someone has pushed the mute button. His ears register a high-pitched ringing. He orders his body to get up but it ignores him.
Panic sets in.
“I tried to move,” Johnson said, months later. “I couldn’t. Everything was numb. I remember looking up and asking my teammates, ‘Dude, I’m paralyzed, aren’t I?’ ”
The wrestler transformed
Sen. John McCain once famously likened mixed martial arts to “human cockfighting.” Others shared that sentiment in the early 1990s, when the sport promoted itself as having no rules once men entered the Octagon.
A chorus called for it to be banned. But fans remained intrigued by MMA’s concept of pitting champions of different combat disciplines against each other, such as jujitsu vs. boxing. Wrestling vs. Muay Thai. Strikers vs. grapplers.
MMA’s premier promoter, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, began embracing regulation, saying it was necessary to mainstream acceptance.
In a 2007 interview on National Public Radio, McCain relented, saying that MMA had made significant progress cleaning itself up, but he still wasn’t a fan.
However, fans weren’t hard to come by. Worldwide, the sport has seen astronomical growth since 2005 under UFC’s marketing and leadership. In Northern California, aspiring fighters and fitness buffs pack MMA training gyms. Locally held bouts have set attendance records. Competitors, such as Stockton brothers Nick and Nate Diaz, and Faber, who grew up in Lincoln, have become household names.
But as more people embraced MMA, Johnson ignored it.
“I didn’t get the point of it,” Johnson said. “Who wants to go in there and get punched? I thought of them as brawlers with no morals.”
Wrestling was Johnson’s sport. On the mat, Johnson felt assured. Confident. Smart. Life made sense in ways it never did outside the gym, where he butted heads with his mom and knew his father only through phone calls from prison.
Johnson discovered wrestling his sophomore year of high school while living with relatives on the East Coast. He was 5-foot-10, 170 pounds and, even though other sports came easily to him, he felt most comfortable in the uncomfortably tight singlet. Leveraging his long limbs, he mastered attacks and counters and took pride in his conditioning.
Returning to Yuba City his junior year, Johnson chased a state title for two years. As graduation neared and classmates talked of moving on, Johnson searched for ways to continue to wrestle.
“Devin didn’t make it to state, but he was pushing the guys who did,” said Ron Benton, who coached Johnson on the River Valley High School wrestling team in Yuba City. “Guys couldn’t get away from him. He could turn and do things you wouldn’t think people could do.”
In the fall of 2008, Johnson moved to Roseville to attend Sierra College, home to a successful wrestling program that had won the state championship the previous year.
He lasted three months. He said he was homesick, broke and behind in his classes. When he returned to Yuba City during Christmas break, he stayed. Johnson took a night job at a grocery store stocking shelves and helped coach River Valley wrestlers during the day.
“I just wanted to be in the gym wrestling,” Johnson said.
In addition to helping high schoolers, he began assisting MMA fighter Walter Patterson of Marysville with his grappling techniques. Patterson urged Johnson to check out the sport.
After initially resisting, Johnson tagged along with Patterson in the summer of 2011 to Faber’s gym, Ultimate Fitness on I Street in Sacramento.
Johnson saw fighters honing their skills. He saw former wrestlers, like Faber, a standout at Lincoln High School and the University of California, Davis.
He saw a way to keep competing, the one thing in his life that had made him feel exceptional. As Johnson stood inside the training gym, he felt a collision of fortune and fate.
“He told me he found his calling,” said Benton. “He truly believed that.”
Confronting catastrophic injury
Tayler Miller missed the frantic phone calls that began shortly after 11 a.m. on May 14. She had returned to bed after spending the night at the Natomas apartment that Johnson, her boyfriend, shared with his mom and brother.
Minutes later, Miller listened to a voicemail.
“Tayler, this is Devin’s teammate. Call this number back as soon as you get this message. It’s very urgent. He was injured in practice.”
By noon, Miller was at Sacramento’s UC Davis Medical Center, talking to doctors. Terms such as “C4 fracture” and “paralysis” caught her off guard.
Miller, then 18, said she didn’t know what it all meant.
She really hadn’t contemplated the possibility of catastrophic injury. Everyone talked of Johnson’s potential, how his work ethic and build made his career choice logical, not risky. His good looks made him marketable.
Miller had only known Johnson as an athlete, strong and secure, first as a high school wrestler and football player and now in MMA.
“You never think something bad will happen,” Miller said months later. “There were so many nurses, doctors, technicians in the room and I was like, ‘This is serious.’ ”
During the ambulance ride to the medical center, Johnson’s arm slid off the gurney. He became hysterical when he realized he could not lift it back to his side.
Inside the hospital, a team of doctors evaluated Johnson, including Dr. Kee Kim, UC Davis’ chief of spinal neurosurgery and co-director of its Spine Center.
Johnson’s head slamming the floor while bent in the chokehold broke his neck. The fighter fractured his fourth cervical vertebra, which dislocated and pushed into his spinal cord.
The human spine has seven cervical vertebrae running up to the base of the skull. Spinal cord injuries along these vertebrae can result in quadriplegia, meaning partial or total loss of function in all four limbs.
Typically, the higher the break on the neck, the greater loss of movement. Breaks along the fourth cervical vertebra, where Johnson’s injury occurred, can affect breathing capabilities and can cause death by asphyxiation.
Johnson arrived at UC Davis unable to move his arms or legs, nor could he feel sensation when doctors poked and prodded his extremities.
Kim said the diagnosis was clear. Johnson had a complete spinal cord injury, vs. the less severe and more common incomplete injury that leaves some nerves in the spinal cord able to transmit sensory and motor information between the brain and body.
With the complete injury, Johnson’s prognosis meant, barring a miraculous recovery, he would lose significant, if not all, function below his neck.
Kim’s first concern, however, was preventing further damage to Johnson’s spine, which could leave him dependent on a ventilator.
“We had to operate because his spine was unstable,” Kim said. “My expectations were not high. We didn’t want him to have additional injuries to his spine. We were trying to stabilize him so his breathing wouldn’t be a problem.”
The surgery took five hours. Kim removed a spinal disc from the front of Johnson’s neck and put in a cadaver bone graft with a plate and screws. Needing additional support, Kim used screws and rods on the back of Johnson’s neck to create a permanent neck brace.
The surgery was a success by medical standards. But for Johnson’s loved ones, even optimistic scenarios were devastating. They only wanted to hear of a full recovery.
“My prediction was that he would never walk again,” Kim said.
Miller heard those words days before Johnson, who was heavily medicated and unconscious. How would he take this, she wondered? How could a man whose future depended on his fists and feet adjust to life in a wheelchair?
Longtime friends, they had been dating just five months. Would he ever be able to wrap his muscular arms around her small frame?
Uncertainty raced through Miller’s head as she vowed not to leave his side.
Fighting a new opponent
Quadriplegics with complete spinal cord injuries usually see most of their improvements within the first year of their recovery and some minor improvements in the next year.
“That’s typically the cap,” said Kim, the neurosurgeon.
Johnson’s one-year anniversary is in May.
In the past months, he’s been engaged in a different kind of fight.
He fights to maneuver his wheelchair around his one-bedroom apartment near American River College. He fights to figure out a new career path. He fights to keep from succumbing to dark thoughts about the things he will likely never do again.
His new life comes with a full-time caregiver who provides support for daily tasks such as showering. The little things, like helping himself to a glass of water, can also require assistance.
“It sucks having to ask for stuff,” Johnson said. “That’s the worst part of this life. I was completely independent before.”
His weeks are filled with appointments – physical therapy, a research study, group counseling.
But he has hope. While he can’t walk, he’s regained limited use of his trunk, arms and hands. He sees the statistics of young men who suffered similar injuries and knows he’s beating odds.
His journey toward recovery started with a single terrifying breath.
A month after he arrived at UC Davis Medical Center, Johnson was taken by ambulance in June 2012 to Clara Valley Medical Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Program in San Jose to begin rehabilitation.
While at the program, Johnson learned to breathe on his own again after relying exclusively on a ventilator since his injury.
He remembers the frightening anxiety of hearing the machine click off, the foreignness of his own breath.
His roommates in the spinal cord rehabilitation program were men in their early 20s. One had been shot, another was a Chico State student just shy of graduation who was thrown from the bed of a truck in an alcohol-related crash.
Statistically, men account for 80 percent of the 12,000 new spinal cord injuries logged each year by the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. Injuries are most common among 16- to 30-year-olds.
Kim said Johnson’s recovery is “by far one of the most remarkable recoveries (I’ve seen),” adding that his youth and physical fitness contributed to his healing.
Johnson wants more movement in his left hand, which remains curled and clawlike. He wants to be quicker at changing his catheter so others doesn’t have to do it.
But mostly, he wants out of his wheelchair. At physical therapy, he vows to walk again.
“I was really blown away by how positive he was,” Faber said. “He was talking about going back to school. It’s cool to see a guy who has had a life-changing accident and he’s looking at the positives and saying, ‘This is what I want to do with my life now.’ It’s really inspiring.”
Johnson said happiness for now means celebrating small improvements.
On a recent day, he wheeled into the bathroom of his apartment, his chair sliding under the sink as his right hand reached for the toothpaste. His left hand feels frozen, he said, with little movement in his fingers, although he can move his left arm.
His right hand is thawing, he said, with some dexterity in individual fingers. Johnson asked Miller for help opening and squeezing a tube of toothpaste. He used his right hand to grip the brush.
He proudly looked up when he was done, showing off a handsome smile.
“Small steps,” he said.
HOW WE DID THE STORY
To recreate scenes and put the readers in the mind of mixed martial arts fighter Devin Johnson, Bee staff writer Melody Gutierrez conducted extensive interviews with Johnson and with the people who were around him when he was injured.
By Melody Gutierrez
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