Ex-MMA fighter rises to challenges of disability

Published: Monday, Jul. 15, 2013 – 3:25 pm | Page 1D
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 16, 2013 – 8:31 am

This is the last of two parts about mixed martial arts fighter Devin Johnson, who suffered a traumatic injury while training for his first professional bout.

After 10 on a recent morning, Devin Johnson faced his first hurdle of the day – getting out of bed.

He was still on his back as marijuana smoke filled his small apartment off Madison Avenue in Sacramento. He waited for the medicinal pot to calm the “jumps” in his atrophied legs.

The violent spasms, caused by an injury to his spinal cord, subsided minutes later. Johnson’s caregiver, Jordan Pankey, began to dress his longtime friend, pulling off his pajama pants, putting on dark denim jeans and bright-white socks.

The two worked in silent tandem.

Johnson, 23, is a former mixed martial arts fighter a year removed from a training accident that left him quad- riplegic. He’s unable to walk but has recovered limited use of his trunk, arms and hands.

Looking at the motorized wheelchair next to his bed, he waved off Pankey, who instinctively had moved to help him.

“I’m going to do it,” Johnson said.

Pankey swept Johnson’s legs to the side of the bed. Johnson grabbed the wheelchair’s arm and inched up. After nearly 10 minutes of effort, he transferred from bed to wheelchair, breathing heavily, sweat beading his hairline.

He smiled triumphantly before looking down.

“Uh, I’m dizzy,” he said, as he worked to compose himself.

A year ago, such a simple task wouldn’t have been worth a Facebook post and the ensuing congratulatory comments. But that was before the ambulance, the surgery and the rehabilitation center.

In a midtown Sacramento gym in May 2012, while training for his first professional bout, Johnson attempted a double-leg takedown with a sparring partner. His opponent countered with a guillotine chokehold to cut off oxygen and force submission.

As the teammates fell to the ground, Johnson’s neck broke. He was rushed to UC Davis Medical Center, where doctors told him that he had fractured his fourth cervical vertebra and it had pushed into his spinal cord.

Barring a miraculous recovery, doctors said, Johnson would lose significant, if not all, function below his neck.

He was an up-and-coming fighter. At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he boasted heavy punches and fast feet. He had big plans. His mom had moved to Natomas to support the fighting career that had given purpose to her previously wayward son.

He had a girlfriend, a night job as a bouncer and a spot training with some of the most prominent MMA stars in Northern California.

And then everything changed.

Recovery and discovery

Anger sometimes gets the best of him and he wants to punch God for putting him through this. Those sentiments are mostly expressed on Twitter, where Johnson’s tweets vary from uplifting to emotionally raw and highly offensive.


In person, however, Johnson steers the conversation away from the dark thoughts, focusing instead on his goal of becoming a role model for people overcoming traumatic injuries.

“There are a lot of things to be depressed about, but that just makes another depressed person if you show it,” he said. “I’m good at not showing it. There is no point in showing it.”

Johnson has lost more than 30 pounds since the accident. He said he has come to terms with his new limits.

“I can move,” he said. “That’s the good thing. I know people who can’t move anything below their neck. They would be thankful to have what I have.”

Early on, his recovery defied doctors’ expectations. Partial function and feeling had quickly returned to his extremities. That led him to believe his recovery would continue at the same pace. He had pledged to walk again and talked of a possible return to fighting.

Now, he’s accepted that he won’t make good on that. And he says it’s OK.

Quadriplegics with spinal cord injuries like Johnson’s usually see most of their physical improvements within the first year of recovery, according to experts.

Johnson’s limited leg movement elicits both grief and joy. He can stand with assistance, but his knees, calves and feet are unpredictable and sometimes unresponsive.

“I miss being more physical, of course,” he said. “A lot of my friends from rehab, I don’t know if they are happy with their lives, but I am. I’m living good. I’m alive.”


Mind over body


Johnson has been looking into careers suitable for someone in a wheelchair. In spring, he enrolled in classes at American River College. 

He said he doesn’t intend to live on his disability income – $850 a month.

At ARC on a spring day, an elevator opened onto a narrow concourse that was teeming with students. Johnson’s motorized chair weaved through them until he found the right door in Davies Hall.

Inside, Johnson parked near a window, opened his backpack and searched for a pen as he chatted with two fellow students.

He explained how he ended up in a wheelchair.

“You were a fighter?” one man asked, his eyebrows raised in respect.

Johnson shot an endorsement-ready smile.

“Yeah, I was good,” he said as class started.

Johnson has set his sights on an accounting degree with the goal of a job preparing taxes. He said he likes numbers.

“They are right or wrong,” he explained. “You don’t have opinions with numbers.”

Preparing 1040 forms won’t provide the same adrenaline rush as his exploits in the Octagon. Johnson fed off the reactions he received, particularly when he mentioned associates such as mixed martial arts star Urijah Faber.

“So much of my life had to do with my physicalness,” Johnson said. “I was a fighter. (Now) it’s so different.”

Johnson fought for Team Alpha Male, a premier lighter-weight fight team based in Sacramento that’s run by Faber, a successful fighter and businessman.

Team Alpha Male, which trains out of Faber’s Ultimate Fitness gym in midtown, was looking to extend its reach into the heavier weight classes when Johnson caught the team’s eye in 2011.

In his amateur mixed martial arts bouts, Johnson built a 4-1 record.

“He had unlimited potential,” said Freddie Aquitania, a professional fighter who trained with Johnson at Ultimate Fitness. “He could have made it far. … Some people are tentative in the cage. He never was.”


Hope vs. reality


On May 14, 2012, Jacqui Johnson received the call about Devin’s injury. 

“I just remember screaming and falling to the floor,” she said recently.

She was just finishing with a patient at a hospital in Yuba City where she works as an X-ray technician specializing in spinal cord injuries.

“I just knew,” Jacqui Johnson said recently. “When they said he couldn’t move, I knew ‘It’s a spinal cord injury.’ ”

While his mother was familiar with what was likely to come, his girlfriend was not. Tayler Miller brought hope to his hospital room and insisted he would walk again.

Miller, then 18, talked of miracles, focusing on his early progress. Johnson latched onto her positive persistence. Doctors eventually asked Johnson if he needed a mental health specialist to help understand his new limits.

Johnson said he understood what both women were doing. They were providing support the way they knew how.

“I had so much other things to worry about,” he said. “My mom has her judgment and Tayler has how she thinks. They always fought from the get-go.”

Jacqui Johnson said she eventually lost patience with the conflicting messages her son was receiving as he healed from surgery and prepared to transfer to a rehabilitation center.

“People acted like it was some phenomenon,” she said. “This isn’t something that goes away.”


Broken relationship


In the first months after the accident, Miller, a nursing student, stuck by Johnson, taking charge of his medical needs, which were largely covered by Jacqui Johnson’s insurance. 

The young couple moved into a small handicap-accessible apartment in January. They lived on Johnson’s disability payments and Miller’s caregiver stipend. Jacqui Johnson took out a loan to buy her son a van that could accommodate his wheelchair.

Miller filled their days with Devin Johnson’s therapy, as well as a support group for couples living with a catastrophic injury.

“We live like nothing happened,” Miller said in January. However, their relationship was beginning to buckle under the pressures of their new lives.

They broke up on Valentine’s Day.

“We were so mad at each other that we were ready for a break,” Johnson said.

Miller moved back to Yuba City. Pankey, who attended high school with Johnson and Miller, moved in as Johnson’s caregiver, sleeping on the couch.

Without Miller, Johnson stopped going to physical therapy for several months.

“She was always pushing it,” Johnson said.

She still is.

“The first time I saw him at school after we broke up, he said he wasn’t going (to physical therapy),” Miller said recently. “I said, ‘You need to go back. It’s almost your year anniversary.’ ”

Days later, he was going again.

He’s also dating. Johnson said the only awkwardness is when he meets someone through social media or texting and he wonders if she knows he can’t walk. When he meets them, he wonders if they know he’s capable of physical intimacy.

“That’s not the first thing they ask,” he said. “I’m like, yeah, duh. …

“When girls bring it up, I say ‘Obviously, I’m not standing up, but not everything involves standing up.’ ”


A year later


On May 14 this year, Johnson lay on his side on a padded physical therapy table at the Lawrence J. Ellison Ambulatory Care Center at UC Davis Medical Center. 

A physical therapy assistant placed his hands on Johnson’s hip and mid-back. Johnson pushed his body backward, as if trying to roll from his side to his back. The therapist’s hands created resistance.

Core muscles are important for quadriplegics, helping to create stability and benefiting bladder and bowel control.

Johnson’s jaw clenched as he repeated the core workout on his other side, his stretched-out body pushing against his therapist’s hands.

The parallel bars are his favorite, he said. He can stand tall and remember walking. He can shuffle forward if a therapist aligns his feet.

At times, his feet won’t move. His left foot appears to remember old rhythms better than the right.

In between the workouts, Johnson talked about school and mixed martial arts with his physical therapist.

“I don’t think I’ve sweated in a workout in a year,” Johnson said. “Literally, a year today.”

This stopped therapist Tyrone Jenkins.

“Today’s the anniversary?” Jenkins asked.

“Yeah,” Johnson replied.

How does he acknowledge the profound loss, initial recovery, the uncertainty of his future?

Then another question: What will he do a year from now?

“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, but I want to be able to use a walker. I think that’s still possible.”
Slideshow: The Fight – Fallen warrior faces battle of a lifetime


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