It was about one year ago when Strikeforce began its Heavyweight Grand Prix, hoping to showcase their big men and steal the limelight away from the UFC’s impressive division.
On the fringes of the tournament was Lavar Johnson, who was slotted in a reserve bout, only to lose to the unbeaten Shane Del Rosario. At that point, it seemed like Johnson’s opportunity at the MMA spotlight was gone. He was nearing 34 years old, had lost two straight, and was about to watch the weight class move on without him.
But time and circumstances were soon to present him with a new opportunity, when the UFC’s parent company bought Strikeforce and absorbed all of its heavyweight talent into its own division. Suddenly, new matchups abounded.
And with that, it came time to get serious about his career. He hasn’t always been, he says. Even a cursory look at Johnson’s highlight reel makes you wonder if he is telling the truth. He has 16 wins, including 14 knockouts. He recovered from a life-threatening shooting suffered while shielding a little girl from gunfire to fight again -- and win again -- within months.
But the 6-foot-5, 245 pound Johnson says that was accomplished mostly on raw talent.
“I’ve had a couple of fights where I didn’t even spar before the fight,” he told NBCSports.com.
Johnson attributes those problems to injuries or lack of training partners, but in moving over to the UFC, he knows it’s no longer a valid excuse. With the exposure and opportunity the UFC brings, it’s worth it to go the extra mile and seek out whatever is necessary. With that, he’s spending more time at the famous American Kickboxing Academy, training with world-class heavyweights Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier. He also has a stable home base at Thrive MMA in Fresno, California.
In his UFC debut in January, the results were inarguable. He crushed the durable Joey Beltran, becoming the first man to knock him out in 20 pro bouts. But that fight was on an undercard and was little seen by the public aside from those in the arena.
Next time around, his UFC on FOX 3 matchup with the popular Pat Barry will be viewed by millions. The increased exposure is a double-edged sword, ratcheting up the pressure while opening up more possibilities.
“This might make me or break me right here,” Johnson said. “This is in front of the whole world. I’m trying to not let this opportunity pass me up. He’s a big name. I’m even a fan of his. He has a lot of followers, people watching and rooting for him. If I come out and win a good fight, maybe I’ll win some of those fans.”
The matchup is seen to be a striker’s delight. While Johnson has more of a traditional boxing approach, Barry is an athletic kickboxer who overcomes size disadvantage (he’s just 5-foot-11) with speed and technique. Some would say fearlessness is a part of the Barry formula as well, but Johnson said he saw otherwise in Barry’s last fight, a knockout win over Christian Morecraft.
Last June, Barry was knocked out for the first time in his career, and Johnson wonders if that’s given him some pause now. On the other hand, he thinks it’s also possible that finishing Morecraft could have refilled his confidence reservoir. Whatever the case, Johnson believes that if Barry approaches him the same way, his fate will be sealed.
“He was doing a lot of things wrong,” Johnson said. “If I would have fought him instead of Morecraft, I would have knocked him out. He left himself open.”
In preparation, Johnson will train with K-1 kickboxer Carter Williams, who has a similar background and size in comparison to Barry. He’ll also work his wrestling with Cormier and Velasquez despite the fact that he believes the fight isn’t likely to go to the ground unless someone falls backwards, the victim of a knockout punch.
That makes it just the kind of fight he’s looking for.
“I like the fact that he’s going to stand up with me,” he said. “I’m trying to hit him as hard as I can. I’m trying to end it quick, get in his face, pressure him and make it happen. This is the Ultimate Fighting Championship. If you want to submit someone, go do a jiu-jitsu tournament. The fans out here don’t want to see heavyweights rolling around on the ground. They want to see someone knocked out, so that’s what I do.”
And if he can do that against Barry, Johnson will surge ahead, perfect in the UFC. One year ago he seemed to be nearing a dead end, but fate had other plans. Now it’s up to him to capitalize upon his unexpected new beginning.
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