By Ed Gebing and Melissa Hurtado
Local Mixed Martial Artist Devin Johnson was gearing up for the fight of his life, but after a dangerous injury suffered while training, he found himself fighting for his life.
The American River College student had his world turned upside down after breaking his fourth cervical vertebra, leaving him instantly paralyzed, while sparring with another member of Team Alpha Male, a group of Mixed Martial Artists based in Sacramento.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), is a sport that combines wrestling, boxing and different styles of martial arts that became popularized in the early 1990’s by the formation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Johnson wrestled from a young age and even competed in Nationals. A friend told him about Ultimate Fitness, the gym of Urijah Faber, a prominent professional MMA fighter. Johnson was determined to join it.
The 23-year-old had dreams of having a professional MMA career and competing for UFC, stating “that’s what I was good at and I just took it real serious.”
He was four months away from his professional debut when the accident occurred on May 14, 2012, the day after Mother’s Day.
Johnson had just finished his training session, when a teammate asked if he wanted to spar a few more rounds.
While attempting a takedown, Johnson was put into a chokehold and when they came crashing to the mat, Johnson realized that he could no longer move.
He described the event as being surreal, “almost like you see in the movies.”
After two weeks in a coma, he woke up to see the familiar faces of his family and friends and the realization that his dreams would never become a reality began to sink in.
The monotony of being in a wheelchair sometimes gets to him. “It just feels like I’m sitting down all the time, it gets boring,” he said.
However, he rarely lets that bring him down and refuses to let the bad moments ruin his whole day.
Spine specialist Dr. Jerrod Hill said that “chances are very low” for someone to be able to walk after that sort of injury. However, there is a lot of research going into spinal tissue regeneration that could one day benefit patients like Johnson.
Johnson has adapted to his new life and has been enrolled at ARC since the spring 2013 semester and is currently working towards a degree in accounting.
One year later, he heard about the recent incident that involved a disabled student who had his iPad stolen from him on campus.
This angered him, not only because he too is disabled, but because the same thing had recently happened to him.
While heading home from a friends house on Jan. 17, Johnson was approached by two men asking if he wanted to buy some gaming electronics.
They continued to follow Johnson and he was worried that they might try to hurt him. He sped up his wheelchair in an attempt to get away from them.
Johnson was so close to his home he could actually see it when one of the two young men approached and snatched his iPhone from him.
Two days later, he was able to recover his iPhone using the Find My iPhone app. Johnson, accompanied by a couple of his MMA friends, knocked on the door of the suspects house and demanded the iPhone back.
The suspect, a 17 year-old male, was arrested and charged in connection with the theft.
“(It) doesn’t surprise me at all, he is definitely a go-getter in all aspects of life,” said Johnson’s adapted physical education professor Lisa Delgado.
Delgado stated that the incident “made (her) sick, especially for him with his MMA background, and then to be able to not defend himself.”
Delgado describes Johnson as having an amazing attitude and a good “vibe and demeanor; he comes in and works hard every single day. He is so positive and he has really good goals that he strives for everyday.”
Johnson said that Faber has been a big support after the accident.
Faber paid for the hand controls in his car that allow him to drive; “I owe him a lot, he’s so much more than just a fighter–he’s a good guy,” said Johnson.
“It sucks that it’s always going to be my story,” said Johnson, but he continues to spread his message to not take anything for granted.
Despite the setbacks, Johnson retains his positive outlook. “I loved (MMA) for what it was, and I still have a lot of love for it and met a lot of great people,” he said.