SAN JOSE, Calif. – At least one person among the 13,524 in attendance at the HP Pavilion on Saturday night was grateful to simply be there. Rising Strikeforce heavyweight Lavar Johnson was among those roaming the arena floor, just a month after nearly losing his life in an apparent random act of violence.
"Can't keep me down," said Johnson, a 32-year-old native of Madera, Calif. "I'm just happy to be alive and happy to be here to see the fights."
Johnson was one of five people struck when a gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon in an assault on a Fourth of July family reunion gathering in Bakersfield, Calif. His cousin, Anthony M. Johnson, 37, died in the attack.
A 15-year-old girl allegedly involved in the incident, Laquiria Foreman, was arrested on July 17 by Bakersfield police and charged with murder and attempted murder. Two teenage males believed to be involved in the shooting remain at large.
Johnson was shot twice in the abdomen. He spent several hours in critical condition before stabilizing after successful surgery. Johnson spent two weeks in the hospital before being released.
"The only scary moment was the actual incident," said Johnson. "They took my cousin's life. That's not an easy thing to digest. But as soon as I woke up in the hospital, as soon as my head cleared, I knew I'd be back."
Johnson had just begun to gain notice on the national MMA scene when his life was nearly taken. On a May 15 Strikeforce card in Fresno, Calif, Johnson scored one of the year's best knockouts with a unique one-punch, 18-second masterpiece against Carl Seumanutafa. Seumanutafa shot for a takedown, Johnson sidestepped it and hit his opponent with a low uppercut as he careened to the mat. It was Johnson's fifth straight win.
"That was probably the most frustrating thing, that this happened right when things were starting to take off," said Johnson (12-3 with 11 KO/TKOs). "But I can't dwell on it anymore. I'm grateful just to have the opportunity to start over again."
The fighter nicknamed "Big" has not yet been cleared for full-contact training, but he said he hopes to be back in fighting shape in 3-4 months.
"I will be back, and I will be the same fighter the fans remember, except better than ever," he said.
Melendez halfway to redemption
Gilbert Melendez avenged one of his two career losses on Saturday night, just not the one he initially expected.
Melendez was slated to challenge Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh Thomson on Saturday night in a rematch of a 2008 match in which Thomson won the crown from Melendez. But the oft-injured Thomson pulled out of the match about two weeks ago with a foot injury.
In stepped the only other fighter who had defeated Melendez in the Santa Ana, Calif., native's 18 career fights. "The Endless Fighter" Mitsuhiro Ishida flustered Melendez in Japan on Dec. 31, 2007, en route to a unanimous decision win.
Saturday, though, it was Melendez's turn to frustrate his foe. "El Nino" imposed his will from the outset and slowly wore down Ishida before claiming a third-round TKO victory.
"I had to change a few things up in my training," said Melendez (16-2). "No matter who you fight, you've got to train all aspects, but when I knew I was going to fight Ishida, we game-planned a few things especially for him."
Melendez was outwrestled in their 2007 showdown. Ishida was clearly looking to do the same thing Saturday night, but Melendez prepared, sprawling to avoid the bulk of Ishida's takedown attempts.
The San Francisco-based fighter has primarily been known for his wild ground-and-pound work, but he displayed crisp standup to slowly break Ishida. By the third round, Melendez had his way with Ishida, finally knocking him to the ground with a sharp knee and finishing things off with a series of uncontested strikes.
"I wasn't looking to make a point or teach a lesson or anything," said Melendez, who has been named interim Strikeforce lightweight champion as Thomson heals up. "Every fight you fight, you learn something. In my two losses, I tried to go at them and they wove in and out and got a decision. That made me become a smarter fighter."
Melendez, who has been with Strikeforce since its debut at 2006, is still looking for that elusive rematch with Thomson.
"One down, one to go," he said.
Gegard Mousasi came into his Strikeforce light heavyweight title match against Renato "Babalu" Sobral with quite a bit of hype. It didn't take him long to live up to his billing.
The Dutch-Iranian Mousasi, one of the biggest MMA stars in Japan, wasted little time in dispatching the respected veteran. Mousasi scored a swift takedown of the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and unleashed a vicious array of strikes. Mousasi connected on 13 unanswered punches, 12 of them rights, and claimed Babalu's belt in one minute flat.
"Babalu is a tough guy, has very good jiu-jitsu," said Mousasi. "But this isn't jiu-jitsu. This is MMA."
Mousasi, the former Dream middleweight champion, was moving up in weight for the match, but he said the adjustment wasn't as tough as the pressure he put on himself.
"Fighting for the first time in the United States, that was a lot of pressure," said Mousasi. "I wanted to come out and make a good impression, so this was more of a big deal than a regular fight. I wanted to put on a good performance."
With that mission accomplished, the next question is who’s next for Mousasi in Strikeforce's thin light heavyweight division. Promoter Scott Coker didn't have an easy answer. Mousasi is slated to fight in the next round of Dream's "Super Hulk" tournament in October.
Face in the crowd
Most fighters sequester themselves in their locker rooms in the hours leading up to their fights, but headliner Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos did no such thing. A calm and collected Santos sat in the third row of the crowd during the evening's early fights, along with her husband, fighter Evangelista Santos. Santos went unnoticed by the crowd, who would later watch her defeat Gina Carano to become Strikeforce’s first women's lightweight champion in the main event.
- Gilbert Melendez