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Unlikely pair of heavyweights open UFC on Fox 3 main card this weekend

Lavar Johnson and Pat Barry rebounded from adversity

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Pat Barry fights in a UFC mixed martial arts heavyweight bout on Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn.

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Strikeforce mixed martial artist Lavar Johnson, left, is fighting Friday against Devin Cole in the Strikeforce Challengers card at the Palms. It's the first Strikeforce show in Las Vegas.

A dire financial situation forced current UFC heavyweight Lavar Johnson into taking fights he wasn’t ready for two years ago.

Johnson was nearly broke after spending the better part of a year recovering from two gunshot wounds he suffered in a random drive-by at a family reunion in Bakersfield, Calif., on the Fourth of July in 2009. One bullet pierced his abdomen, leaving Johnson unable to eat food for a month and leading him to lose 50 pounds.

Johnson would have ideally waited to get back to full-strength before re-entering the cage. That wasn’t an option, as Johnson accepted two Strikeforce bouts in 2010 — both of which he won by knockout — out of pure desperation.

“When I first came back, I was still nine pounds underweight from where I should be and had a torn biceps, maybe from malnutrition,” Johnson said. “It was rough, but I had to pay the bills from being laid up and not having any money.”

Circumstances have changed drastically for Johnson (16-5 MMA, 1-0 UFC) as he prepares to face Pat Barry (7-4 MMA, 4-4 UFC) Saturday in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

A UFC contract has given the 34-year old Johnson a security he couldn’t fathom for most of his life. The fight with Barry will rank as one of the most watched mixed martial arts bouts in the history of the sport, as it opens the UFC on FOX 3 main card at 5 Saturday afternoon.

Considering the substantial adversity both fighters have faced recently, it’s an improbable pairing for one of the UFC’s network television bouts.

At the same time Johnson returned prematurely from his shooting, Barry started a disastrous 1-3 stretch that had some questioning whether he belonged in the octagon.

Submission losses to Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Stefan Struve had fans wondering aloud whether the former professional kickboxer had made any attempt to develop a ground game. The criticism annoyed Barry, but not as much as the chatter following his knockout loss to Cheick Kongo last summer.

Barry said he received a glut of social-media messages questioning his ability to take a punch after the jaw-dropping comeback by Kongo, which gained widespread attention and graced Sportscenter’s Top Plays.

“I’ve had a 10-year career with 100 kickboxing matches and 10 or 11 MMA fights, and I’ve been knocked out one time,” Barry said. “Now, I get punched in the ear one time and I have a glass jaw. Maybe my jaw isn’t in the right spot. My jaw must be on the side of my head.”

Barry bounced back to knock out Christian Morecraft in the first round of their UFC on FX 1 meeting, earning a $45,000 Fight of the Night bonus in the process. Johnson ended his own two-fight skid by finishing Joey Beltran in the first round a week later.

The UFC rewarded Johnson with a $65,000 Knockout of the Night award. A once-meager bank account was now bustling.

“I went out and bought a brand new truck,” Johnson said, adding that he also lifted the 2012 Chevrolet. “It’s pretty nice. I’m enjoying it.”

Barry can relate to the Johnson’s emotions. The 32-year old was an accomplished kickboxer in Europe before leaving the less-popular sport in hopes of finding a bigger paycheck in MMA four years ago.

After eight fights and three bonuses in the UFC, money no longer concerns Barry as much as his desire to spread a message.

“I want to unlock people from the matrix,” Barry said. “That’s been an aspiration of mine forever, to let everyone know that anyone can do anything. I’m the little guy in the heavyweight division that has no ground game and no wrestling. I’m not aggressive enough. I’m too gun shy. But I’m the little guy who is knocking the big dudes out.”

Barry wants to help rid the world of “self-imposed limitations”. Johnson has no such master plan.

But he’s at ease after getting through the trying times that came before his run in the UFC.

“I can just focus on fighting now,” Johnson said. “Before, I was worried about where I was going to get money for everything. Where am I going to get money for my kids’ school clothes? What am I going to do with the bills due? It was hard.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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