Sacramento State business major Devin Johnson works out during a recent visit to the gym. Johnson is launching FuseFit, an app dedicated to matching trainers with disabled clients. (Photo by Nicole Fowler)
Sacramento State business major Devin Johnson works out during a recent visit to the gym. Johnson is launching FuseFit, an app dedicated to matching trainers with disabled clients. (Photo by Nicole Fowler)
Letrice Fowler

Paralyzed former MMA fighter Devin Johnson launches app helping the disabled to find trainers

In the small fragment of time before he went into shock after his neck was broken during a training accident, former mixed martial arts fighter Devin Johnson laid on his back in the octagon and began to think.

“ ‘Why did I wake up today? Why did I even go to practice today? Why me?’ ” Johnson recalled thinking.

“I called out to my friend and said ‘I’m not going to be able to fight again. It’s over,’ ” Johnson said. “It happened — and when it did, I knew for sure.”

Growing up, Johnson had always imagined being a champion — “The ‘Rocky’ scenario,” as he put it.

The scenario began to materialize when Johnson began wrestling at Sierra College — his “jock days” before discovering MMA — and discovered he was a natural. It wasn’t long before those that knew him began to suggest professional fighting.

“I found out that you could get paid to punch people — you know, all the cool stuff I was kind of just doing for free,” Johnson joked.

Johnson fell in love with MMA. He began training at Ultimate Fitness, a gym in Sacramento owned by MMA and Ultimate Fighting Championship star Urijah Faber, “The California Kid.”

Faber, an established professional, uses the gym to develop potential pro fighters and train those who were already fighting in the UFC. Many members, including Johnson, fought for Team Alpha Male, founded by Faber.

“Being in that environment kind of made you feel that success was just around the corner,” Johnson said.

Devin Johnson during his career as a mixed martial arts fighter. (Photo courtesy of Devin Johnson)

At a practice just prior to his professional debut, Johnson decided to go a couple extra rounds to be sure he was prepared.

His sparring partner caught him in a guillotine hold, but Johnson still attempted the takedown.

Devin’s memory of what happened next differs from what his teammates told him happened.

“I just remember a big — it sounded like an impact, and before I knew it, I was just looking up and my neck was — I just couldn’t get up,” Johnson said. “I had a kink in my neck, but I was like, ‘OK, I can’t get up. I think we should call 9-1-1.’ ”

Johnson went into shock shortly after, which caused him to vomit, collapsing his lung.

Doctors at UC Davis Medical Center put Johnson in an induced coma for two weeks while they performed surgery and worked to stabilize him. He lost significant weight during that time.

“When I woke up, I couldn’t move too much except for my shoulders. I couldn’t even bring my arms to my face. It’s like a big frozen piece of meat waiting to thaw out,” Johnson said.

Doctors informed Johnson that he had broken his fourth cervical vertebrae. Metal rods had been surgically inserted into his spine.

He was given a 3 percent chance of walking again.

“It wasn’t really the walking that I cared about, it was moving enough to at least be independent, like grooming and things like that,” Johnson said.

After Johnson had stabilized, he began intensive physical therapy, where he returned to the comfort of the gym.

“After surgery, they put you in an extensive rehab with a whole bunch of people like yourself,” Johnson said. “I was the one in the bunch that wanted to continue to work out. I couldn’t figure out why everyone else wasn’t as motivated. I would try to motivate everyone else to workout with me.”

After years of intensive workouts, Johnson has regained some mobility. He can now stand with support and walk with assistance.

“I’ve gotten a lot back since that day,” Johnson said, crediting his workout routine.

During his physical therapy, Johnson discovered a problem.

“There aren’t that many resources available as far as fitness for people that are disabled, so a lot of people give up, or if they don’t have the insurance they just forget about their health in general.”

Johnson is visited by a friend while hospitalized after breaking his neck in a training accident. (Photo courtesy of Devin Johnson)

So Johnson, who recently transferred to Sacramento State from American River College with a business degree, wrote a business plan.

Johnson developed FuseFit, a technological platform that allows in-home personal trainers to meet up with disabled and elderly clients. The project launched an Indiegogo campaign Feb. 28 to secure financing.

“I don’t think people in the disabled and elderly communities should be marginalized just because they need limited assistance,” Johnson said.

Johnson described a poor gym experience for those in the disabled community — paying high membership fees month after month and being stuck using the limited equipment available for those with specific needs.

“I wanted to give people access to an assistant who was there specifically for them and focuses at their needs,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of things that our exercise training community can do for our disabled community.”

Johnson enlisted Adam Corrigan, his one time MMA training partner and current owner of Corrigan Fitness, to help develop FuseFit.

“I loved (the idea), because I had been working on an app, kind of like Uber for fitness. There are apps like that already, but I messed around with a couple and didn’t like what I saw,” Corrigan said. “I showed him sketches and designs I had drawn out for my idea, and he said, ‘This is exactly what I want to do.’ We both had a different niche, but at the end of the day it’s the same idea.”

Though his plans were altered by the accident, Johnson now believes that the different path he took will lead him to the same place.

“To tell you the truth, I fought because I wanted to make enough money to open my own gym one day. Coaching and influencing — the leadership role has always been in my blood,” Johnson said. “(FuseFit) gives me a new fire — a new spark.”

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