As a photographed Selena Gomez smiled down upon perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history, Gregg Popovich morphed into character. The 68-year-old swiftly grabbed two unsuspecting media members, thrust his head backward, and performed a bit for the ages. Popovich is far from dazzled by the recent string of in-game player confrontations. “Oh, you mean those typical NBA fights where they go, ‘Let me at him. Let me at him. I would’ve kicked his ass, but somebody held me back!’” he roared. “The NBA fights are the silliest, namby-pambiest thing I've ever seen.”
Miami Heat forward James Johnson, the 6’9”, 250-pound behemoth nicknamed “Bloodsport,” isn’t impressed, either. Johnson’s combat background has been more than chronicled. Both of his parents are black belts. He and all eight of his siblings all hold black belts of varying degrees. Johnson began karate at the age of 4 and, by his 18th birthday, he secured seven world karate titles, nine national crowns, and compiled a sterling 20-0 record as a kickboxer. “You fight your weight class,” Johnson says. “I fought 26-year-olds, I fought 30-year-olds, I fought 16-year-olds, I fought 18 and 19-year-olds when I was 14, 15, 16 years old.”
Amid his ninth year in the league, Johnson’s competitive fighting career has been on pause for nearly a decade. He now spars at his father’s and uncle’s MMA gyms each offseason. It’s the perfect, unique conditioning work to disrupt the monotonous summer of jump shots. No challenger has defeated him. “I’m sure there’s someone out there in this world who can beat me. I haven’t met him yet,” Johnson says. “I’ve been knocked down before. I’ve been knocked out before, but I remember getting back up before that 10-second count and I remember winning that fight.”
Which makes Johnson the perfect warrior to comment on the “namby-pamby” fisticuffs that have permeated the league of late. He chuckled at first, but after untying his sneakers following the Heat’s morning shootaround in New York, Johnson obliged to use his storied fighting experience to evaluate the NBA’s recent bouts.
Johnson himself and Serge Ibaka initially rang the bell in Toronto when both were ejected and then suspended for tangling on Jan. 9. “Mine was more of a forearm shove, which he was forearm shoving back,” Johnson explains. “We both tried to move out the way, so they almost looked like hook punches, but nothing connected and nothing was technical about that. It was just a whole bunch of shoving and moving and when you shove and move, it looks like punches.”
On Jan. 15, before the Rockets attempted to infiltrate the Clippers’ postgame locker room, Blake Griffin appeared to intentionally run into Mike D’Antoni on the sideline, clipping the coach with an elbow. “I don’t think that was an MMA elbow,” Johnson smiles. “That might have been a little chicken wing.” It turns out, the art of elbowing is one of Johnson’s favorite aspects of MMA. He’s happy to delve into proper technique. “It depends what kind of elbow you want. You can throw it vertically, sideways, horizontally. I like the horizontal,” he says. “The horizontal elbow is nice, man. It just comes quick. When the opponent thinks they’re coming for you with a jab, and you spin away, it almost looks like you’re trying to avoid the punch, but you’re really spinning into an elbow.”
One night later, Jan. 16, tempers boiled over in Orlando. After some earlier extracurricular activity, Arron Afflalo took a massive swing at Nemanja Bjelica midway through the second quarter of the Magic-Timberwolves contest. Johnson assesses the punch was far from tactical. “What I see is, people are not really throwing punches with intentions to really hit somebody or hurt somebody. They’re more frustration flares,” he says. Apparently there’s a bevy of technique involved in hurling your hand at another human. “Man, it’s a lot. It starts off with how you even ball up your fist and the way you turn your punch, the way you angle your elbow to 90 degrees.”
The closest on-court tiff to resemble MMA this season occurred when Draymond Green and Bradley Beal interlocked and tumbled into the front row on Oct. 28. The duo turned an end-of-second quarter box-out into a wrestling match, but Johnson didn’t find the tackle a prudent takedown. “To me, it was two guys, grabbing each other, hugging each other hard, squeezing each other and nobody wanted to get fined that big money,” he says. “Draymond Green is not as bad as people make him out to be and Bradley Beal, he’s not soft like people make him out to be. He’s really about that action.”
To be clear, Johnson doesn’t wish for any players to truly fight during game-action. Instead, he hopes to bring Heat teammates Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington and Udonis Haslem—“All the real ones,” he says—into an octagon this summer.