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Prized Fighter

Feb. 02, 2009
Feb. 02, 2009

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Feb. 2, 2009

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Prized Fighter

Wake Forest forward James Johnson, a kickboxer and a former world champ in karate, has helped turn the Demon Deacons into a title contender with his fearlessness and athleticism

JAMES JOHNSON last entered the cage on May 13, 2006. Since then the Wake Forest sophomore has competed exclusively on a basketball court, but just pose the question—"When you were a fighter ..."—and he's visibly offended by the verb tense. He slides forward in his seat at the Demon Deacons' practice facility. "I'm not done fighting," he says, throwing a few air jabs while exhaling sharply for effect. "I think about fighting all the time." His last fight seems as fresh in his mind as the previous night's 92--89 home court upset of North Carolina, an outcome that had fans storming the court and, for one week anyway, made Wake Forest the No. 1 team in the nation. ¬∂ A Worldwide Fighting Championships mixed-martial-arts competition had come to Cheyenne, Wyo., in the spring of Johnson's junior year of high school, and on the morning of the event a promoter looking for last-minute fill-ins on the amateur card called James's father, Willie, the patriarch of Wyoming's unofficial first family of fighting. A sixth-degree black belt, Willie runs J&P's Martial Arts school in Cheyenne and is married to Vi, also a black belt. They have eight children who are black belts (as well as a ninth who is a blue belt, but she's only 10). James, the fifth child, was then 18 and had never fought in an MMA bout, but he had won seven world karate titles and nine national ones, and he was 20--0 as a kickboxer. He'd also been trained by his father to be fearless, so he volunteered to fight in the 205-pound weight class against Damond Clark, a 31-year-old from Casper who has since turned pro.

This is an article from the Feb. 2, 2009 issue

James chose Lil Wayne's Hit Em Up as his entrance music, and walked into the cage wearing unlaced Air Jordan VIIs, as if he were fresh off the hardwood. "The other guy came out playing Welcome to the Jungle [by Guns 'n' Roses]," James says. "You know why I still remember that?"

The same song often punctuates the pregame introductions at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, ensuring its continued place in James Johnson's auditory cortex. As Wake prepared to face North Carolina on Jan. 11, the lights went down and spotlights crisscrossed the yellow-and-black, tie-dyed fashion atrocities worn by the 2,000 Screamin' Demons swaying in the student section, making them look like giant, angry bees. Axl Rose's primal scream, Welcome to the Jungle, we've got fun and games, faded as the P.A. announcer introduced the lineups.

The coach who conceptualized this madness, the late Skip Prosser, is memorialized with a banner in the rafters. The day before his death from a heart attack on July 26, 2007, the 56-year-old Prosser told assistant coach Dino Gaudio that their two-year absence from the NCAA tournament would end soon. "We're going to be good again," Prosser said.

With Gaudio now in charge, Prosser's prediction has come true. Wake was 16--1 through Sunday and ranked sixth in the AP poll. And Johnson is a big reason why. He's averaging 13.6 points, second only behind breakout star Jeff Teague's 21.5 points a game, and with his 6'9" frame and his martial-arts fluidity, Johnson has helped bring frontline athleticism to a defense that has made the Demon Deacons a title contender. Two years ago Wake had the worst field-goal-percentage defense in the ACC, 46.8%. Now it is third best in the nation, at 36.8%.

That Johnson is at Wake at all is a bit of a fluke. He was recruited by assistant coach Pat Kelsey, who played one season at Wyoming. In late 2005 Kelsey's uncle, Jim Stoll, a former Wyoming assistant, gave his nephew a tip about a diamond in the rough at Cheyenne's East High. One of Kelsey's former Wyoming teammates, Sly Johnson (no relation to James), was on the coaching staff there and gave him an unusual scouting report: "The kid's a black belt and, at 6'8", 230 [pounds], can do a standing backflip," Sly told him. "He can run at the wall, put his foot on it and flip backward. And his hands are lethal." That's when Wake began sending Johnson letters.

WATER! DOMINICK, move like water!" Willie Johnson is interrupting a kickboxing sparring session between his 25-year-old son Pal'e and a student, Dominick Espinoza. Willie wants Dominick to flow and react to his opponent, rather than move robotically. "Water does two things," Willie says. "As the great Mr. Bruce Lee said, it can flow beautifully, or it can crash and tear stuff up, like in a tsunami. So I want you to flow like water"—he glides across the floor to demonstrate—"and then pwaaah!"—he throws a flurry of punches—"Crash!"

J&P's—for Johnson and Pafford, in honor of Richard Pafford, Willie's foster brother, who lost an arm in a hydraulic-press accident when he was 28 but has yet to stop kickboxing—is housed in a former biodiesel warehouse. The walls are made of corrugated metal, and the place sits on a dirt road on the southeast edge of Cheyenne, just before the city gives way to an expanse of winter-browned hills. Willie, a friendly bear of an ex--Marine sergeant who served at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., for eight years and moved the family to Cheyenne in 1993, works at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and runs J&P's more for pleasure than profit. ("I've already got one job," he says. "I don't need another.") The 12-by-12-foot boxing ring sits at the far end of the warehouse, carpets and mats cover the floor of the main karate space, and over the entrance is a loft where more than 300 tournament trophies form a miniature skyline of metal and plastic. Willie began training most of his children as soon as they could walk, and James won his first Excel Karate League national title at nine. To him, the water concept came naturally: "When he was moving," Willie says, "he'd be flowing, like he was floating on air."

James was called Little Ali because of his footwork, but nicknames are standard in the family. Willie won five world and 10 national karate titles as Tuqik (pronounced TOO-quick). Vi, a Samoan immigrant who began street fighting as a teenage gang leader of the Krook City Bloods in Oceanside—"I would go after the bullies," she says, "and beat up more men than women"—won five nationals as Vicious. Joseph (a.k.a. Baby Boy), 32; Jearamie (Hot Nickels), 28; Jessica (Bam-Bam), 26; Pal'e (the Legend); Scott (Nudo), 20; Mino (the Professor), 18; Nikko (Tuqik II), 15; and 10-year-old Kiandra have all also won national titles or been runners-up. James, Scott and Nikko played youth basketball too, but they were immersed in fighting. "[J&P's] was like our playground: Every night we'd go there and work on stuff," says James. "Going to other people's houses was weird for me. I'd be like, What do you guys do after dinner?"

Division I basketball talent in Wyoming is not commonplace: In Scout.com's prospect database for the state, dating back to 2002, Johnson is the only ranked recruit, having earned a four-star rating after dazzling at the Nike All-America Camp in Indianapolis in July 2006. Tree Adams, an AAU coach in Denver who served as a Marine under Willie, had to plead with the Nike folks just to get James an invitation. Johnson arrived anonymously and left as a co-MVP, sending his recruitment into overdrive. Coaches began descending on workouts at Cheyenne East, but Kelsey and Wake had a nine-month head start.

Teague, another Wake Forest target who had similarly burst onto the scene that July with a strong performance at the Reebok ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., went on Scout.com later that month to research other prospective Demon Deacons. There he saw video clips from the Nike camp of Johnson's taking the ball to the rim over future Duke star Kyle Singler, as well as throwing down a between-the-legs dunk on a fast break. Teague, a guard, thought, I'd like to play with this guy. The two committed to Wake in the same week of August '06.

Teague's first exposure to Johnson's martial-arts skills came at the Winston-Salem home of Wake alum and NBA All-Star Chris Paul in the summer before their freshman year. The Hornets point guard was teasing Johnson, saying, "I keep hearing about your fighting, but you're way too big to be a fighter." Johnson told Paul to stand still directly in front of him, and said, "I'm not going to kick you; I'm that good." Then he did a roundhouse kick within inches of Paul's face, causing Paul to step back and say, "O.K., I believe you."

Johnson carries that fighter's confidence onto the basketball court, where, he says, "I know nobody can beat me up, so there's never reason to be scared." Lack of fear can also work against him, though: Gaudio says he must conduct "bolt-tightening sessions" with Johnson to maintain his seriousness of purpose. Teague uses creative motivational tactics to fire Johnson up, telling other teammates while Johnson is in earshot about the amazing abilities of the player Johnson has to match up against. Teague got Johnson going this way by singing the praises of North Carolina forward Danny Green. The highlight of the win over the Tar Heels came when Johnson acrobatically rose over Green to make a one-handed catch of an alley-oop from forward Al-Farouq Aminu and then emphatically slammed it home.

WHEN Johnson heard in October that his younger brother Scott had signed up for an MMA bout in Salt Lake City, he called home to tell his father, "Dad, are you sure he's ready? I could come back and do it." Willie just laughed. It was a preposterous suggestion: Wake was about to start preseason practice, and Scott was only being allowed to fight because he wasn't in school. He was taking time off before enrolling at Division II Adams State in Alamosa, Colo., where he'll play hoops as a walk-on forward next season. James does wonder, though, what might have happened if colleges offered scholarships for martial arts. Would he still be sitting outside the Demon Deacons' locker room telling the story of an almost three-year-old tussle?

The turning point in their bout came early, after Johnson landed his first kick to Clark's face. Clark gambled by charging at Johnson's legs, picking him up and slamming him to the cage's canvas. Someone in the crowd yelled, "It's over! He can't fight on the ground!" But the spontaneous fighter, as Willie's beloved Bruce Lee once wrote, "adjusts himself to his opponent like water pressing on an earthen wall. It flows through the slightest crack."

Clark made a false move as he tried to climb atop Johnson, and water crashed through the crack—he tucked in Clark's exposed arm, swiftly rolled him over and slugged him twice in the face. Johnson pinned one of Clark's arms down with a knee and kept crashing, landing two more punches before a ref pulled Johnson off and declared him the victor. The fight lasted one minute and 27 seconds. His summer exposure at Nike camp still lay ahead. It was time to move on. For Lee had also said, "Don't get set into one form ... be formless, shapeless—like water. You put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot." You put the fighter on the court, he becomes a basketball player, but he remains liquid, unwilling to concede that he may never be poured back into the fight.

"When [James] was moving," Willie says, "he'd be flowing, like he was FLOATING ON AIR."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Chuck Burton/APFLIP SIDE Johnson posterized Green in Wake's win over Carolina, but he might be more head over heels about martial arts.PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE JOHNSON FAMILY[See caption above]PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE JOHNSON FAMILYBUTTERFLY EFFECT The 6'9", 230-pound Johnson (right) was called Little Ali because of his nimble footwork.PHOTOTIM DEFRISCOTHE PATRIARCH Willie began training his nine kids in martial arts as soon as they could walk.