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Prized Fighter
LUKE WINN
February 02, 2009
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
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February 02, 2009

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

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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.

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