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Prized Fighter
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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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.

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'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.

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