TORONTO - Leandro Barbosa isn’t the only Raptor with a Brazilian background.
Starting forward James Johnson also has a Brazilian background — Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as well as kenpo kick boxing, Taekwondo and boxing.
It’s fair to say that only the extremely unwise or blissfully ignorant would want to get in Johnson’s face on the basketball court.
Yet from chatting with the newest Raptor, one gets the impression that utilizing his skills as a kick boxer on the street or the court is the last thing the former Wake Forest star would want to pursue. For Johnson and others who grew up with a mixed martial arts background, the sport is a way of life and not a means to intimidate.
“I don’t think (a black belt) gives me instant respect,” Johnson said on Tuesday, following the Raptors’ shootaround. “I just think the way I carry myself, and my character, is what gets me respect.”
Johnson, 24, certainly garners respect on two athletic fronts.
A 16th overall pick by the Chicago Bulls in the 2009 NBA draft, Johnson was a freshman all-American and ACC rookie of the year during his time at Wake Forest, averaging 14.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. The Raptors acquired the small forward on Feb. 22 from the Bulls for the 2011 first-round pick they acquired from the Miami Heat in the Chris Bosh sign-and-trade (expected to be in the 25-30 range) — a move many basketball insiders consider a coup for Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo, who was big on the versatile forward when he was at Wake Forest.
No one’s quite sure what soured the Bulls on Johnson, but he’s considered an extremely talented young forward. Tuesday’s game against the New Orleans Hornets marked his fourth consecutive start.
As a kick boxer, Johnson is certainly no slouch either.
He went 21-0 in competition and would still be fighting today if his professional basketball contracts did not forbid him from doing so, though he’s allowed to train in the off-season. At 6-foot-9, 245 pounds, and as strong as a bull, Johnson strikes a formidable figure in the ring.
“I have quick hands and quick feet, but I like to fight in-close,” said the Cheyenne, Wyo., native, when asked to list his strengths as a kick boxer. “I’m long, but because we’re tall, my father always made us fight in-close, because people think that when you’re tall, as long as they get inside, they’ve got the advantage. But if you clinch up with me you won’t have an advantage. I can fight long and I can fight in-close.”
Johnson came by his martial arts training honestly. His father, Willie Johnson, is a seven-time world kick boxing champion, 7th Dan black belt and the owner of J&P’s Tae Kwon Do Martial Arts school in Cheyenne. All but one of the nine Johnson children are black belts.
Johnson actually began kick boxing long before he began playing basketball at any organized level. He started training in martial arts at 6 and competing at 8 and, by the age of 14, was fighting in the ring and cage. His serious basketball endeavours didn’t begin until he was in the eighth grade — and he didn’t take up hoops for the love of the game or anything like that. He joined because his best friends were playing and he didn’t like walking home alone after school.
“I didn’t have to go to martial arts until about 5 or 6 p.m. and I didn’t want to be the only one at home, bored,” said Johnson with a laugh.
But by the 11th grade, Johnson was turning heads on the court.
“That’s when I really took on basketball and, like everything else in my life, I tried to be the best I could at it. By then, it became serious for me and I knew I had a future in it,” he said.
He believes he has still has future in mixed martial arts as well.
He continues to train at his father’s gym in the off-season and has not written off the idea of returning to the ring as a professional mixed martial arts fighter. Who knows, perhaps we’ll see Johnson fighting in a UFC show at the Rogers Centre one day.
“You never know,” he said. “I hope I have a long, long career in the NBA. But whatever unfolds, I’d definitely like to go back to fighting.”
Johnson said fighting gives him a different high than hoops.
“It’s great,” he said. “It’s his heart vs. my heart. We go in there trying to kill each other. And you’re not only fighting for the name on the back of your shirt, but your family and your gym. It’s a different kind of test.”
Johnson said martial arts enhances his conditioning. He said that training at his dad’s gym gets him in superior shape than training for basketball, which is saying a lot.
“It gives you heart,” he said. “Those workouts are a lot harder than finishing a conditioning test for basketball. Sometimes you want to quit, but your heart won’t let you quit. You battle against yourself, and once you beat that, you feel like you’re on top of the world. It helps you with a lot of things — your agility, your movement and your mobility.”