James Johnson, the only wrestler in the University of Kentucky’s athletics Hall of Fame and a coach in the 2012 Olympics, died Monday. He was 61.
Johnson was a four-year letterman who started every season from 1977 to 1980 as a 190-pounder. He finished 65-21 in his college career, twice won the Southern Open and was a three-time Southeastern Conference medalist. (The SEC sponsored wrestling from 1970 through 1981; UK stopped sponsoring the sport after the 1983 season.)
After graduating from UK, Johnson was a member of the USA National Team for 12 years. He was a three-time title winner in Greco-Roman at the U.S. Nationals at 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and medaled seven times at the Pan American Championships, including a gold medal in 1986, and won silver at the 1991 Pan American Games. He finished second in the 1992 Olympic Trials and in 1993 was the first honoree to be named USA Wrestling Greco-Roman Wrestler of the Year.
Johnson was inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame in 2016 along with football coach Rich Brooks, men’s basketball player Chuck Hayes, softball player Molly Johnson-Belcher, distance runner Bernadette Madigan-Dugan and football player Wesley Woodyard.
Those who most closely knew him called him “JJ.” Those who were even closer knew him by another name.
“We teased him, his nickname was Zeus,” said Frank X Walker, a writer and professor at UK who was a Phi Beta Sigma fraternity brother and close friend of Johnson. “And he would say, ‘Cause I’ve got a body like a god.’ And nobody could challenge that. ...
“He was that guy that every guy wanted to be. He was handsome, he was physically strong, women loved him, he was smart and he had a great personality. How could you not want to be his friend?”
Walker said when he attended UK most major athletes at the school, because of their schedules and other circumstances, were distant from the black community, and it was rare for athletes to pledge a fraternity.
“He had refused to not be part of a community outside athletics,” Walker said. “So everywhere he went, people already knew him and knew of him. I’ve been talking to friends across the country, and nobody can think of anybody, even his ex-wife, who has anything bad to say about him.”
Craig Sesker, a senior writer for wrestling website InterMat, wrote that Johnson, who was 6-foot-4, “looked more like a basketball player than a wrestler” and “could light up a room with his infectious laugh, outgoing demeanor and ever-present smile.”
Mark Maloney, a longtime reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader who covered Johnson as part of the Olympics beat, introduced Johnson before he made his UK Hall of Fame induction speech.
Maloney first met Johnson at the 1987 Olympic Festival in North Carolina, Johnson’s home state.
“JJ was not shy of talking about his athletic accomplishments, but it was never ‘Oh, look at me, how good am I?’ but ‘Look at these opportunities God has given me to pursue something I love, to see the world, to make friends all over the place,’” Maloney said. “He was a very humble person and a very Christian person. Not only in the sense that his faith was Christian, but in the sense that even if you were not a Christian, you knew that ‘this is a very good person in the way that he acts and conducts himself.’”
Walker said Johnson epitomized “your body is a temple” and had aspirations of getting into sports administration. He coached youth wrestlers with the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club in Phoenix, where he lived, and was part of the training staff for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Johnson and another fraternity brother, journalist John Harris, in June started a podcast called “The Making of Three,” in which they shared stories about their time in wrestling. The most recent episode, titled “Medical Crisis Halfway Around the World,” released last Wednesday. In it, Johnson shared that last month he underwent an emergency appendectomy following a 28-hour flight to Junior Worlds in Estonia. He’d been battling an infection since returning home to Phoenix.
Johnson in his UK Hall of Fame speech recalled how he came to wrestling as a former football player, and almost quit the sport after winning just three matches his first high school season. He went on to have a career worthy of induction into the North Carolina Wrestling Hall of Fame and an annual award named after him and presented to high schoolers in the state.
He is survived by two adolescent children.
“I sincerely hope that his kids, Isabella and Fabian, are able to cope with this loss and continue to follow in their father’s footsteps,” Maloney said. “They were the shining lights in his life. He was so proud of and so in love with his kids.”