James 'JJ' Johnson was one of a kind

James Johnson had a larger-than-life presence.

And a personality to match.

James Johnson coaching Ben Provisor at the 2012 Olympics (Photo/John Sachs)
A strong, towering man who looked more like a basketball player than a wrestler, Johnson could light up a room with his infectious laugh, outgoing demeanor and ever-present smile.

Known affectionately around the world as JJ, he impacted the sport of Greco-Roman wrestling as an athlete and a coach for the past four decades.

He competed in and coached in the most prestigious events on the planet. And enjoyed more than his share of success.

It was shocking to hear late Sunday night that JJ had passed away. He was just 61 years old.

He had reportedly undergone an emergency appendectomy at the Junior World Championships in Estonia last month and had been battling an infection after returning home to Phoenix.

As you can imagine, social media was flooded with tributes to JJ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on Sunday night and Monday morning.

He was a beloved man who had a positive impact on people of all ages. JJ could talk to anybody about anything. He loved wrestling, loved his family and loved life.

JJ wrestled at the University of Kentucky where he was an NCAA qualifier. He was recently inducted into the athletic hall of fame at his alma mater.

He excelled in the 1980s and 1990s as a wrestler while competing at 100 kilograms (220 pounds) on the Senior level in Greco. He placed fifth at the 1993 World Championships and was named USA Wrestling's Greco-Roman Athlete of the Year. He made 12 U.S. National Teams during his career.

JJ went on to a long and highly successful career as a coach with the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club. He also was on numerous United States coaching staffs over the years.

I know it meant a great deal to him when the U.S. won the team title at the 2007 World Championships. It remains the only world title an American team has won in Greco. JJ played a role, during training camps and events, in helping that team reach the top of the awards podium.

During the next Olympic cycle, JJ served as a U.S. coach at the 2011 World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey and at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, England.

I spent significant time around JJ during many of those events, including the American practices prior to the Olympics at the University of East London.

I wrote a daily blog chronicling my experiences at the Olympics and JJ earned frequent mention in them. He was always saying something funny or doing something interesting on that trip. If he didn't make the blog, he let me hear about it.

It was never boring being around JJ. He was the life of the party. He always had something to say and had no shortage of opinions. He had a great sense of humor and he also was driven to see the American athletes excel. He always had a strong belief in the wrestlers he was coaching.

We loved to joke around with JJ, but the guy knew wrestling. And he knew how to coach athletes, from beginners all the way up to the Olympic level.

He was very passionate about the Greco-Roman style that often takes a backseat to freestyle in this country.

JJ spent considerable time working with Olympic and world champion Rulon Gardner and also impacted guys like Olympic medalist Adam Wheeler and Junior world champion Kamal Bey. He also was a personal coach for 2019 World Team member G'Angelo Hancock.

Even in his later years, JJ would jump on the mat and wrestle with guys 40 years younger than him. He was still in excellent shape as he entered his 60s. He was still having a significant impact on the sport when he passed away.

JJ was a man who made friends everywhere he went.

I always enjoyed hanging out with him on overseas trips with USA Wrestling. There was never a dull moment with James Johnson. He was a character.

He was passionate about wrestling.

And he certainly had a zest for life.

He will be missed.

Craig Sesker has written about wrestling for more than three decades. He's covered three Olympic Games and is a two-time national wrestling writer of the year.


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