Missouri's J'den Cox fighting through hardship in effort to claim a second NCAA championship
J'den Cox (Missouri) after quarter-final win at the
2015 NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Mo.
Photo: Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
Over that 14-month span Cox won 56 consecutive matches, two Mid-American Conference championships and a NCAA championship. Dominant is putting it mildly.
Add in the fact that Cox was a true freshman while winning his NCAA title, a rare feat in the college wrestling landscape, and one could only picture another four-time NCAA champion coming our way.
As is often the case for anyone who laces up a pair of wrestling shoes, Cox was hit square in the chest with a sizable helping of adversity.
Standing across the line from Cox in the semifinals of the 2015 NCAA Championships was a familiar foe, Kyle Snyder of Ohio State. The two had previously traded blows in high school events like the Junior National Championships, but the NCAA stage raised the bar.
The outcome of this particular match was also a key factor in determining who the team National Champions would be. Obviously, the stakes were at their highest.
Snyder won a tight 3-2 match over the defending NCAA champion Cox and ultimately helped lead the Buckeyes to the NCAA team title. Cox fell to fifth place overall at the NCAA’s and was left wondering “what if?”.
“I don’t believe in disappointment,” Cox said. “Granted, I didn’t finish the way I wanted to, but I just really believe in always trying to encourage to get better. There’s not time to sit around and be glum about everything. You’ve got to move forward and that’s what I did. I went back to the room and just got to work.”
Cox had to watch as the the two men who bookended his spectacular 56-match win streak, Kyven Gadson of Iowa State and Snyder, battled on the raised platform for the title as 197-pound NCAA champion. Gadson became the NCAA champion, Snyder the runner-up. Least we forget, Snyder became the youngest World champion in U.S. history six months later.
Some might qualify a loss to either of these men as acceptable and simply move on. Cox took these losses as a sign to work harder, make changes and better himself.
“I took it as a chance to go back in the room and figure out, not only wrestling wise, but lifestyle wise, things that you want to change, things you want to stay the same, things that you need to change and things that need to have more work on if they are going to stay around. It really allowed me to take a step back,” said Cox.
The key takeaway from his NCAA Tournament performance last year, and something Cox has been focusing on heavily, is the ability of attacking early and often in matches.
“I noticed I really didn’t get going until around two minutes into the match, so instead of wrestling for a full seven, I was wrestling for five minutes, six minutes, which is very important. If we score, it changes the match. It changes how people have to wrestle you,” said Cox.
Focusing on wrestling a full seven minutes alludes to the philosophy in which Cox leads his life. He believes in doing things the right way, taking no shortcuts and finding ways to develop as an individual on top of being a great wrestler.
“You have to believe in yourself and believe what you’re doing is right. When you step out there you’ve got to be willing to put it on the line and go after it. Nothing’s a guarantee, so there’s no reason to not give it everything you’ve got to go after what you want,” said Cox.
There is no shortage of people who have expressed doubt in Cox throughout his time as a wrestler. Self-admittedly, Cox has experienced mixed emotions about these doubters, but the doubt he attacks the most culminates in his own mind.
A prime example came after Cox won his NCAA title.
“There were a lot of people happy that I won [NCAA’s] and, obviously, there were a lot of people that weren’t happy that I won. There’s a mixture of everything in seeing what people have to say about it. Granted, I was happy either way. I was like ‘hey, I got a national title. That’s pretty cool.’ but I didn’t feel too much pressure from anyone else,” said Cox.
“I’m a very critical person of myself. I’m my worst opponent. If I create a lot of pressure on me that’s going to beat me more than anybody else. I think that might have happened, but as for the outside world not really. I just saw what people had to say and went on through life,” he continued.
J'den Cox (Missouri) celebrates winning the NCAA Championships
in March of 2014. Photo: Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
In November, the Missouri football team went on strike to combat the threat of racism on the Missouri campus. Naturally, the effects were felt by another group close to the situation, the Mizzou wrestlers.
“There’s been a whole lot of things happening with these strikes that happened on campus and those things are going to take a toll. Things are going to happen. Those things aren’t easy to get through, but while that was happening we had a team meeting about it and like any family you’re going to have flares and fights and people have different views. But at the end of the day we knew what we wanted to do as a team and we knew what we wanted as friends, as people that represented something. We represent Mizzou. We represent Missouri wrestling. That’s what we do. That’s who we are. We are wrestlers,” said Cox.
Even on the mat this season, Cox has faced times of controversy and turmoil.
In early December, Cox faced off against MAC rival Phil Wellington of Ohio in a dual meet between the two schools. After running Wellington off the mat from the top position and colliding with the hardwood floor, Cox was disqualified from the match with Wellington unable to continue.
Since this match, Cox has been bombarded with backlash and personal attacks from fans accusing him of being a thug, being enabled, being a dirty wrestler and other hateful comments. This is a tough set of circumstances for anyone to encounter, let alone a 20-year-old college student. Naturally, Cox uses these circumstances as even more motivation.
“I’ve taken a lot of backlash for it. People say they don’t want their children to look up to me. I’ve got to live my life. I’m going to live my life well and keep on wrestling because that’s what I love to do. I’ve really taken that as motivation. I’m blessed to do this so I’m not going to let people try and deter me and put me out of place, out of the right mindset to do this,” said Cox.
In regards to Wellington, Cox wrote him a personal letter apologizing for what transpired that day in December and for any negative outcomes the situation had for him or his family.
“People have their own opinions about what happened. I wasn’t angry. I don’t dislike him. Everyone thinks that I do, but everyone is not me. I’m not going to apologize for being an aggressive wrestler and doing things that I’ve been trained to do. I don’t ever look to harm another wrestler. I’m deeply sorry that if he is injured that he recovers well. At the end of the day I’ve got to wrestle. I’m sorry that It happened,” said Cox.
Given all the turmoil Cox has endured over the course of the past year, he is able to find solace in his Tiger teammates and furthering the Tiger Style tradition of excellence.
As a team, Mizzou is undefeated on the season, riding the momentum of perhaps the best season in program history after finishing in fourth place at the NCAA Championships last year. Missouri has won a NCAA-leading 35 consecutive dual meets and is showing no signs of slowing down.
“We don’t focus on the streak. We focus on the business we have to take care of each week, week in and week out, and it hasn’t changed. We are working hard,” said Cox.
The Tigers own wins over the defending National Champions Ohio State and perennial power Cornell this season, with both coming down to the wire. In fact, Cox was bumped up to heavyweight against Cornell to try to win the dual in the meets last match. He secured the victory with a technical fall.
“It was a team effort,” Cox said. “Without Synon not giving up the major, without Tim Miklus just giving up the tech fall and not the pin, even Daniel [Lewis] going into triple overtime with a really tough opponent and picking up the win, that was really cool. Everything that happened in this dual set it up so that was possible. I couldn’t have done what I needed to do for my team without my team.”
On the tournament side, Missouri scored top prize at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, 41 points ahead of second place Cornell on the scoreboard.
“It was huge. This team showed up and put bonus points up on the board and that’s something that you need in a tournament aspect. You need bonus points. It was awesome to see young guys come out and fight and get wins,” said Cox.
As the college season begins its final ascent, Cox is embracing all the challenges that have come his way in order to thrive both on and off the mat. He is seeking a return to the top of the NCAA podium, but more so, he wants to set a positive example for his team, his school, his family and his fans.
“Whether I win or lose I want people to see that I gave everything,” Cox said. “I hope the story is it’s a guy who experienced a tough outing last year at nationals and then got back in the room and really just made a change in his mind and did what was necessary to make the changes in his life that were needed. He embraced it and he came through it. I hope that’s what people see. That’s the story I want to leave behind.”
Cox believes he is wrestling better than ever before as he leads this Mizzou squad down the homestretch.
The Tigers will face a grueling dual meet schedule against both conference rivals and top non-conference foes before seeking the program’s fourth consecutive MAC crown and even greater heights in Madison Square Garden in March at the NCAA’s.