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Overnight Sensation Wrestler J’den Cox’s Dream Year Continues On

By John Blanchette | May 19, 2016, 12:23 p.m. (ET)

J'den Cox celebrates after defeating Kyle Dake in the 86 kg. freestyle championship match at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on April 10, 2016 in Iowa City, Iowa. 

The overnight-sensation aspect to J’den Cox’s newfound celebrity is irresistible.

A month ago, his international wrestling ambitions lacked the most basic detail of a passport. Now he’s bound for Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Olympic Games. So you could say both the paperwork and the reality have been expedited.

Easy as it might have been for Cox to get caught up in the delirium of winning the world Olympic qualifier in Mongolia last month to punch that Rio ticket, two things prevented it:

  • School: Finals at the University of Missouri, where he’s just finished his junior year, came a scant week and a half after he returned from Ulaanbaatar. So there were books to crack.
  • A level head.

“I’m proud and happy about it,” said Cox, “but I have to balance the emotional high with the knowledge that I have to get back to work. There’s more to be done.”

Starting immediately. Cox is one of the five Olympic qualifiers facing off against wrestlers from Canada, Iran and South Korea in the annual Beat the Streets event tonight in Times Square — a program that also includes youth exhibition matches and a freestyle championship dual meet between New York City PSAL high school girls’ teams.

Cox’s assignment is the 86 kg. (189-pound) match against Iran’s Meisam Mostafa Jokar, an international veteran who won the Asian Games and Asian Championships in 2014.

It’s also an encore. In his first trip to New York in March, Cox won his second NCAA championship at Madison Square Garden — and ran his collegiate record to 108-5 — with a 4-2 decision over Penn State’s Morgan McIntosh.

“I’m liking it even more this time than I did the last time,” he said.

Maybe it’s being able to walk down the street knowing he’s going to the Olympics — a little cachet even in the notoriously indifferent bustle of Manhattan.

“It’s not just representing America when I’m on the mat,” Cox insisted. “It’s representing America in everything I do.”

He’s had a long time for that notion to germinate.

Growing up in Columbia, Missouri, he tagged behind brothers Zach and Drae to Mizzou wrestling camps at a young age — though a good portion of the time he was camped in coach Brian Smith’s office with his nose in Junie B. Jones books. But when he did get on the mat, he was a quick study — and convert. At the age of 5, he put it down on paper that he wanted to compete in the Olympic Games.

J'den Cox and Kyle Dake compete in the 86 kg. freestyle championship match at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on April 10, 2016 in Iowa City, Iowa. 

Not that it was a single-minded pursuit.

Among the dozens of videos to be found on YouTube of Cox winning matches in high school, college and now beyond, there’s another of him in a sweater and jeans picking a guitar and performing a song of his own composition called “One More” as part of the kickoff event to Missouri’s $1.3 billion fundraising campaign.

“We’ve come too far to not take a chance,” he sings. “We’ve fought too hard to not take a stand.”

Cox actually plays multiple instruments, bass being his favorite — “If you want to hear something bluesy, come to me” — and there’s a fulfillment there that complements his more physical side.

“There are just bigger things in life,” he said. “Being remembered as a wrestler, that’s fine, but if it’s all I achieve — if it’s all I get out of life — I didn’t do anything that great. I want to be more.”

More might have to wait for a bit, thanks to his wild couple of months.

His NCAA title got him into the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in April, though as only the ninth seed in the challenge bracket. That lack of esteem didn’t stop him from crushing 2012 Olympian Jake Herbert in the quarterfinals en route to a finals showdown with Kyle Dake. Cox survived a harrowing final period — and a 90-second video review — in the third and deciding match for a 4-3 decision that sent him to Mongolia. There, he stormed through five matches, clinching his Olympic berth with a 5-2 nod over Uzbekistan’s Umidjon Ismanov in the semis before blitzing Venezuela’s Pedro Ceballos Fuentes 6-0 in the gold-medal match.

The toughest part of the tournament might have been the 13 1/2-hour flight to get there.

“The big picture of me is, I don’t look at outcomes anymore,” Cox said. “I’m out there to have fun and believe and just do my thing. Really, no matter what the outcome, you’ve got to have fun — wrestling like you’re a kid again. It’s like running: running was so much fun when you were a kid until you started thinking about it.

“Winning is fun, too. But even if you don’t win, if you’re having fun with it, you’re willing to get back on the horse and go back out there.”

There’s more in store for Cox before Rio. He’ll be at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a two-week training camp in advance of the Men’s Freestyle World Cup on June 11-12 in Inglewood, California. In July, it’s on to the Grand Prix of Germany in Dortmund.

Call it a crash course in international competition for a raw rookie — who doesn’t seem to acknowledge his new, daunting surroundings.

“I’m not that nervous about the Olympics,” he said. “I have the rest of the country to do that for me. Everybody else is going to have their opinion and be talking about it.

“My goal is to win it. I want to go there and put it out there against the best in the world. I think it has to be an awesome feeling to be on that stage.”

John Blanchette is a sportswriter from Spokane, Washington. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.