At the age of 4, J’den Cox set his sights high for his career as a wrestler: He told Missouri coach Brian Smith that he wanted to win four national titles.
Cox put himself in a position to achieve his goal after finishing the Mid-American Conference championships as the champion in 197 pounds.
Third-ranked Cox bested Ohio’s Phil Wellington, 10-1, to win his first individual title. His victory, a major decision, gave his team the extra point needed to clinch the third consecutive conference tournament championship for the No. 9 Missouri Tigers.
But don’t pop the champagne in his honor quite yet. Cox still has one more stop before he closes the book on his freshman season.
He has his eyes on the NCAA tournament in Oklahoma City, which starts March 20. The brackets will be announced Wednesday, and Cox should be one of the top seeds after his dominating performance at the MAC tournament.
“I’m feeling really good,” Cox said. “I have confidence in myself, the coaches and my team. I have the necessary skills to have that dream come true, but I have to focus on this year. I say four, but I have to focus on one first.”
The Columbia native cruised through the tournament, tallying a technical fall and two major decisions.
The announcers on the live-stream of the tournament compared Cox’s first match to a clinic. He used a variety of moves to score points. Cox also refused to be taken down, giving up only two points in his final two matches.
Through it all, Cox said he was having fun, singing songs before matches and doing his version Muhammad Ali’s shuffle during them.
“I find this sport to be fun,” he said. “I like to do it — I love to do it. That’s why I come to two-a-day practices, that’s why I make weight, that’s why I do what I do.”
Smith would rather Cox stick to the game plan and not mess around on the mat. After all, in the first match, his opponent was able to take Cox down while he was shuffling.
“(Smith) wants what’s best for me,” Cox said. “We had to get a job done. I’ve got to find a balance between wrestling the way you wrestle and what’s best for the team.”
For his performance at Kent State, which hosted this year’s MACs, Cox was named the tournament’s most outstanding wrestler.
Such success isn’t new to Cox, who won four state titles as a Hickman Kewpie. He also went undefeated his sophomore, junior and senior years.
But it was his first time winning a team championship.
Smith said Cox told him on the bus heading home, “Coach, this is awesome. I love this feeling.”
While the odds are stacked against the team to repeat success at the NCAA tournament, Cox is a favorite to make a deep run in the tournament for an individual championship.
“Ranking … expectations, all that doesn’t matter, because J’den Cox has to focus on J’den Cox,” Cox said.
He and junior Drake Houdashelt will be top seeds in the tournament, and Smith thinks they have a shot to go all the way.
“I believe they can win a national title,” Smith said. “J’den has gotten so much confidence in his game plan over the season, and he follows it. I tell him all the time, you are looking more and more like a national champion.”
Cox competed in national tournaments as a high schooler but never one at the scale of the NCAA’s. But he isn’t too worried about his nerves.
“For me, my nerves come in the beginning of the week,” Cox said. “As we get closer, I look back and think, I have worked so hard. I have some of the best partners and the best coaches in the country. I have been working too hard to not succeed and to not give everything I have.”