OKLAHOMA CITY — J’den Cox made a name for himself at Hickman High School, winning multiple state titles and becoming an unbeatable force in the process.
Cox started a similar trend as a Tiger after he became a national champion March 22 to kick off spring break.
He said his plan is to win four national titles.
Cox, a freshman, faced Ohio State’s redshirt senior Nick Heflin in the 197-pound bout of the finals at the 2014 NCAA wrestling championships in Oklahoma City.
“It felt like a big weight lifted off my chest,” Cox said after his win. “My goal is to be a four-time national champion. This is the beginning. And I think this was probably going to be one of the hardest ones, just because it was trying to get the train started, trying to get the motion going toward that.”
The seven-minute match was close with the wrestlers tied after two periods. In the third, Heflin got called for stalling, which awarded one point to Cox. In the final 10 seconds, Heflin went for the takedown, but time expired before he could score.
Cox also earned All-American honors along with junior captain and 149-pounder Drake Houdashelt. A wrestler becomes an All-American by placing in the top eight of his weight class.
Cox is the 14th true freshman to win a national title and the first for the Missouri wrestling program. He is also the first national champion for Missouri since Max Askren won in 2010.
“This is a dream of mine,” Cox said. “It's something I put all of my heart and work to, and I always tell people there's no point to do something if you're not going to push yourself to try to do it to the best of your ability.”
His freshman campaign earned Cox postseason honors. He was named the Mid-American Conference wrestler of the year, as well as Flowrestling’s freshman of the year. He came to MU as the standout in the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, losing just two matches his freshman year.
Cox wasn’t the only freshman to do well at the national tournament. Out of eight wrestlers competing for the Tigers, the four freshmen remained alive in the tournament after a day of wrestling. Senior Zach Toal and junior Mikey England were eliminated in the first day of competition.
Redshirt freshman 133-pounder Matt Manley won his first match in overtime but drew top-seeded Joe Colon from Northern Iowa. Manley fell to Colon and moved to the consolation bracket. It was Manley’s closest loss of the season.
“I got one win under my belt, so hopefully in the future, the wins will rattle off a lot more easier,” Manley said.
True freshman and 157-pounder Joey Lavallee won his first match of the tournament but was pinned in the next one. He fell to top-seeded James Green from Nebraska, one win shy of All-American honors.
Redshirt freshman and 141-pounder Lavion Mayes was eliminated when he was two wins away from being an All-American. He was tasked with facing the eventual champion at 141 in Ohio State’s Logan Stieber in the opening round. He went on to win two matches in the consolation bracket.
“My first match, I got punched in the face,” Mayes said. “I need to be more prepared for that first round match, regardless of whom I drew. I have to be ready to go out and fire off all cylinders.”
Despite only two wrestlers reaching All-American status this year, the team is hopeful for the upcoming years.
“It makes us more excited for the future,” Mayes said. “We are going to be really good. I’m excited. I want to win a national championship as an individual and the team. We have the guys. It will be great.”
Even though the season’s over, the team won’t take much time off as they prepare for freestyle tournaments.
“I see me, Drake (Houdashelt) and (Joey) Lavallee, all in one corner of the room just banging at each other for the next months coming up,” Mayes said. “We have until November to get better. We all have areas to improve in, and we are going to fix each other’s mistakes. I have a lot of faith in those guys, and they have faith in me. We are going to get it done.”