J’den Cox learns from semifinal loss, has fun winning second championship

Cathy Cox: “One of the big differences between last year and this year in wrestling is that J’den had fun all year long.”
J'den Cox celebrates a 4-2 victory against Penn State's Morgan McIntosh to earn his second national championship title. Cox ended his season with a 35-1 record in front of a sold out crowd of 19,270 fans at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. Courtesy of Shane Epping

After the second match of the 2014–15 Mizzou wrestling season, Cathy Cox texted her son, J’den, and asked if he was having fun.

His response? “No. No, I’m not.”

Fast forward a year later to this past Saturday night, Cox was having fun. He had ascended back to the first-place podium by winning his second national championship under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden in New York against, yes, Penn State’s top-ranked Morgan McIntosh.

McIntosh spoiled Cox’s hopes at repeating as national champion last year. After winning an NCAA national championship as a true freshman in the 2013–14 season, Cox rolled through regular-season opponents en route to what he hoped would be back-to-back national titles. Ultimately, Cox fell in the semifinal in St. Louis and again in the third-place match to Penn State’s McIntosh. It was a huge setback.

In primetime and on ESPN, the junior prevailed 4–2 in the 197-pound match to win his second national title — tied for the most in school history.

“Saturday night was amazing — it was absolutely electric,” Cathy Cox said. “Just to be in Madison Square Garden where performers perform and the Ali’s have boxed, you could just feel the excitement in the air and was probably better than anything I’d ever been to.”

Cox, who won four state championships at Hickman High School, wasn’t supposed to lose as a sophomore, but he did.

Looking back, the adversity from those losses propelled thought, the thought propelled change, and from Cathy Cox’s perspective, that helped her son in many ways. From an attitude perspective to a work ethic perspective, J’den Cox was able to not only change and reassess his goals, but to learn from them.

“One of the things that I heard him say last year was, ‘I didn’t lose, I learned,’” Cathy Cox said. “I think he learned a lot about himself. He learned a lot about what it takes to stay on top and that he can’t take anything for granted, and I don’t think he took it for granted. I just think he faced a lot of adversity with keeping up with his weight like he should have.

“Everybody loses, and it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to be a winner. He came back and obviously learned and made it back to the top.”

From Jan. 1 in his freshman season to March 21, 2015 — yes, that’s 443 days — Cox amassed 56 straight wins, though at times during that run, Cathy didn’t see the same “J’den the wrestler,” which sparked the text after his second match in his sophomore year.

For many athletes, the dedication and hard work intervenes with one essential to all sport — fun. As much as “winning assists the fun,” as Cathy put it, for Cox, in the 2014–15 season, that wasn’t the case.

“When J’den was little and my husband started to coach, he would tell J’den ‘to just have fun,’” Cathy said. “One of the big differences between last year and this year in wrestling is that J’den had fun all year long.”

Ben Askren is familiar with what J’den Cox has gone through — he’s the only other Mizzou wrestler to have won two national championships.

As a freshman and sophomore at MU in 2004 and 2005, Askren wrestled for coach Brian Smith and made it to the final match in two-straight NCAA national championships. In each match, he fell to his opponent. Then, as a junior and senior, he won back-to-back titles.

Like Cox, Askren’s goal was to rebound and like Cox, the losses aren’t what ultimately defined the former Mizzou wrestler. It’s overcoming adversity that Askren is familiar with, and it’s something he mentioned in connection with Cox.

“It’s just devastation (when you lose a big match),” Askren said. “The hard part about it is you have to wait a whole other year. You can’t just wait a week and go win the title, you’ve got to wait a whole freaking year to have another shot at redemption.”

Askren has known Cox since he was 8 years old. Seeing the kid he used to work with at the local youth clubs when he was in college allows a lot to come full circle.

During the championship match and throughout Cox’s time in the NCAA tournament for that matter, Askren showed signs of support on social media and elsewhere.

“I’m just happy for him, I know him and he’s a great kid,” Askren said. “He doesn’t need advice, he knows what he’s doing. I’ve spent a good amount of time with him and we’ve worked out together, so that’s been a lot of fun.”

Coming into college, Cox won four straight state titles, so the success isn’t unexpected. Asked about the second championship, J.D. Coffman, who coached Cox at Hickman and is now the athletic director there, isn’t surprised in the slightest.

“J’den is a goal-oriented person whether it’s on the mat, in the classroom or working on music or sign language — he puts his whole heart and mind into those things,” Coffman said. “If you’d told me he’d have done what he did this year after last year or done what he did after high school, I wouldn’t have been surprised.”

In 2014, after winning his first championship, Cox told The Maneater he was a bit nervous.

“I was like, ‘This is something big to me. It means a lot to me and I have something to prove to myself,” he said. “I proved something to myself today, and I'm very proud of myself.”

In 2016, after winning his second, ESPN reporter Quint Kessenich asked, "You won this as a freshman, you're back as a junior. What's the difference?"

“I’m a junior,” Cox replied.

The same fun, the same wrestler, but a different Cox. One who’ll enter next year with a chance to repeat and become the first-ever Tiger to win three national championships.

Edited by Katherine Knott | kknott@themaneater.com

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