Through strength and perseverance, J’den Cox shows why he is Missouri’s best

Cox’s resume includes three national championships and an Olympic bronze medal.

Missouri wrestler J'den Cox won his match in a major decision 12–2 over Oklahoma State's Preston Weigel at the Hearnes Center on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017.

J’den Cox won his third national championship Saturday in the 197-pound weight class in the final match of the Columbia native’s illustrious Missouri career.

Cox’s resume is ridiculous. He’s an Olympic bronze medalist, the first three-time national champion in any sport in school history, the second four-time All-American in Missouri wrestling history and the owner of the best winning percentage in program history among wrestlers with greater than 100 career wins. He boasts a 136-5 career record. He had arguably the best season of his career this year, going 28-0, which makes him the second wrestler in Missouri history to post an undefeated season.

He’s also one of four finalists for the 2017 Hodge Trophy, an annual award that is the highest honor a college wrestler can receive.

With such an impressive list of accomplishments, there are some who have wondered if Cox is the greatest athlete in Missouri history. He responds to such speculation with humility.

“I do what I do because I want to do it and I love to do it,” he said at his championship press conference on March 18. “At the end of the day, I’m overall just joyful in doing what I’m doing.”

“Joy” is a word Cox uses to describe wrestling and life a lot. Watching him wrestle and interact with his teammates, coaches and the greater Missouri community, one would never know that the journey to joy hasn’t always been easy for him.

“People need to know the difference between joy and happiness,” Cox said in “The Only Way is Up,” a 2016 documentary by FloWrestling. “My life is a testament to that saying … I want to be joyful; I don’t want to be happy. I’d be happy when I won the state title. I’d even be a little bit happy when I won a match, or a tournament. But then afterwards, I’d be right back to where I was.”

Cox was referring to the depression he’s battled throughout his life that has stemmed from a “traumatic experience” he had as a child, details of which he doesn’t discuss.

“I was seven years old when I had these things happen to me,” Cox said in the documentary. “I was just a little kid. The person was never confronted … it’s just a face. I think that’s probably the scariest thing for me. It’s not a name; it’s just a face.”

Cathy Cox, his mother, said in the documentary that her son hasn’t told his family much information about what happened to him.

“He doesn’t even know this person’s name, and he hasn’t divulged a lot of the action to us, and I think that’s fair to him to keep that to himself,” she said. “I’m sure he’s dealt with it in other avenues, but he hasn’t shared it with us. It was no one from our family and no one associated with wrestling.”

The experience haunted him throughout his childhood. He would have night terrors and be unable to sleep, and he inflicted some self-harm. During his freshman year at Missouri, his load almost became too much to bear. Cox recalled a moment during that season when he had decided he had endured enough pain.

“I was tired of feeling hurt and remembering everything,” Cox said. “When it came down to it and I was just done pondering, I was just like, ‘I just want to be done with everything. I don’t want to think anymore, I don’t want J’den Cox to be a thing anymore.’”

When he was thinking these things, Cox was standing by the side of a highway and preparing to “walk out in front of” the next car to come down the road. He said he received a phone call from Shane, a trainer for the team at the time, just before he walked into the traffic, and he broke down in tears on the phone when Shane started talking to him.

Shane and coach Brian Smith came to where Cox was, met him at his car, and took him to breakfast before taking him to the hospital, where he spent about two weeks. After he was discharged, he and his family decided he needed a place to stay with as little stressors as possible, so he spent some time living in the basement of his childhood coach Mike Eierman’s gym, Eierman Elite Wrestling in Millersburg, Missouri.

Eierman said being able to train and go running when his mind would wander allowed Cox to overcome his demons.

“It’s where he fought his way through a lot of nights, found his way through and became who he is today,” Eierman said.

In his sophomore year, he lost in the NCAA Championships, placing fifth in the 197-pound weight class, and almost lost his joy for wrestling. He’s had moments in his life of extreme anguish and pain, moments that have come not from just physical injuries sustained in wrestling, like the torn meniscus he wrestled through to win his bronze medal last summer.

“I had to fall and be buried a lot to get to where I am today,” Cox said in the documentary. “I’ve hit rock bottom, and the only way I can go is up.”

What makes Cox an example is how he’s responded to such moments of failure and adversity. After his sophomore year, he changed his mindset and became one of the most dominant wrestlers in the country, focusing only on what he can control as a wrestler and the joy that he gets out of competing.

“Once he put everything in order, it kind of fell into place,” Cathy Cox told The Maneater last year.

Going forward, J’den Cox has expressed interest in playing football for Missouri next fall as an inside linebacker, a decision that will be made in the coming weeks, according to an interview with ESPN that he gave after his championship victory. For now, though, Cox has one priority: graduating with a degree in psychology.

“That’s the most important thing,” he said. “I need to get back and focus on school. I’m definitely going to take this time and focus on my education.”

Just minutes after J’den Cox accomplished something that no other athlete in University of Missouri history has ever done, his mind was moving to the next task, the next challenge. He showed once again that he is much more than just a wrestler. He’s a Columbia native, a musician who can play five instruments, a devout Christian, a family man and someone who is an example of what hard work and dedication can do for a person.

When he finished his wrestling career Saturday with another championship, Cox lay on the mat for about five seconds, crying tears of joy and soaking in the cheers of appreciation and awe from 19,657 fans in the Scottrade Center.

Rest assured: Cox won’t bask in his own glory long before he moves on to his next challenge in life. For now and forever, he is the definition of a Missouri true son.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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