J’den Cox will pull on a black-and-gold Missouri singlet for the final time this weekend at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Cox — a senior wrestler and the undefeated No. 1 seed at 197 pounds for the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, which begin Thursday — usually is a contemplative sort, but he’s not ready to wax nostalgic about his time with the Tigers.
“It’s just another tournament,” he said.
Cox, a 2014 and 2016 NCAA champion and an Olympic bronze medalist at 86 kilograms in freestyle wrestling, remains focused on capturing another national title.
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“I’ve got another job to do,” he said. “I’ve been training and I’ve been working too hard not to go out there and give it my all. I haven’t really put too much thought into it (being my last tournament with Mizzou). I don’t really think there’s a point, to be honest.”
It’s not like Cox, who hopes to become the program’s first three-time national champ, hasn’t already cemented a legacy in MU wrestling lore.
“I may not wrestle for this program ever again, but I can still represent this program throughout my lifetime,” he said. “People will know this is where I went, this is where I trained day in and day out. It just means I’m representing Mizzou in a different way as I move on in my life.”
Still, there’s no way around the fact that Saturday represents the end of an era for the Tigers.
Cox was a four-time Missouri state champion at Hickman High. He’s arguably the most famous and accomplished hometown athlete in Tigers history in any sport, granting him special stature in Columbia.
“I think the community understands that this is ours,” Mizzou coach Brian Smith said. “This is our child and we all have been a part of his life. People that were students with him at Hickman or played youth football with him, everybody follows him. J’den is followed by a lot of people in this community and the state of Missouri and the country just because of how special he is and what he does.”
Wrestling has always been the most visible aspect of Cox’s persona, but he’s also beloved around Columbia for his singer-songwriter talents and gregarious nature in terms of community engagement.
Cox also has a national appeal, which is evident in the ESPN promotional spots about coverage of the national championships that kick off with video of Cox’s past titles.
“J’den is well-loved throughout the country,” Smith said. “When we go to other places, he’s signing autographs for young kids. He signs every one of them. He always says there’s a responsibility to the fans and the sport. He sees it as his way to give back and maybe his way to influence those kids to do something special in their life, even if it’s not wrestling. That’s why he’ll talk with them and spend the time with them.”
Smith has a special relationship with Cox.
He coached Cox in youth football, watched him rise through the youth wrestling ranks and was at most of Cox’s matches with Columbia-Hickman High, because of the overlap with his son Quinn’s wrestling career at Columbia-Rock Bridge.
Smith became close friends with Cox’s parents, Cathy and Mike.
“I remember the first recruiting call that I was allowed to make it was strange,” Smith said. “We’d known each other at that point for 10 years. It was almost awkward.”
He knows it will be hard to fathom when Cox walks off the mat for the final time as a Tiger this weekend.
“It’ll probably hit me after he wins,” Smith said. “My mindset, he’s going to win it. That’s how I’m thinking. So, then it’ll be like, ‘Wow, that’s the last time.’ ”
Cox already is in the conversation as the greatest wrestler in Mizzou history alongside Ben Askren, a two-time NCAA champion and four-time finalist who won the Hodge Trophy twice as the best collegiate wrestler his junior and senior seasons.
“I will never put those two, one or the other above each other, but J’den’s special,” Smith said. “Not only is he a special for what he’s done on the mat, but it’s writing a song and singing it for a fundraiser or singing national anthems and going to visit a sign-language class. He does things like that, which to him is normal, but it’s not. He’s an amazing young man.”
NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships
Where: Scottrade Center, St. Louis
Notable: Mizzou’s J’den Cox (23-0) is the top seed in the 197-pound class. He’ll face American’s Jeric Kasunic (24-10) in the first round Thursday morning.