Nothing seems to faze Missouri sophomore J’den Cox.
Wrestling at the NCAA Division I wrestling championships for the first time last spring, it would have been understandable if Cox was a nervous wreck.
Yet there wasn’t even the faintest hint of stress as Cox prepared for his quarterfinal match against Duke’s Conner Hartmann.
Tigers coach Brian Smith had to wake up a napping Cox to get ready for the bout, which he won 5-1 on the way to becoming the fourth wrestler in Missouri history to win a national championship.
“He knows if he goes in and wrestles hard, he’s going to have a great opportunity to win,” Smith said of his 197-pound star. “That’s definitely special that a guy can be that relaxed.”
Of course, it’s not just on the mat where Cox keeps things in perspective, a skill that came in handy when he suddenly went deaf in his left ear last summer.
“I had lost 35 percent (of my hearing) and went through a point where I was going through dizzy spells, because it was such a dramatic drop,” Cox said. “I’d be going up stairs and I’d be, ‘Whoa,’ and have to grab railings and stuff.”
Initially, Cox thought the problem might be related to dehydration and that his hearing would return, but instead it worsened. He could no longer hear Smith from a distance.
After seeing an ear, nose and throat specialist, he was told the hearing loss might have been triggered by a viral infection that aggravated a pre-existing condition.
Cox’s father, he later learned, also is deaf in his left ear.
Cox was given three treatment options — a course of steroid pills, a tube in his ear for steroid delivery or a direct steroid injection into his cochlea, inside his inner ear.
“That (last) one was not an option,” Cox said with a laugh.
He opted for the pills, but “it didn’t really work out,” said Cox.
Rather than sulk or wallow in pity as he lost all hearing in the ear, Cox turned it into a positive.
“It’s cool, because I’ve got to experience a whole other world,” Cox said. “I’ve met new friends.”
Cox, who said he’d like to become a motivational speaker or perhaps a creative-writing teacher for the deaf, spends time with the deaf community at a local mall and has learned American sign language.
He’s also forged a friendship with Brayden Deaver, a 7-year-old from Columbia who worships the very mat Cox wrestles on.
Cox calls Deaver one of his best friends.
“The kid has everything in common with me,” Cox said. “We both sign. He likes bass guitar. I play bass guitar. … He wants to wrestle. I wrestle. So, it’s pretty cool. It’s basically me, but 7 and white. That’s the only difference. … The kid’s got a piece of my heart.”
After winning the Mid-American Conference championship March 8, and helping the Tigers clinch a fourth straight conference crown in the process, Cox spent his time after interviews letting Deaver take him down with single-leg shots on the confetti-covered mats.
“I can’t complain about it, because the things that have come from it have been so amazing,” Cox said of going deaf in one ear. “There’s nothing wrong. There’s just more to be explored, more to be done, more to see.”
The unflappable Cox returns to the national tournament, which take place Thursday through Saturday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, with even bigger ambition as a sophomore.
He hopes to repeat as 197-pound champion and celebrate Missouri’s first team championship.
It would be MU’s first team championship in any sport since winning the men’s NCAA indoor track and field championship in 1965. But the quest — for his own repeat or the team title — won’t change Cox.
“There is no difference (from last year),” Cox said. “I’ve got to wrestle five matches just like everybody else. I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. Every match, I’ve got to go out and do seven minutes, so there is no difference.”
Cox is supremely confident that he can join Ben Askren as the only two-time NCAA champions in Tigers history this weekend.
“I don’t think there’s anyone that I can’t beat,” he said.
Cox, 33-0, has won 53 consecutive competitive matches, including 20 to end last season. He boasts a 71-2 collegiate record, so he has earned the right to be confident. But he isn’t pretentious about his skills.
“I don’t flash and I’m not really fancy,” Cox said. “I live in Millersburg, Mo., which is like the most un-fancy place in the world.”
His gregarious spirit keeps Cox grounded and helps him keep wrestling in proper perspective.
“It’s just another part of life,” Cox said. “I’m going to breathe. I’m alive. I value my life more than I value wrestling. I just want to enjoy myself.
“Now, I’m 20 years old. I’m going to be stressed when I’m 40, working and stuff like that, so why would I be stressed out now when I’m doing something I love doing? … It’s a limited time, so enjoy it. I’m not going to be able to wrestle my whole life. That goes for anything, so why not enjoy what I’m doing? I just chill out.”