It was a few days after Missouri returned from winning a fifth consecutive conference title March 6 at the Mid-American Conference Wrestling Championships.
Cody Shoemaker, the Tigers’ director of operations, took ticket requests from the team’s nine qualifiers for the NCAA Division I Wrestling National Championships, including junior 197-pounder J’den Cox.
Cox requested tickets for his parents to all of Thursday’s and Friday’s sessions at Madison Square Garden in New York, but he balked when asked if he wanted tickets for Saturday’s morning session, when all nonchampionship bouts will conclude.
“Cody was having me fill out my tickets, and there was some to the consolation rounds,” Cox said. “I told him, ‘Do I have to fill these out for my parents, because I don’t plan on them having to be there?’ ”
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Cocky? Maybe. Confident? Absolutely, but it’s a confidence Cox has earned since a disappointing fifth-place finish at the national tourney last spring.
“When you’re training right and you’re living right, that’s where confidence comes from,” Mizzou wrestling coach Brian Smith said. “The confidence I see from him doesn’t surprise me, because I see it every day. I see the way he’s training.”
Cox is 28-1 this season, the only blemish being a disqualification Dec. 13 in a dual against Ohio’s Phillip Wellington. He’s won 15 consecutive matches since — including four pins, three technical falls and five major decisions.
Cox, who won the 197-pound national title as a freshman in 2014, coasted last year. It’s easy to see that now.
The fire that propelled Cox as a freshman didn’t rage quite as ferociously his sophomore season.
“It was just because of the way I did things,” he said. “I lost my grit because of the way I treated my body and went about trying to accomplish my goals without doing the right things.”
Cox was content to win matches, like the 2015 MAC title bout against Wellington, by a 3-1 decision. He didn’t push himself.
“Last year, I was wrestling maybe five or six minutes,” Cox said. “I wasn’t wrestling every second of the match.”
Cox’s weight also fluctuated wildly. He’d often need to cut 10 to 15 pounds during the week to make weight because he wasn’t properly managing his diet.
It caught up with him by the NCAA tournament. He entered as the undefeated No. 1 seed, but a sluggish and fatigued Cox failed to secure a takedown in either his semifinal or consolation semifinal losses.
While Cox didn’t waste a lot of energy pouting about the poor NCAA performance, he did search for answers, sitting down with Smith to discuss changes he could make to avoid repeat disappointment.
“I did some soul-searching,” Cox said. “It wasn’t so much lingering on nationals, but it was just figuring out what I want to do and what kind of person and wrestler I wanted to be. That was the biggest thing, figuring out myself.”
Cox rededicated himself, not only to training and caring for his body but to discipline in everyday life with respect to doing laundry or cleaning his car. It’s carried over to the mat.
“He didn’t wrestle his best all year (last year), but it’s a whole different thing now because he gets after it now,” Smith said. “He’s going to wrestle hard for seven minutes and he says, ‘Try and stay with me.’ ”
Most people can’t, including the former national title-winning version of himself.
“If I could wrestle myself as a freshman now, I think I would probably tech (fall) myself,” Cox said. “The freshman me felt like he had a lot more to prove, not only to himself but to others. Yes, he may come out with a little more grit, but he couldn’t keep up with me on the mat right now.”
Simply winning nationals won’t be enough for Cox.
He was masterful Jan. 8 against Buffalo’s James Benjamin, polishing off a 19-4 technical fall in only 5 minutes, 37 seconds, and made it known two months ago he planned to claim another national crown.
“It’s the goal, but I’ve got a little bit more on it,” Cox said at that time, but he was coy about what that meant.
As the season progressed, the meaning of “a little bit more” became crystal clear, culminating with a 9-1 major decision against Wellington in this year’s MAC final.
Cox needed fewer than 20 seconds to gain control and spent most of the match smashing Wellington’s face into the mat. He secured the major decision with a takedown at the buzzer as Smith pumped his fist and jumped with joy.
“Basically, for that match personally, I just wanted to make sure that people realized the gap between me and Phil Wellington is a lot bigger than what you give it credit,” Cox said. “I wanted to show that I could do this to the top-ranked guys in the country.”
He isn’t done, either. Cox wants to dismantle his NCAA opponents too and leave no doubt.
“I’m going to make it so when you watch the film and see everything else, you can’t deny what you’ve seen,” Cox said. “I tell myself all the time that I’m going to be a two-time national champ. Anything less, that’s not an option. I’m going out there to take people out.”
Cox, who opens Thursday against Rutgers’ Hayden Hrymack, drew the No. 2 seed this season, the same seed he had as a freshman. He’s behind Penn State’s Morgan McIntosh, who is undefeated and knocked off Cox in the consolation semifinals last season.
But he’s yet to face J’den Cox version 2.0.
“At this point, with my mindset and how I’m wrestling and how training has been going, there’s nobody in the country that can touch me,” he said. “There’s nobody in the country that’s going to beat me. Nobody is.”