Composure was the defining characteristic in Missouri senior J’den Cox’s run to a bronze medal Saturday during the Olympic wrestling 190-pound freestyle competition.
At least, that’s what impressed Tigers Hall of Fame wrestler and One Fighting Championships welterweight world champion Ben Askren as he watched Cox’s journey unfolding in Rio de Janeiro.
“He wrestled his butt off and wrestled awesome,” Askren said. “His composure was the most impressive. I really think, in all of his matches, there were some bad calls against him. It would have been very easy for him to lose his composure and get annoyed with what was going on. But it did not faze him at all, and he just kept focused on what was necessary to get the job done. And he got it done.”
Cox won his bronze-medal match by disqualification against Cuba’s Reineris Salas Perez, who refused to continue after a USA Wrestling challenge with 6 seconds remaining awarded Cox two points for a takedown — and essentially handed the Tigers’ two-time NCAA champion a victory.
“There were a whole bunch of really idiotic reffing maneuvers there, so the only thing I can say is that I’m thankful they got the right person’s hand raised,” said Askren, who also won two NCAA titles for Mizzou. “J’den was the right guy. The refs made it look like he was going to lose for a second there with some stupid decisions, but, at the end of the day, the right guy got his hand raised and that was all that mattered. It’s thrilling seeing him come home with a medal.”
Askren, who competed at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, worked out with Cox for a few days in late May during a visit to Columbia. He knows as well as anyone how challenging Cox’s accomplishments are.
“It was amazing,” Askren said. “Obviously, he’s been on an incredible streak in the last six months or so. Today topped it all off. He really did a great job. He had one little misfire there (in the semifinals), which was really a bad strategical decision. Besides that, it was a great day of wrestling.”
Cox didn’t realize he was trailing on criteria against eventual silver medalist Selim Yasar of Turkey late in a tied match.
During four matches, including three wins, in his Olympic debut, Cox was never taken down and only conceded one point on a pushout. The other four points he conceded while outscoring his opponents 16-5 came on passivity points or for a failed challenge.
“(Ohio State’s) Kyle Snyder won a world title at 19 last year, so he kind of made what J’den just did seem normal,” Askren said. “But getting a world or Olympic medal at 21 years old is not normal. It’s happened a handful of times in United States history.”
Perhaps an underappreciated aspect of Cox’s run is the fact he’s endured training for a year straight, ramping up for his junior season with the Tigers last August and continuing without a break through Saturday’s bronze-medal victory.
He only had three weeks after winning his second NCAA title in March to prepare for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
After upsetting his way through that meet as the No. 9 seed, Cox traveled to Mongolia for an Olympic qualifier, which he won, then wrestled in meets or matches in California, New York and Germany in the run up to the Olympics in Rio.
“Hopefully, he’ll take a little time off now … so he can collect his thoughts and rest up for a great senior season,” Askren said.
Speaking of his senior season, Askren fully expects Cox to become Mizzou’s first three-time national champion during the upcoming season, but it’s another pursuit that might prove even more defining in his legacy.
“I don’t want to say it’s guaranteed, but he’s going to win another title,” Askren said. “There’s nothing else to do. One of the things he can do to cement his legacy is be the leader for a very good team that has a chance to win a national title this year. Being a strong leader can really help the team push forward and Missouri is in a fantastic place to great things at NCAAs this year.”