Missouri junior 197-pounder J’den Cox had no clue he’d achieved a milestone when he walked off the mat Feb. 21 after a 16-7 major decision against Nebraska’s Aaron Studebaker at the Devaney Center in Lincoln, Neb.
“I didn’t know that I was at 100 wins at all or even relatively close to it,” Cox said. “I didn’t know until my mom (Cathy) told me after I came back out from doing my cooldown after the match.”
As Cox went to hug his mom, she said, “By the way, congratulations.”
“For what?” he replied, unaware that he’d become the 24th wrestler in Tigers history with 100 career wins.
Cox is 100-5 in his career, including an NCAA title as a freshman in 2014, as he enters the Mid-American Conference Championships this weekend at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich. He was the fastest Mizzou wrestler to reach the century mark.
“It was cool to think about it in that moment, but I think that’s what helped me get to it, was that I didn’t put any thought to it and just wrestled,” Cox said.
His career .952 win percentage is the best in Missouri history among wrestlers who reached 100 wins, better even than two-time NCAA champion Ben Askren’s record mark (153-8, .950).
Cox won’t make too much of that.
“I don’t think there’s any knocking Ben Askren from his perch, to be honest,” Cox said. “He’s a very cool guy.”
Cox isn’t big on records, anyway. He said it’s “an awesome feat and I’m grateful to have accomplished it,” but he won’t mind if someone gets to 100 wins faster or wins a higher percentage of matches.
“The love I have for this program, I hope the record doesn’t stand long,” Cox said. “I hope that someone comes along and trashes that record and does so much more, because it means the program is going to do so much more.”
Speaking of the program, Missouri has won four consecutive conference titles — the 2012 Big 12 championship and three straight MAC crowns — a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in Columbia since Norm Stewart’s teams won four Big Eight basketball titles from 1980-1983.
Winning a fifth straight conference title would put Tigers wrestling in uncharted territory.
“I’ll probably look back on it 10 or 15 years from now and say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool,’ ” Mizzou wrestling coach Brian Smith said, “but right now I don’t want to stop.”
Missouri, which enters the meet ranked No. 6 in the USA Today/National Wrestling Coaches Association poll and No. 7 in InterMat’s ranking, is a heavy favorite to win again after rolling through the MAC regular season unbeaten for a second straight season.
Of course, that guarantees nothing Saturday morning and into Sunday, so the Tigers don’t feel a sense of entitlement.
“We expect to win, but there’s a lot of work that goes into that,” Cox said. “That’s our mindset, but we don’t walk out there and expect you to put your head between your legs and let us take it. That’s not how it works. We’re going to go out there and earn every bit of it. We’re going to earn every point, we’re going to earn every takedown, we’re going to earn every back point and earn every second of that match to win.”
Smith said the MAC tourney also is a critical meet in setting up Missouri for a strong run at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, which take place March 17-19 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“I had one guy come in and say, ‘Oh, I have this many (automatic NCAA qualifying) spots this year, and I only had this many last year,’ ” Smith said. “I said, ‘Don’t look at it that way. Your goal is to go and win the tournament and get yourself seeded for the NCAAs. See the big picture. You don’t want to just qualify. We’re going to set ourselves up for the NCAA Tournament.’ ”
Nine of the Tigers’ 10 wrestlers are currently ranked and, if they wrestle to seed or better, will earn an automatic berth to the national tourney.
Only senior heavyweight Cody Johnston enters the MAC tourney unranked. He will need to win the conference title to earn a berth at the NCAA Tournament.
Mid-American Conference Wrestling Championships
Top seeds/Missouri wrestlers for 2015-2016 Mid-American Conference Wrestling Championships
() indicates number of automatic NCAA qualifiers in a weight class
1. Dylan Peters, Northern Iowa; 2. Barlow McGhee, Missouri.
1. Mack McGuire, Kent State; 2. Zach Synon*, Missouri.
1. Matt Manley, Missouri.
1. Lavion Mayes, Missouri.
1. Ian Miller*, Kent State; 5. Le’Roy Barnes, Missouri.
1. Daniel Lewis, Missouri.
1. Mike Ottinger, Central Michigan; 2. Blaise Butler, Missouri.
1. Willie Miklus, Missouri.
1. J’den Cox*, Missouri.
1. Blaize Cabell, Northern Iowa; 8/9. Cody Johnston, Missouri.
* returning MAC champion