J’den Cox effused confidence throughout the season, which culminated Saturday during the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Madison Square Garden with a second national title in three seasons.
Cox brashly talked about dominating at the national meet, about how he felt unbeatable and about his desire to claim a second NCAA crown.
He backed it up too with a 4-2 win against previously unbeaten and top-seeded Morgan McIntosh of Penn State, joining Ben Askren as the program’s only two-time NCAA champions.
As a freshman, Cox also won a national title at 197, but he struggled to control his weight as a sophomore and slogged to a fifth-place NCAA finish.
The ever-smiling and bold Cox found himself gripped with unusual regret Friday as he cut weight following the 197-pound semifinal.
“I can’t believe what I did last year,” Cox told Tigers coach Brian Smith as they sat in a tiny theater inside the world’s most iconic venue with midnight rapidly approaching.
“J’den, that’s part of life,” Smith told him. “You didn’t have your best tournament here. You didn’t train right last year. But we talked about it, you learned from it and you lived it this year.”
In short, Cox earned it in 2016.
“Dedication for this title goes to everyone that’s ever had my back,” he said. “Everyone that’s always been there and not just when times like this happen, when things are great, but everything, when everything’s going wrong and things are hard. People that have your back like that and the people who are always there, that you consider family, even though they’re not blood, those are what this dedicates to because this was not easy. It was not an easy journey.”
Cox was the aggressor against McIntosh, who seldom attempted a shot and never seriously threatened a takedown.
Late in the first period, Cox nearly managed a takedown against the defensive McIntosh, but the match remained all-square into the closing seconds.
Cox finally got both of McIntosh’s legs during a scramble on the boundary and kept a toe inbounds for a takedown with 8 seconds left that proved to be the difference.
“I’m not going to make the mistake after owning it my freshman year,” Cox said. “I’m not going to let my diet fluctuate. I’m not going to yo-yo. I’m going to pursue to get better.”
By virtue of winning the national title, Cox — who strolled to the elevated stage down the red carpet, past red-lighted fog machines and a dual column of shooting flames with “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys blaring — also earned a berth in the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials on April 9-10 in Iowa City, Iowa.
Cox was coy about whether he’d attend, but Smith said he’s been looking for to it and would wrestle for an Olympic berth.
“That’s J’den,” Smith said. “He’s playing with you guys, but he wants to go.”
The Nittany Lions, who had two individual champions, had the crown clinched before Saturday’s championship finals even began.
Oklahoma State finished second and Ohio State rallied for third place, passing Virginia Tech and Iowa during the finals.
Missouri, which as a team ended up sixth, finished with three other All-Americans, including junior 149-pounder Lavion Mayes. The four All-Americans are the fourth most in a season for the program.
Mayes finished, avenging his quarterfinal loss against Oklahoma State’s Anthony Collica with a 3-2 decision in the consolation final.
Redshirt freshman 165-pounder Daniel Lewis placed fourth and sophomore 184-pounder Willie Miklus wound up sixth.
▪ Oklahoma senior Cody Brewer, an Oak Park graduate, bounced back from Friday’s semifinal loss to finish third at 133.
He is the 11th four-time All-American in Sooners history after finishing seventh and eighth as a freshman and sophomore then winning a national championship last season.
Brewer finished 25-3 this season and 95-22 in his career.
There were 19,720 at the finals session, the fourth straight session to sell out and the second-largest crowd for any session in NCAA wrestling history.
The Saturday morning session drew 19,147, which is the largest crowd behind only the 2015 finals session in St. Louis (19,715).
Overall, Madison Square Garden drew 110,194 for its six sessions across three days, which also is the third-largest behind St. Louis in 2015 (113,013) and 2012 (112,393).