Vahe Gregorian

Mizzou’s J’den Cox brings dynamic wrestling, personality to Olympic stage in Rio

MU's Olympic wrestler J'den Cox, mother make beautiful music

Add singer/songwriter to the list of accomplishments of Mizzou's Olympics-bound wrestler J'den Cox. He recently worked through "Routine," with his mother, Cathy Cox, in the Tigers' wrestling facility.
Up Next
Add singer/songwriter to the list of accomplishments of Mizzou's Olympics-bound wrestler J'den Cox. He recently worked through "Routine," with his mother, Cathy Cox, in the Tigers' wrestling facility.

At 11 pounds 10 ounces, J’den Cox was larger than life from the start, his mother, Cathy, likes to say.

With a playful glance at him, she’ll also tell you he always did things in his own time — he arrived two weeks late — and own way.

“He wasn’t one of those babies who wanted to cuddle,” she said. “He was one of those kids who (figuratively) said, ‘Lay me down and let me go to sleep. I’ll do it myself.’ ”

Part of that instant independent streak might have been circumstantial.

Her pregnancy was complicated by preeclampsia that she said became “full-blown eclampsia” and led to her almost dying when she had him and suffering seizures two weeks later.

She bled on the table after giving birth, she said, and required blood transfusions as her third boy went into the ICU.

“We both had a hard time when he was born,” she said.

But maybe all of that also accounts some for their connection now.

It’s something you can’t miss in the way they can make each other think and how they banter and laugh.

Like they did on a summer day as J’den Cox was getting ready to wrestle in the Rio Olympics … and just happened to bring along his guitar to the Hearnes Center in Columbia for an interview.

With not much of a nudge, the magnetic Columbia native and University of Missouri product started strumming.

Then he went back and forth with his mom on some words to a new song he’s been working on, and next thing you know it’s as if they’ve been practicing it for years.

Then they start talking about what it’s like to sing the Star-Spangled Banner, which Cathy has been doing routinely at Mizzou sporting events for years and her son has done now a few times, too.

The last time she watched him do it, though, was by livestream from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in April after he became an Olympian.

“So,” she tells him, smiling, “I just have to let you know: There’s the line ‘blank’ of the free and the home of the brave.

“It’s not ‘for’ the land of the free and the home of the brave. … And I noticed when you were singing it in Mongolia that you said ‘for’ the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Missouri senior J'den Cox discussed his expectations and hopes for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Cox leaves Tuesday and will compete for team USA as an 86-kilogram freestyle wrestler Aug. 20 in Brazil.

Whether that finer point will be of relevance on Saturday, when the entirety of Cox’s competition in the 190-pound division will take place, remains to be seen.

Cox is ranked ninth in the world, and he is relatively raw at freestyle — which may make him just as dangerous as it makes him an underdog.

After all, he also was seeded ninth for the U.S. Olympic trials.

So before what he expected would be 11 family members here, Cox expects only to win.

And yet he also will accept any outcome as he represents his school and his country, adding what he called “red, white and blue stripes” to wrap around his black and gold ones.

If it seems paradoxical or self-defeating to be conscious of the possibility of both winning and losing, well, welcome to the unique and ever-percolating mind of J’den Cox.

“There’s a point where failure is not a real thing,” he said. “I mean, you can fail, you can fall short, but you can’t linger in disappointment. You can’t let that be where you’re just going to stay.

“No, no, no, that’s not how it works. You get up and you keep moving forward. And, really, if you do that and you grow from that, then when you look back can you really say you failed?

“You may not have gotten what you wanted, but you’ve gotten so much more out of it.”

Cox, 21, has consciously wanted this for something like 16 years in a sport he began as a 4-year-old, following in the path of older brothers Zach and Drae … who in turn had symbolically taken the family baton from Cathy’s brother, Phil, who had been a two-time state champion for Columbia Hickman High.

As he considers his first memories of Cox, MU coach Brian Smith thought of him as just “this little fat kid (who) would come read in my office” while his brothers were attending wrestling camps.

Cox shaped up soon, though, in part through the rigors of the sport and also by way of some brotherly trials.

Asked just how they might have toughened him up, Cox deadpans, “They used to tie me up and put me in trees.”

Boding well for an essential of wrestling, what started as a form of torture actually became a game when J’Den demonstrated a knack for the escape.

Belts, duct tape, rope, chains and even handcuffs.

The older boys tried them all, and J’den would always wriggle or burst free.

“I’m the smallest one, still,” he said, smiling, “but they don’t mess with me any more,”

His innate feel for the flow of the sport was so evident that by age 9, coach Mike Flanagan told the family he’d taken J’den as far as he could.

That led to Cox being coached by Mike Eierman, who quickly saw that he had an Olympian in the making within a decade or so.

Cox began fulfilling that promise soon, winning state-wide competitions for years before claiming four straight Missouri high school championships and going on to MU to win NCAA titles two of the last three years.

Just as remarkably, though, Cox has managed to retain balance in his life as a student and a musician — something that pleases his mother immensely and makes his father, Mike, marvel.

Yes, he can be absent-minded, with a tendency to run out of gas or forget identification, but that’s probably because he’s thinking in so many different ways at once.

Music was something Cathy has reveled in for years, at least ever since she performed her first solo as a 7-year-old at the Second Baptist Church in Columbia.

She put it before all her six children, including a daughter and two nieces who have been living with them, and J’den took to it and never let go.

He plays five instruments: the violin, viola, bass guitar, guitar and piano, and when you ask him how he does all this, he basically just shrugs.

Then there was the song-writing, which somehow came naturally enough, too.

“Usually, the music comes first, and the words will come with it when the words are ready to come out,” he said.

As he watched mother and son play and sing, Mike Cox recalled all the “crazy songs” J’den was writing when he was 6 or 7.

Then, he said, one day they “started making sense.”

At 12, he remembered, J’den handed a sheet of music to his mother, who started singing only to stop abruptly.

“I hate you,” she said, laughing, because it was so good.

The wrestling and the music came together in a remarkable and important way last fall as MU was reeling amid multiple controversies, including protests over racism.

So it turned to Cox to compose and perform a song for the university’s $1.3 billion fundraising campaign, the uplifting and unifying “One More.”

“It wasn’t too hard, really,” said Cox, who did allow as how there was a challenge in “how do you write one song with two verses and a chorus with one bridge and figure out how it’s going to represent 35,000 people?”

Answer: As always, he went about it his own way, interviewing a number of students around campus and then putting the puzzle together.

Which is a lot like how he’ll approach Saturday.

Through his own unique lens, a blend of the different coaching he’s had, he’ll be ready to adapt and solve what’s before him.

“You get to take everything that you worked on, and you get to express it and kind of just put it out there and see how people respond and see how it goes,” he said.

Then maybe he’ll get to work on singing the national anthem again.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian