Winter in Missouri is harsh. The days are short and the skies are cloudy, any light that sneaks through is a blessing. Tiger fans have normally been able to find shelter inside Mizzou Arena, but this year was different. Where there had once been warmth and camaraderie, now there was hardship, frustration, and pain. It looked like this was going to be one of the worst winters on record.
But we were looking at it wrong. Or rather, we weren't looking in the right place.
The lights in the Hearnes Center had been shining bright all winter long, most of us were just too blind to see them. Head coach Brian Smith and his Wrestling Tigers have been performing at a consistently high level for years now, we should've known to look there for comfort. Since his hiring in 1998, Smith has brought three conference championships (one Big 12, two MAC), 33 top-eight individual performances, 20 All-Americans, and five national champions to Columbia. His teams have ended the season ranked in the top 20 twelve times, including three top 10 finishes. He's the best wrestling coach to ever receive a paycheck from this university, and that's not a matter of opinion. As the unforgiving, basketball-less winter of 2014 clenched its fist around us, his program stood at the ready. Unfortunately, it took a herculean effort by one of Smith's wrestlers to make the majority of Missouri's weary denizens aware of the respite he had provided them.
Enter J'den Cox, a homegrown, blue-chip prospect and arguably one of the most accomplished athletes in Hickman High School history. When he wasn't preoccupied with winning four consecutive state wrestling titles in FOUR DIFFERENT WEIGHT CLASSES, he kept himself busy with fun hobbies like starting both ways for his football team. And not just starting, dominating. During his senior year, he prepared for wrestling season by turning in an All-State performance as a linebacker.
That's right, it's entirely possible that Cox could've excelled for the Tigers in multiple sports. The SEC may have dodged a bullet when he chose to don black and gold headgear instead of a striped helmet. His former football coach, Arnel Monroe, certainly thinks so. From the Columbia Tribune:
"If J'den wasn't a national-caliber wrestler, there's no doubt in my mind he could play Division I football as a linebacker," Monroe said. "He's unblockable. He has a nose for the football. He's strong. He's ruthless. And it bleeds into our defense. Defenses are built around your predators, and he is it."
It's easy to long for what might have been, but there's no arguing that Cox's decision to focus solely on wrestling paid off for the young man. Instead of hitting the gridiron in the fall like he was accustomed to, J'den hit the weights. According to teammate, redshirt senior Jordan Gagliano, Cox's potential was easy to see from the very beginning.
"He's a different guy for sure. He's always singing in the locker room, playing games before practice, and just being a freshman. But he's tremendously mature on the wrestling mat. And skilled. Shoot, I think everyone wishes they understood the sport to the degree he does. He has fun in practice, but he can flip that switch in competition."
Cox didn't waste any time making his presence felt throughout the collegiate wrestling world, kicking off the 2014 season with ten straight victories and two open tournament titles. The true freshman would go on to put together an immensely successful season, snagging 11 wins in dual play, four tournament titles, and "Most Outstanding Wrestler" honors at the MAC Conference championship. His rapidly expanding list of accomplishments would be enough to earn him the 2-seed at the NCAAs in Oklahoma City. J'den's season may have been a shock to those outside of the program, but Gagliano and the rest of his teammates saw it coming from a mile away.
"I have to say it really stood out when he was working out with Dom Bradley, who still works out with us. He took it to Dom, who is obviously one of the best in the world. Of course it really sealed his credibility after the Southern Scuffle, when he beat a couple ranked guys. Especially the third ranked wrestler from Penn State. I'm really not surprised he's done so well, because he is always so composed. He just has that mentality, you never see weakness. He lost early in the year to the guy from Ohio, who was a great defensive wrestler. It gave J'den a challenge to work for, but also a revelation that guys don't want to wrestle him and will do anything to keep the score low. J'den has to wrestle his style, which is very offensive and scoring a lot of points. You can't keep matches close if you want to win. Defensive wrestlers live and die by the same sword."
What came next probably didn't astonish the wrestling Tigers either. Cox easily advanced to the finals, winning by an average of 6.5 points per match. Standing in the way of his bid to become Mizzou's youngest national champion in program history was the tournament's top-seeded 197 pound grappler, senior Nick Heflin of Ohio State. According to this fantastic synopsis over at Land-Grant Holy Land, the Buckeye utilized a defensive style had spelled doom for athletic wrestlers in Cox's mold all season. In order to be the best, you have to beat the best.
As most of the nation watched Dayton's attempt to keep their Cinderella status alive, J'den Cox stepped onto the mat ready to pull off an upset of his own. How fitting it was that on the night of Mizzou's brightest moment, many fans were still looking for comfort in basketball. All season long they had foolishly sought solace where there was none, even after Coach Smith and his wrestlers had worked so hard to show them the light. Cox had one last chance to put his team on the map, and he wasn't going to miss it. He shook hands with Heflin, adjusted his headgear one last time, and waited for the whistle to sound.
The first three minutes were largely uneventful, with Cox and Heflin trying to get a feel for one another. The period ended before either grappler could earn a point. J'den chose to start the second period in the down position, which allowed him to score an escape and take a 1-0 lead. Cox then went on the offensive. He began enforcing his will on Heflin - sending the Buckeye flying off the mat after one takedown attempt - as the senior scrambled to stay on his feet. The freshman's flurry of attacks forced Heflin to play defense, and around the one-minute mark the Buckeye was hit with a stall warning. All J'den had to do was ride Heflin out and he would walk away victorious, but Heflin's escape early in the period negated that plan and tied the score 1-1. Playing field leveled, Cox went back on the offensive. His shots weren't as effective as they had previously been, but they eventually took their toll. The referee called a second stalling penalty on Heflin with thirty seconds left, giving Cox a 2-1 lead. Though that would end up being the winning point, at the very end of the match Heflin came within a few fractions of a second from scoring a takedown. This is how close it was:
The referee said that time had expired before the takedown occurred, and an official review confirmed his call. Margins of victory don't get any slimmer than that, folks. From the jaws of defeat, J'den Cox had snatched a national championship.
In that moment, a light shot through the darkness. J'den Cox had climbed up on the biggest stage he could find, gabbed a megaphone, turned the volume up to 14, and announced to all those tired Mizzou fans still seeking shelter that it had been right under their noses the whole time. In doing so, he became the 14th true freshman to ever (ever) win an NCAA wrestling championship. Think about that for a minute. In 84 years, only fourteen true freshman have stood highest on the podium at the end of the tournament. J'den Cox is one of those 14 people. Follow our mascot's lead, people. Neither he, nor any of us are worthy.
J'den Cox was damn near unbeatable this season as a 19-year-old. That's frightening. What's even scarier is the fact that he'll continue to get stronger as his career progresses. He has a shot at doing what only three wrestlers before him have done: win four national championships. The odds aren't in his favor, but betting against him doesn't seem like a wise course of action either. Especially after how dominant he was this year. Gagliano agrees:
"He doesn't win matches, he dominates them. He's only going to get stronger and better with his attacks and shots. The true great wrestlers have great offense, and he has great offense. As a freshman, he's somehow a leader already. He takes responsibility and is extremely prideful of our organization. Our program has a lot of high class, disciplined guys returning, and I really like where it's headed."
So next year when the temperatures start dropping and you're looking for somewhere to whether the storm, don't place all your chips in Mizzou Arena. J'den's fire will be blazing in the Hearnes Center as he attempts to join Ben Askren in the two-time national champion club. Thank your lucky stars Tiger fans, the future of our wrestling team is as bright as it's ever been.
HUGE shout-out to accomplished collegiate wrestler, Trulaske College of Business graduate, and masters student Jordan Gagliano (@JGagliano09). Gags is a long-time friend of mine who's one of the most genuine people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Thanks for all the help, big guy!