Not long after winning his second national championship in three years, becoming just the second University of Missouri wrestler to win two titles, J’den Cox was asked to choose.
Which one felt better: winning the title in Oklahoma City as a freshman in 2014 or winning the 197-pound title at the NCAA Division I Championships on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City?
“I think they both feel great in their own ways,” Cox, the Tigers’ junior standout, told reporters. “Oklahoma felt great because I was really young and I had done something that was very rare and that was — and at a weight that was basically all men. So that was really cool.
“This one it's more so great because how much I had to change and give up and sacrifice and train and do certain things that changed myself and changed my body. … It was a growth period. And to see that stuff pay off is what makes this one so great. That's why afterwards you don't see a great celebration, because it was more of — I was more proud of everything I had gone through and everything I had to do. And I was proud of myself. But it felt great just knowing that.”
Cox won the national title at 197 pounds as a freshman in 2014, but struggled with his weight during his sophomore season and finished fifth at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis.
That made the outcome on Saturday night all that much better.
Cox faced off with top-seeded and previously unbeaten Morgan McIntosh of Penn State in the final match and pulled out a 4-2 victory with a strong finish.
“He’s a tough competitor,” Cox said. “Wrestled through position, we saw that today. I swear I had that cradle. I swear I did. But it’s exactly what I said it was going to be. He’s tough, he’s strong. He wrestles good position. Great scrambler. Great knowledge. I’m grateful to come out on top.”
With the win, Cox finished the season with a 33-1 record — he’s now 108-5 in his three-year collegiate career — and joined Ben Askren (2006, 2007) as the only Missouri wrestlers to win two national championships.
He also became the fourth three-time All-American in school history, joining Askren, Max Askren (2008-10) and Drake Houdashelt (2013-15).
Next up for Cox will be the Olympic Trials in a few weeks in Iowa City, Iowa. The Tigers’ standout is expected to compete for a spot, though he downplayed that possibility on Saturday night.
“I’m not sure about that yet,” Cox told reporters. “I’ll take it day-by-day. When that day comes, when that door comes, I’ll be sure to let you know if I’m walking through it if not. If not, then we’ll know that too. But right now I’m the two-time NCAA champion, so I'm going to enjoy that.”
After that, Cox will set his sights on closing out his college career on top as a senior next season. He’s learned from his past mistakes, he said, and is focused on attacking some lofty goals as a senior.
“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. I think a big goal for me next year is not just to make it to the finals. I’ve got two big goals. And I already knew what they were, and one of them was kind of this year, this year’s goal, and I feel I could have made a good argument to beat it.
“But my next year’s goals are, one, to dominate the NCAA Finals. And NCAA Tournament I know I can do that. So that’s going to be something that just sits in the back pocket — we’re going to go ahead and try and train for that. But I think the NCAA Finals, because I don’t think I have a dominant-dominant match. But also my other goal for next year is to win the Hodge. … I want to be part of something that people have to recognize, that you’re one of the best wrestlers in the country. I feel if I didn’t have my blemish maybe I would have had a chance at the running. So it was very disappointing to know that one blemish takes you out of that thing. But that’s why you have next year.”