NEW YORK — At quick glance, wrestler J’den Cox winning a medal at the 2016 Olympics seems out of the question. The 21-year-old is a relative newcomer to Olympic-style wrestling, and he isn’t ranked among the world’s elite wrestlers in the 86-kg (189 pounds) weight class. But given how the University of Missouri junior rose to the occasion throughout the Olympic qualifying process, ruling Cox out of the medal consideration may not be the wisest move.
“He’s like the perfect storm, you feel something different when you’re on the mat against him. ‘This is overwhelming, this is too much,’” said Mike Eierman, coach of the Missouri Wrestling Foundation. “You can try to hang on, but the storm’s coming, the only thing you can do is hide and weather it.”
Cox’s road to Rio was anything but expected—or straightforward. In March, the Missouri native won his second NCAA title in three years, defeating the top-seeded Morgan McIntosh of Penn State 4–2, and earned a slot in the Olympic Trials three weeks later. The Trials was a completely different beast than the NCAA tournament; Cox was seeded No. 9 in the 86-kilogram weight class, which was dominated by top wrestlers like former Sports Illustrated Male College Athlete of the Year Kyle Dake and 2012 Olympian Jake Herbert. It didn’t help that Cox was still transitioning from folkstyle wrestling, used in the NCAA, to freestyle wrestling.
None of it mattered to Cox, who defeated Dake in the final round of the Trials. But booking his ticket to Rio wasn’t quite that easy. The U.S. hadn’t placed high enough at the 2015 World Championships or the Pan-Am Games to automatically qualify its 86-kilogram champion for the Olympics, so Cox had to travel to Mongolia to compete in an Olympics World Qualifying Tournament, where the top three finishers would earn spots at the Summer Games. In his first time traveling outside the U.S., Cox went 5–0 and outscored his opponents 36–3 to win the tournament outright. And in the blink of an eye, Cox was Rio-bound.
“All of a sudden he does well at freestyle and everyone’s surprised,” said Eierman, who’s been working with Cox since he was 10 years old. “Well, I’m not. I’ve been waiting. Ever since he was 10 years old, I’ve been waiting for this day. We knew it was coming."
His run has actually been in the works for 15 years, starting when a five-year-old Cox wrote down on a piece of paper that he would wrestle in the Olympics. The Columbia native, who started wrestling when he was three, has won at every level, starting with eight youth state championships. At the time, he was a self-admitted “short, fat kid,” but still managed to win because of his high wrestling IQ.
“This guy has the tools to change the world,” Eierman said. “I told him when he was a little kid, that wrestling was going to be his path. When the rest of the world gets a whiff of this, and that’s starting to happen now, they’re going to see exactly what I’ve seen all these years.”
Cox began catching people by surprise once he entered high school. As a freshman, he dominated the senior-laden weight class (171 pounds) to win his first of four Missouri high school state championships. In 2014, in his first year at Mizzou, he became the first freshman in NCAA Division I history to win the national championship at 197 pounds. The next year Cox slipped to a disappointing fifth at the NCAA tournament, but rebounded this year, when it mattered most.
After every match, win or lose, Eierman asks Cox what he learned from that match. Sometimes it’s as simple as needing to move his hands to a different position, while others it’s as big as he should’ve hit a move that he didn’t or vice versa. After every practice, Eierman asks him the same question, and doesn’t accept an answer of something that he knows Cox can already do, as he said Cox always “needs to always add to his arsenal.”
“He thinks I have great ability and that I can even do better and I need to keep pushing,” Cox said. “I’m always looking to keep improving and that’s why I think we work so well together.”
That was evident during his match against the top-seeded Jake Herbert in the quarterfinals of the Olympic Trials. After Cox completely crushed the London Olympian 8–1, Eierman told him that, on a scale of one to 10, he was a three.
“I wanted to let him know that he was so much better than what he showed,” Eierman said. “Reach for the stars, don’t be satisfied with that. He went backstage and was thinking about the match and when it sank in, he got it and comes back to me and says, ‘You’re right, I should’ve teched [mercy-ruled] him in the second [period].’ And now he takes that mindset into the next match.”
Cox had his first taste of the bright lights during Team USA’s match against Team Iran in Times Square on May 19. The off-mat distractions were unlike anything Cox has ever experienced, but he’ll no doubt face similar situations in Rio. To ward off the hectic scene created by honking cabs, flashing billboards and tourists milling about, Cox took a nap under the bleachers before his match against Iran’s Meisam Mostafa Joukar. After waking up, Cox easily beat the wrestler ranked No. 10 in the world.
“This stuff is overwhelming, he’s a young man and to have all this thrown at you at one time, and he’s still in college,” Mike Eierman said. “To be thrown into the limelight is one thing, but to be mature enough to see your way through it and to make mature and educated decisions, and staying calm, is what separates him from the pack.”
Even Jordan Burroughs, 2012 Olympic wrestling gold medalist and the most well-known wrestler in the U.S., couldn’t help but watch Cox’s match that night in awe.
“He has almost like a childlike approach,” Burroughs said. “You need that fearlessness that he has, you can’t be stymied by the magnitude of the event. He’s just out here like, ‘Listen, I’m going to go out here and wrestle my best, and I’ll see what happens.’ Usually when you do that, good things do happen.”
While Cox is enjoying all of a sudden being in the limelight, he’s just as happy being in the shadows. After all, it’s where he’s had the most success.
“I don’t like the limelight, I’ll be in it but it’s not my first choice,” Cox said “I just want to be me, I just want to go wrestle.”
While Cox has seriously impressed on the mat, from winning the NCAA title to dominating opponents at the Trials, it’s necessary for him to have as much as possible in his arsenal when he gets down to Rio. Between now and the Games, Cox will compete in two more events—the United World Wrestling World Cup on June 11–12 in Los Angeles and the Grand Prix of Germany on July 2–3—to give him additional international experience. And while he handily won his spot on Team USA, but Russia’s duo of Abdulrashid Sadulaev, a two-time world champion, and Shamil Kudiyamagomedov, the 2016 European Champion, will still be the heavy gold-medal favorites.
While the expectations couldn’t be higher for Cox once he gets to Rio, neither the wrestler nor his coach is nervous about how he’ll fare at the Olympics, as they routinely just say that Cox will go wrestle his best, have fun and see what happens. While that “just go and have fun” may seem cliche in sports, the results speak for themselves.
“Reporters always ask me what do you think’s going to happen in Rio,” Eierman said. “And I say he could always lose but I don’t think that’s going to happen. We’re going to have some fun, and these guys are going to feel something they’ve never felt before.”