J'den Cox aims to represent more than himself when stepping onto the mat

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune

Parts of this past year for J'den Cox were relatively ordinary — albeit a new normal.

Even in trying times, that's what made it special for the Columbia native and three-time NCAA wrestling champion with Missouri.

As the coronavirus shut the world — and Olympics — down in 2020, Cox started working out at a park across the street from his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, lifting free weights. This makeshift routine was relatable for athletes at all levels around the country.

But the locals who observed Cox quickly realized something different about him.

"It's kind of crazy. I met some people who live in my neighborhood and they were like, 'Well, he looks like he's in shape and he knows what he's doing.' They wanted to get in shape, so they started joining," Cox said this week on Zoom. "We would do my workouts, they would do it with us. And it's been great. I have one of them that's lost close to 30, 35 pounds, and she's loving it. I had a few others in that joined and they were losing weight quick and we talked about dieting and everything.

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United States' J'den Cox celebrates after defeating Cuba's Reineris Salas Perez during a bronze medal match at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"So really them joining actually helped me and made me stay on track even more because I'd go to practice in the mornings and I'd go to my lift and I'd come back, and right when I get back from my lift, I'm putting these guys through a workout and I'm doing another workout with them.

"Seeing the grind and the work they were willing to put in, it kind of made me do one of those like no-excuses-type deals for myself."

Cox needed to stay in elite shape for longer than expected. He was forced to deal with the mental grind of waiting for his next Olympic opportunity amid a global pandemic.

Still, no excuses.

After all, during that Zoom call, Cox's interior design skills displayed a subtle flex of displaying nine trophies in the background — including his three NCAA championships  and four Mid-American Conference championships.

There's a pair of others he didn't identify. Those could have been his 2018 U.S. Open title and 2019 Pan American title or his two world championships.

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Now, one year after he was supposed to determine his fate for the 2020 Olympics, he will compete in the United States Olympic Trials this coming Friday and Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas.

Cox will be vying for the team's spot at 97 kilograms, a tough task, even for someone of his caliber. The four-time state champion at Hickman has wrestled at 92 kilograms for his last three major tournament victories. 

However, 92 kilograms isn't an Olympic weight class. Cox knew he would have to trim down to 86, where he won the 2016 Olympic Bronze, or beef up to 97. 

United States' J'den Cox bites his medal after winning bronze at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Waiting in the bracket is the defending Olympic gold medalist at 97, Kyle Snyder — the youngest wrestler ever to win world, Olympic and NCAA titles in the same year. 

Cox and Snyder have faced in several big-time matches before, but only once in their senior careers, a 4-3 Snyder victory in May 2015.

"He's great at overwhelming people, pushing the pace. I think that what makes Kyle Snyder great is that he makes grown men question themselves as far as, 'Do I want to do this? Am I willing to do what I have to do?'" Cox said. "I've wrestled him and I want to make sure I'm not taking a dig or anything, but if you ever watch him, he doesn't do anything that blows your mind out the water. It's very rare that you'll see a highlight tape and then there's Kyle doing some flashy thing. It's just not what he does.

"But what makes him special is that ability for him to make you go to a place that you question everything you've ever done in your career. You question every workout, did you do enough? Are you ready for this? Everything like that."

Before the anticipated matchup of two of the country's best freestyle wrestlers, Cox knows he's entering this stage far from grappling for just himself.

Cox has spoken at length about his past depression and wants to use his troubles to be a way for someone else to fight through their struggles. 

"I've been blessed with people in my life who have helped me overcome my struggles, and I think with that going into this situation that kind of abruptly came upon us, I was prepared to kind of deal with it and to face it," Cox said of the pandemic.

"It's kind of like wrestling. When you wrestle yourself, you can get as good as you want. But when you coach too, when you're teaching somebody else, you actually grow a lot from that as well. And so I think it was just kind of the same factor there, where I was helping others with their struggles as well and trying to help them to overcome the battles that I faced as well.

"And I think the biggest thing for me that was awesome, that probably helped me, was that — I think I've known this, but it's always good to get some sort of clarity on it — that you're not alone in this. And that was kind of my message to a lot of these people is, 'You're not alone. A lot of people are facing this.' And to not be afraid to talk about it because more than likely, somebody else wants to talk about it too and they're just frightened so much to do so because they think that they're the only ones.

"And so, when you feel these emotions, you feel this way, go ahead and talk to somebody and talk to everyone. Bring it up. You shouldn't be ashamed to talk about the struggles that you're going through, especially when more than likely, a lot of other people are going through it too."

United States' J'den Cox, top, competes against Cuba's Reineris Salas Perez during the bronze medal round at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Entering the trials, Cox has not lost a match since July 2018 and is 9-0 in his new weight class, including 6-0 in 2021. In his last six matches, Cox has outscored opponents 50-3. 

The pressure to perform on this stage is already immense, but returning to a national audience at this given time isn't lost on Cox, who turned 26 earlier this month. 

Cox prides himself on being more than a wrestler, including being an advocate for social-justice issues. 

"There's been a lot of a lot of craziness, not just with the pandemic, but within our country," Cox said. "I started to actually get involved with the BWA, the Black Wrestling Association. ... It's been a great ride. I think my main thing with all that's been going on is trying to listen, to understand people's viewpoints. But not trying to listen to respond, not to have something to say back.

"I think one of the biggest things is just to lead by example. If you want something to change, be the example that you want to be shown. ... And so, whenever people want to come in and they want to talk about the social issues, they need to remember that these are social issues that are not just brought up, it did not just happen. These are things that have been a part of our history throughout time. And when they understand that, that's when you know you can have a conversation with them. I always know I can't really have a conversation with someone who thinks this stuff is brand new. It's not.

"The only problem was in school, they didn't teach you about it. They didn't tell you about it. You didn't research about it. That's how I know you don't understand what's really going on."

Next weekend, Cox's eyes will be solely focused on his opponent.

But with each takedown, reversal or maybe a rare pin at this skill level, he will be fighting for many people away from the mat.

Contact Eric Blum at eblum@columbiatribune.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

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