Years ago, U.S. men’s freestyle wrestling head coach Bill Zadick watched J’den Cox move on the mat and coined a nickname: The Matrix.
“When I wrestle the way I want to wrestle, it’s very hard for anyone to create what they want to create,” Cox said recently. “So, in that case, you stepped into a world that you don’t have control of.”
More than 20 opponents entered Cox’s world in the last two and a half years. None left it victorious.
Cox puts his win streak on the line at this week’s U.S. Olympic Trials, which he hopes culminates in a showdown with Kyle Snyder, the only reigning U.S. Olympic men’s wrestling champion, in Saturday’s 97kg freestyle finals in Fort Worth, Texas.
Cox, who took 86kg bronze in Rio after his coach all but begged him to enter the 2016 Olympic Trials, won the world championships in 2018 and 2019 at 92kg, which is not an Olympic weight class. In the latter, he became the second U.S. man to win an Olympic or world title without surrendering a point in more than 30 years.
In February 2020, less than two months before the originally scheduled Trials, Cox made a surprise announcement. Rather than go back down to his Rio Olympic weight of 86kg, he was moving up to 97kg to challenge Snyder.
In wrestling, only one athlete per nation per division can go to the Olympics. Cox chose what appeared to be the more difficult path with Snyder the roadblock.
“Going up to 97 isn’t a slap in the face to anybody or really to Kyle,” Cox said last week, noting that the world’s best pound-for-pound men’s freestyle wrestler, Russian Abdulrashid Sadulayev, is also at 97kg. “It’s really a compliment to say, I acknowledge that you are one of the best wrestlers in the world. I don’t only want to acknowledge it, but I want to prove that I’m better.”
Snyder declined an interview request to focus on Trials prep and a potential match with his friend Cox.
“We’ll settle it on the date that we wrestle,” Snyder said last year on the Baschamania podcast.
This week may conjure memories.
In 2016, Snyder, then a 20-year-old world champion, won a marquee Trials finals series against a reigning Olympic gold medalist — Jake Varner. Snyder also knows Cox well. They met way back in a 2011 Greco-Roman junior match (won by Cox) and most recently in 2015, when Snyder beat Cox at the NCAA Championships and the U.S. Senior Nationals.
Snyder, after winning world or Olympic titles in 2015, 2016 and 2017, dropped to silver in 2018 and bronze in 2019 at the world championships. Cox still rates him possibly as high as No. 2 in the world, pound-for-pound, behind Sadulayev.
“What makes Kyle Snyder great is that he makes grown men ask the question and question themselves as far as, do I want to do this? Am I willing to do what I have to do?” said Cox, whom many would rate among the world’s top handful of male freestyle wrestlers, perhaps trailing only Sadulayev.
The international wrestling world learned much about Cox since his breakout Olympic bronze medal. That he lost all of the hearing in his left ear during his sophomore year at the University of Missouri, then picked up sign language. That he could play violin, guitar, viola, bass and piano, plus compose music and sing.
He’s spoken about struggling with depression, stemming from a traumatic experience at age 7.
Cox revealed in a Flowrestling film, published in 2016 after the Olympics, that as a collegian he stood on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 63 in Missouri, ready to walk in front of traffic. A phone call from a university trainer interrupted the plan.
Over the last year, Cox spent part of the pandemic lifting weights in his garage in Colorado Springs and wrestling with people across the street in a park. Others from around the neighborhood joined him to get in shape. He said one woman started out unable to walk a mile-plus lap around the park, but can now run five laps without stopping.
He made new, meaningful friendships.
“It just kept me on track,” with conditioning, Cox said. “Stuff like that has not only been helpful for my training but also just my mentality of seeing something great and good prosper through all this strife.”
Cox also became a founding member of the Black Wrestling Association, launched last spring.
Cox has known what it will take to make a second Olympics for more than a year. Snyder, thanks to his 2019 World medal, gets a bye into the finals at Trials. The challenge is now days away.
“Why would I pass up an opportunity to test myself?” said Cox, whose tattoos include one that reads in Latin, “If I cannot move heaven, I will raise hell.” “I want to live a tested life. This is part of my test.”
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