ST. LOUIS – The first title was the introduction.
The second was redemption.
The third was the coronation of the king.
Senior wrestler J’den Cox became the first Missouri athlete in any sport to win three national championships when he defeated Minnesota’s Brett Pfarr 8-2 in the 197-pound title bout Saturday night at the Scottrade Center.
The win capped his 28-0 season.
When it was over, Cox rolled onto his back on the mat and covered his face with his hands, overwhelmed with emotion.
“I did it. I did it,” Cox said of his thoughts in that moment. “I pushed through everything to get here. That’s the best feeling.
“So much builds up in you before that final match, so much emotion. It’s not all negative. It’s not all pressure. It’s just so much rides on that. And so when you get it over with, it’s kind of like, oh my gosh, that was awesome.”
Missouri placed fifth in the team standings with 86.5 points, finishing one spot outside of a trophy finish. Penn State won the national title for the sixth time in the past seven years with 146.5 points. The Nittany Lions were followed by Ohio State (110), Oklahoma State (103) and Iowa (97).
The Tigers had three wrestlers in the finals. Lavion Mayes and Joey Lavallee lost their championship bouts at 149 pounds and 157 pounds, respectively.
Blue Springs High School graduate Daniel Lewis lost a pair of matches and settled for sixth at 165 pounds but still earned his second straight All-America honor.
Cox previously won the national title in 2014 in Oklahoma City as a 19-year-old true freshman and, after a fifth-place finish the following year, he reclaimed the crown last year in New York City.
Cox made Tiger fans hold their breath in his first two triumphs.
His freshman year, Cox scored the decisive point in a 2-1 victory over Ohio State’s Nick Heflin on a stalling call with 30 seconds remaining. Heflin had a late takedown attempt, but it came after time expired. As a junior, Cox’s takedown late in the third period broke up a tie bout with Penn State’s Morgan McIntosh and provided the separation in a 4-2 victory.
Cox’s bronze-medal triumph at the 2016 Olympics was even more suspenseful. He scored a takedown to take a 3-1 lead with six seconds remaining. He received the points after challenging the call after the official did not initially award the takedown.
Cox’s third national title didn’t require a dramatic finish and was a testament to his dominant tournament.
Pfarr (31-3), seeded second, fended off a strong first-period attack from the top-seeded Cox, but Cox kept coming. He got to Pfarr’s left leg and brought him to the mat to take a 2-0 lead with 34 seconds left in the first period.
Cox corralled Pfarr’s right leg in the second period and dragged him down along the edge of the ring for another takedown. In the closing seconds, Cox shut down a shot from Pfarr and counterattacked for a takedown, finishing his career – literally – on top.
“They’re never easy, but that one, he completely dominated,” Coach Brian Smith said.
Cox opened the tournament with a first-round pin and won his next four matches by a combined score of 36-8. He didn’t surrender a takedown throughout the three-day event.
Cox had defeated Pfarr 6-4 at the Southern Scuffle in January. Cox said he was gassed at that point in the season, and he benefited from a weeklong break later that month during which he did not practice or compete.
“This last month and a half, J’den Cox was on fire,” Smith said. “He just was unstoppable.”
Cox walked on green carpet between flame and smoke machines during match introductions as Diddy’s “Coming Home” played on the loudspeakers. Cox, a talented musician and vocalist, puts a lot of thought into his walk-out song choices for championship bouts.
This one was a treat for the instate crowd of 19,657 that was partisan in favor of the Hickman graduate.
“It seemed fitting,” Cox said. “I’ve traveled all over the world competing, but I’m just a kid from Columbia, Missouri, and I get to do this. It just felt right.”
Cox joined Ben Askren as the program’s only four-time All-Americans. Entering Saturday, they had been tied atop MU’s leaderboard with two national titles. Askren won back-to-back 174-pound titles in 2006 and ’07.
“This one was just emotional, just because there was a lot of things that rode on it,” Cox said. “It’s the first time in my program’s history we’ve had a three-timer.”
The third-seeded Mayes was no match for Penn State’s No. 1 Zain Retherford, losing by technical fall, 18-2.
Mayes (23-3) used a double-leg attack for a takedown less than 30 seconds into the match. After that, it was all Retherford, who ended the match in the third period after three four-point near falls. Retherford (28-0) repeated as champion and extended his winning streak to 63. Each of his 10 wins at the past two national tournaments netted bonus points.
“I went out there and I pushed the pace – probably a little bit too hard, and I kind of burned out after the first minute,” said Mayes, who ends his career as a three-time All-American.
Lavallee (29-2), seeded third at 157, lost by major decision, 14-6, to Penn State’s No. 1 Jason Nolf. Lavallee’s points all came on escapes.
“I’ve got to bring a positive attitude and learn from this experience and not let it just break me down and eat at me,” said Lavallee, a redshirt junior and an All-American for the first time.
Jaydin Eierman went 1-1 in his matches Saturday on the back draw to place fifth at 141 pounds.
Missouri finished with five All-Americans, matching the program’s single-season record also achieved in 2009 and 2015.
“Five has been our ceiling, and we’ve got to raise it,” Smith said.
Cox lifted the program’s ceiling with his third title.
“I hope to become a stepping stone for someone else to come through and break that,” Cox said.