Freestyle wrestling season is in full swing, and the first half of the USA World team wrestle-offs has concluded. Final X: Rutgers was defined by clashes between young phenoms and experienced veterans. To the surprise of many, experience came through every time. For the chance to represent the United States in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships at 92 kg, a criminally underrated staple met a generational talent.
J’den Cox: World Champion, Underdog
For three years, Missouri’s J’den Cox has been the man for USA Wrestling. After winning his second NCAA title for the Tigers, Cox defeated four-time NCAA champion Kyle Dake to make the 2016 Olympic team. He shattered expectations, qualifying the weight and winning bronze, his only loss a consequence of an error in communication. Through the entire Olympic tournament, Cox was never taken down.
In 2017, Cox won his third collegiate title and made the World team by taking out two-time Hodge trophy winner David Taylor. Another bronze performance had some wondering what it would take for the immensely talented wrestler to break through to the next level.
But when the 92 kg weight class was introduced, J’den Cox found his home. Despite a hiccup at the International Ukrainian Tournament, Cox glided through the 2018 World Wrestling Championships to take home his first gold medal. Kyle Dake made his first team and went unscored upon to win his first World title at 79 kg, and another past victim in David Taylor was crowned the tournament’s outstanding wrestler after torching the field at 86 in his first World outing.
Despite Cox’s long run of success, including wins over Dake and Taylor, the attention of fans was unjustly distributed in favor of the two team-debutants.
Cox has been painfully aware of his status as an underrated commodity. That is why it should have come as no surprise when many chose folkstyle superstar Bo Nickal to defeat him for the World team spot at Final X: Rutgers.
Bo Nickal: Penn State’s Most Dangerous Man
Texas native Nickal won his third NCAA title in March, a season which saw him go undefeated, winning with bonus points at a 90% rate. Nickal finished the season with 18 pins, winning the Hodge Trophy for most outstanding wrestler in NCAA Division 1 competition.
Those predicting a Nickal victory weren’t simply ignoring Cox’s accomplishments, however. There was plenty of reason to believe in his ability.
For nearly every wrestler in the country, Bo Nickal is a nightmare match up. Offensively, he gets to the legs with deceptive speed, using his length and power to quickly convert on high crotch shots from space or a long over tie. Nickal employs Penn State’s infamously heavy snap downs to set up scoring sequences, either snapping you on your face for a quick go-behind or hitting swift leg attacks when his man straightens up reactively.
If you tie up with him to negate that athletic advantage, more often than not, you’re going for a ride. Nickal can consistently punch through strong underhooks to get to knee taps, ankle picks, or dangerous front headlock situations if a scramble ensues. When he’s supremely confident, Nickal can pull in from over-unders and launch even elite opponents over his hips. In terms of takedown ability, “upper body” positions are where Nickal is the deadliest.
However, it’s the scrambling game of Nickal that led to his insane bonus rate in folkstyle. Off his opponents’ attacks, Nickal is ludicrously smooth and composed. He’ll often prioritize countering rather than paying mind to his first layer of defense, as in sprawling and creating separation. Nickal is most often attacking the far ankle and creating an angle to lock up near and far-side cradles. This is one aspect of his game that should suffer very little in the transition to freestyle, as Nickal’s turns and pins come from fluid exchanges off shots, rather than lengthy process-driven breakdowns and ride sequences from the top.
Essentially, Nickal has a seemingly fool-proof system of scoring, no position is safe.
But J’den Cox shut him down. How?
J’den Cox (Titan Mercury WC/OTC) vs. Bo Nickal (Nittany Lion WC)
It’s been said that J’den Cox is not a wrestler well suited to come back from a deficit. Cox has built his style around being elusive in his first layer of defense, and a brick wall in his second. He is deceptively agile, and can typically outscramble anyone on the planet on the rare occasion they get to his legs. Cox has been a longtime student of Mike Eierman, the evil genius responsible for Ben Askren’s refinement of funk.
The emphasis on bonus points is huge in collegiate competition, especially when you’re a leader on your team. But once you transition to freestyle, the reward for bonus points is much less pronounced, and they are hard to come by when facing the absolute best the world has to offer. Naturally, Cox has focused on just winning matches, which typically looks like shutting down his opponents’ offense and finding one or two scores when he gets the right look.
So when he does fall behind, as he did against Boris Makoev at the 2017 World Championships, it’s unnatural for Cox to get to multiple scoring positions, especially while avoiding the situations where he was scored on in the first place.
With that being said, it was essential for Cox to ease into the first match with Nickal to get a good look at the offense he was angling for.
The best way to avoid “big moves” from Nickal is to keep him from getting to his right side underhook, or any over-under position, really. Cox kept a low stance with his head high, keeping his feet moving, using rhythmic foot checks and downblocks to keep Nickal off easy entries.
Battle of the Over Tie
With Cox simply refusing to take committed shots or move forward, it was largely up to Nickal to create offensive situations. While Nickal would prefer to dig underhooks, he’s highly effective shooting across from an over tie. Typically, when a wrestler latches on to the collar, their opponent reaches back to collar tie the other side. In response, you can lace over the tricep of the attacking arm and grip the shoulder.
Theoretically, Nickal should be able to keep his opponent’s arm on the inside when shooting across to the leg on that same side, preventing a downblock or underhook in response. In the over tie, we’ve seen Nickal reach with his free hand to club the head, and quickly change directions for his shot.
It’s simply not realistic to base a gameplan around stopping Nickal from getting to your collar, frantically clearing ties and swiping at hands is a great way to leave your legs undefended. Instead, Cox cleared ties at his leisure, and if the over tie came, he simply attacked the wrist of Nickal’s free arm, effectively shutting down his best attack.
While freestyle doesn’t have the same system of stall warnings as folkstyle, there are penalties for passivity. After giving up a point after two passivity calls and 30 seconds on the shot clock without a score, Cox gave up one point.
The dynamic changed, Cox couldn’t disengage quite as often, fearful of another warning against him. Nickal reached back for his right collar tie, Cox slapped an over tie on the arm. Finally, Nickal had Cox still and in his grasp for one moment.
Nickal faked for the wrist with his free arm and shot explosively for the trail leg. Cox’s feet were planted, it was the best scoring opportunity of the period.
The FloWrestling crew has a term for athletes who defy logic and common perception of human ability - alien. J’den Cox is one of the original aliens, befuddling opponents and fans alike with his superhuman mat awareness and reflexes. As Bo Nickal saw his scoring opportunity disappear in an instant, you have to think he knew then he was dealing with someone different.
To start the second period, Cox knew he had more than enough information. The motion of his feet increased in pace, shoulder and hip fakes added to the mesmerizing dance. But the best way to know when J’den Cox is in alien mode is the volume of his sweat. The man has incredibly active sweat glands, it is very common to see breaks in the action to wipe down the mats during J’den Cox matches. By the second period of his first match at Final X against Bo Nickal, Cox was glistening.
The bigger man began handfighting far more aggressively, clubbing hard and throwing by Nickal’s attacking arms. But the Nittany Lion stayed true to his process, going straight back to the collar every time. But as long as Cox had one arm free to tie up Nickal’s wrist, entries would be hard to come by.
But even when an approach is working, it’s rarely a good thing in wrestling to be predictable. So finally, Cox responded to Nickal by pushing off with his own collar tie on the opposite side. It was the look Nickal needed.
Nickal tied up once again and waited for Cox to reach high for the collar on his right, and Nickal shot deep for the trail leg, his motion unimpeded.
Cox looked to kick his leg back once again, but this time Nickal aimed his shot above the knee, catching a grip without issue. Nickal worked quickly to seize his opportunity, turning the corner and putting pressure on Cox’s foot as he angled his hip to the mat.
Bo Nickal weighed in at 87.7 kg for this 92 kg match, and this is one situation where it may have hurt him. Cox didn’t budge, sprawling with his hips square, reaching down to block the hips of Nickal. Nickal adjusted on his knees, reestablishing his grip and standing with the leg. But as soon as the two were elevated, Cox was on the move, hitting a switch and catching a single of his own. Nickal had to fight for his life to get back to a straight angle on the leg, but now Cox had height, driving his hips forward while crossfacing, breaking Nickal’s base entirely.
Nickal was forced to cling to the leg while flat on his stomach. Cox was ruthless, crossfacing hard while pulling on the far ankle, taking pressure off of Nickal’s lock and allowing him to circle behind for the first takedown of the match. What’s even more brilliant is that Cox turned the crossface into a trap arm gut, punishing Nickal for holding on. Unfortunately, Nickal’s head was out of bounds prior to the exposure, so it was not a scoring maneuver.
Ahead on criteria and coated with sweat, Cox got back to his rhythmic motion and kept Nickal at arm’s length to close out the match.
One of Bo Nickal’s greatest attributes is his coaching staff. The Penn State corner is not only adept at developing athletes, they’ve shown the ability to guide their athletes to make adjustments to take out elite opponents. In 2017, freshman Vincenzo Joseph lost to the reigning NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez at the dual meet in February, then again at the Big Ten Championships in early March. But when it mattered the most, in the NCAA finals, Joseph countered underhooks of Martinez by hitting an inside trip from double overs. In 2018, Joseph lost to Martinez yet again at Big Tens, only to inside trip him in the national finals once more.
So what did Nickal’s coaches have to work with after match one? They knew it wouldn’t be impossible for Nickal to get to his collar and over ties, but Cox was more than ready for the high crotch to the trail leg at this point.
Snaps and Playing With Levels
Their new look came quickly in match two, as Nickal went collar tie with his rear hand, and then over tie with his lead. From an outsider’s perspective, one may have assumed Nickal was looking to pull Cox forward and force him to step, switching his stance and lining up the lead leg with the over tie, opening them up for a swing single.
Instead, Nickal shoots across to his right, attacking the lead leg. Cox quickly sprawled to his knees before a committed entry could occur, but now Nickal had something to work with. IF he could get Cox level changing reactively, he could time him straightening back up into his stance for a clean entry.
Nickal’s snapdown game was rarely utilized and largely ineffective in their first match. But now, especially when Cox traded collar ties and Nickal was able to tie up with both arms, the Texan began to snap aggressively, encouraging Cox to low his head and stance.
That moment materialized quickly. As soon as Nickal had height on Cox, he pounced on the head, attacking a front headlock position. Cox explosively drove up back into his stance with an underhook. As soon as Cox entered a potential over-under situation, he used his free hand to tie up Nickal’s wrist. Some may not like the fact that many of Cox’s tactics were seemingly designed to stall out positions, but how else should you wrestle the most dangerous man in the country?
Against J’den Cox, you have to make the most of every opportunity. To that point, Nickal began chasing an angle on his overhook, looking to get around to the back and lock his hands. Almost instantly, as Cox felt Nickal stepping toward his right, he timed the motion and swept the stepping foot, pulling with his underhook and pivoting back and to his left.
The attempt left Nickal scrambling for his footing and discouraged him from pursuing further offense in that sequence.
One minute into their second match, Cox finally began his first committed shot setups.
He had plenty of time to read the entries of Nickal, the sweat was flowing, and it was time for action. Cox cleared the ties of Nickal and clubbed hard to the left, then to the right, swinging off the club to the right, attacking Nickal’s left leg. But, feeling the trend of Cox’s motion, Nickal showed off his savvy by casually circling away from the shot.
Soon after, Cox pulled the trigger again. As Nickal reached for the collar, Cox ripped the reaching arm to his left and shot to the right for Nickal’s lead leg. Once again, Nickal, pivoted out of danger. However, Cox’s aggression was enough to earn a passivity call on Nickal, putting him on the shot clock.
With only a few seconds remaining before Cox would be awarded a point, Nickal got to his collar tie, pulled hard and shot on the same side to the lead leg, a new look.
In an insane display of awareness and athleticism, Cox pulled his hips back, dug underhooks and exploded forward at an angle, driving Nickal backward. Once again, the underhook and wrist allowed Cox to stalemate the position. It cannot be overstated how impressive it is that Cox was able to instantaneously react perfectly nearly every time Nickal attacked. There was nothing lacking on Nickal’s entries, he scrambled well, but he was up against a special wrestler.
Feeling confident in his upper body chops, and perhaps hoping to prove a point, Cox surged forward, digging his left underhook yet again. But he was playing with fire.
Immediately, Nickal limp armed back to create space and got a tight overhook on the attacking arm, dropped levels and shot a slick fireman’s from his knees.
J’den Cox, an actual alien, stepped over ever so slightly to his right. Nickal was left only swiping at air.
Up 1-0, Cox was intent on hunting counters and shutting the door on the young phenom.
Nickal pursued, pulled on the collar tie and reached across for the lead leg. Cox kicked his leg back effortlessly, and as Nickal rose back to his feet, he shucked him by to his right and reattacked a swing single, his favorite shot. Chasing Nickal out of bounds, Cox caught his prey and collected a crucial two points.
Down three with just over one minute to go, and with Cox as fluid as ever, Nickal pushed forward with fervor. Cox shot a double leg to stop his momentum, Nickal caught him with underhooks and chased the right side underhook with urgency. As soon as Nickal closed in, Cox whizzered and threw his hips in, bouncing Nickal forward and giving him the angle to get a grip behind the far armpit for the final takedown.
2019 World Wrestling Championships and Beyond
Even after his 2018 World title performance, fans are still doubting J’den Cox. The creation of new weight classes only added fuel to the fire, allowing some to claim that Cox went untested domestically, and the international field wasn’t as deep as it would have been at 86 or 97.
In a sense, that is true. 86 kg is staffed domestically by a prime David Taylor, and the sensational Iranian Hassan Yazdani Charati. At 97, Cox would have to reckon with the legendary Kyle Snyder, before moving on to challenge the pound-for-pound best wrestler on the planet, Abdulrashid Sadulaev.
But there is evidence to suggest that while Cox may not have been fully tested, he is truly the best version of himself thus far. Bo Nickal met little to no resistance in the past year and change, but J’den Cox stopped every single one of his attacks, countering with deadly efficiency.
At the World Championships in Nur-Sultan, Cox may face a row of impressive challengers. He may meet the last man to defeat him in Azerbaijan’s Sharif Sharifov, a two-time World bronze medalist in Iran’s Alireza Karimimachiani, and Georgia’s Dato Marsagishvili, who holds multiple victories over Cox.
But the real test of Cox’s legacy will be in 2020. As 92 kg is a non-Olympic weight, Cox will have to make a choice. Will he move up to challenge Snyder at 97, or back down to 86 where David Taylor, or perhaps Pat Downey will be waiting for him?
Cox’s story is nowhere near over, if you’re a fan of wrestling, be sure to follow him closely as the US Men’s Freestyle team prepares to storm Kazakhstan in September. You can catch the full match videos from Final X and more at FloWrestling.org, while many matches from international competition are available on United World Wrestling’s YouTube page.