Columbia sports fans are in for another great ride this year as champion wrestlers J’den Cox and Jaydin Clayton continue their winning ways on the mat.
Cox, a 2013 graduate of Hickman High School, became Columbia’s first four-time state wrestling champion last February when he won the Class 4 heavyweight title by pinning a Jefferson City senior who outweighed him by 65 pounds. He made history twice on that February night in Mizzou Arena — Cox’s four state titles have come in four different weight classes.
Jaydin Clayton is also heading into the CoMo record books. The Fr. Tolton High School junior has yet to lose a high school wrestling match. In the first two years of the Tolton wrestling program, Clayton has brought home two championship trophies. The Class 1 state title he collected last February as a sophomore in the 132-pound weight class follows a freshman-year run to the 113-pound Class 1 title. At 67-0, Clayton has never had to wrestle the full six minutes of a high school match, ending all of his bouts early by pin or technical fall.
These two young men share a bond beyond their similar names and initials, their passion for grappling and their goals to be the best. They are friends, teammates and co-conspirators, looking to change the landscape of the Columbia sports scene. The record books are in for some rewrites these next few years. The statisticians better use a pencil …
“I want to be the best there ever was.”
J’den Cox is arguably the best prep athlete Columbia has ever produced. His list of accomplishments grows longer every year:
Six Missouri USA Wrestling titles before he entered high school.
2006 Cliff Keen World All-Star Team.
Four state high school wrestling championships at Hickman in four weight classes — 171, 215, 220 and heavyweight; compiling a high school record of 205-3, he went undefeated in his last three years at Hickman.
Four national championships — 2012 and 2013 titles from the National High School Coaches Association, 2011 Cadet National Greco-Roman champion and 2012 Junior National Freestyle champion.
Ranked in 2013 as the No. 2 high school heavyweight in the nation.
2013 Junior National Duals All-Tournament Team.
2013 NHSCA Adam Frey Memorial Award given to the high school athlete who shows the ability to persevere and inspire.
2013 central region winner of the Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, based on excellence in wrestling, scholastic achievement, citizenship and community service.
And that’s just his wrestling. He played football for four years at Hickman as well; by his senior year, Cox was a two-way starter for the Kewpies, garnering all-state honors as a defensive linebacker who led the team with 116 tackles and scored four defensive touchdowns. He has a creative side, too. Adept at five instruments — violin, viola, bass guitar, piano and guitar — he often entertains fellow wrestlers on the piano to relax them during tournaments, and has strolled the halls of his Mizzou dormitory strumming softly on a guitar. No stranger to performing in front of crowds, Cox sang with the A Cappella Singers at Hickman and in the Faith Family Community Church Choir in Fayette. He tried his hand at poetry, participating in Hickman’s Spring Poetry Slam this year, where he took fourth place.
“I do a lot of stuff,” he says.
But his passion is wrestling. Now a freshman at the University of Missouri, 18-year-old Cox is settling into college life and preparing to compete as a Tiger on the MU wrestling team. A psychology major with a minor in American Sign Language, he plans to become a motivational speaker and teach creative writing when his wrestling career is over. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, though, for several more years.
“J’den has been larger than life since the beginning,” says his mother, Cathy Cox. The dramatic arrival of her third child — all 11 pounds, 10 ounces of him — came about through a difficult birth that nearly killed her. Although she had no symptoms, the pregnancy was complicated by preeclampsia. After a week in the hospital, she took her new son home, only to return a few days later as she began to suffer seizures. J’den’s grandmothers cared for the infant as Cathy fought for her life.
“We didn’t get to bond right away,” she recalls, “but as he got older, we grew closer. J’den is very relationship-oriented. Getting to know him as he matures has been a joy.”
Athletics is in the family DNA. J’den’s uncle Phil Arnold, Cathy’s younger brother, was a state champion wrestler at Hickman, the first Kewpie since 1935 to win back-to-back titles in 1990 and 1991. Dad Mike Cox, a 1982 Hickman grad, played football for the Kewpies. In Mike’s senior season, the Kewpies went 7-3, notching a defeat of Jefferson City and playing Rock Bridge for the first time, losing to the Bruins in the playoffs.
Older brothers Zach Arnold and Drae Cox were state medalists for Hickman wrestling — Zach, wrestling in his uncle’s weight class of 171, took third in 2004; 152-pound Drae finished fourth in 2007 and second in 2008. Drae went on to wrestle for NAIA powerhouse Lindenwood University. Zach chose not to continue wrestling after high school, becoming a welder. But the pull of the sport is strong; after serving as an assistant wrestling coach at Holt High School in Wentzville, Zach will return to Hickman this school year as head wrestling coach, as Drae’s and J’den’s coach, J.D. Coffman, steps down.
J’den grew up with wrestling, hanging out at his brothers’ matches since babyhood. “I loved the atmosphere and the people,” he says. “They’re all so humble and welcoming.” He started in the sport at 5, and soon learned a distressing truth: wrestlers who lose two matches in a double-elimination tourney are finished for the day.
“I found out if I kept winning, I could keep wrestling,” he says. That simple fact served him well as he joined Columbia Wrestling Club. At 7, he took second place in the 2003 Missouri USA state tournament. The next year, he took first, and the next and the next and the next … every year until he passed the 14-year-old club age limit. He’d found a way to keep wrestling.
By the time Cox was 8, Columbia Wrestling Club coach Mike Flanagan realized he’d taken this young wrestler as far as he could. Flanagan suggested Mike and Cathy Cox take their son to Eierman Elite Wrestling, a new gym in Millersburg run by Mike Eierman, then a Mizzou volunteer assistant coach. It was a perfect fit, Cathy says.
“Mike has a love for the sport of wrestling and a love for the kids,” she says. “He has their best interests at heart, and those kids go out on the mat and work for him.”
Eierman, an NCAA All-American who wrestled for the University of Nebraska, coaches a scrambling style popularized as “funk” by Mizzou champion Ben Askren. The style requires constant movement as wrestlers anticipate opponents’ movements and work to gain better positioning.
Eierman emphasizes mental preparation and wants the wrestling experience to be a positive one. Early in his relationship with Cox, the two were at a tournament in Tulsa, Okla., and Cox lost his first match 3-4. Eierman saw something in the young wrestler’s eyes — a fear that was making him physically ill — and pulled him from the tournament.
“It wasn’t working for him that day,” Eierman recalls. “I didn’t want that tournament to be the event that turned him off to wrestling. I didn’t want it to ruin the sport for him.”
His Tulsa experience gave Cox motivation. “It taught me who cared about me,” he says. “I learned I had to work harder. It drove me to practice every day at the front of the room, and wrestle hard.”
His remarkable drive and work ethic are infectious, says former Hickman assistant coach Ben Smith. “J’den’s a leader who teaches by example,” says Smith, who is moving to Battle High School this year as head wrestling coach. “The other wrestlers see him working hard in the wrestling room every day, and they’re thinking, ‘this guy is the best and he still works hard.’ J’den is very driven — and having him on the team drove me to be a better coach.”
Cox continued his winning ways at Hickman. By this time, he’d attracted the notice of Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith, who also coached him in Columbia Youth Football League. “J’den was always smiling and having fun,” Smith says. “He is a student of the sport, wanting to continue to learn and improve. In football and in wrestling, it was always the same … you knew he was special because it seemed effortless, fun and he seemed to always win.”
In 2010, Cox became the first Hickman freshman to win a state wrestling championship. Competing at his Uncle Phil’s weight class of 171 pounds, and wearing his uncle’s headgear, he won his first title 20 years (“almost to the day,” Cathy says) after Phil Arnold won his first title.
A season-ending knee injury midway through the 2010 football season led to surgery and forced him to sit out the first half of wrestling season his sophomore year.
“I sat on the couch and got fat,” he says. “I jiggled. That wasn’t cool.”
When he returned to wrestling, he competed at 215 pounds and went 38-0 on his way to a second state title. He followed up with two more championships and won a scholarship to the University of Missouri. He will wrestle at heavyweight for the Tigers.
Former Missouri coach Wes Roper has watched Cox wrestle as a Missouri USA Wrestling teammate to his son, Austin, now a sophomore at MU. He calls him “the best-ever upper weight out of Missouri. I’m amazed at his skill level. He is so smooth and flows from one technique to the next flawlessly. NCAA Division 1 wrestling is a hard, hard adjustment for upper-weight recruits and many struggle with the jump up in competition level. But I really believe J’den is a very special athlete who will make the transition smoothly and his passion for the sport will lift all his teammates.”
Cox’s positive outlook spills over to lift his fellow students as well, Ben Smith says. Cox spent time this year talking with Hickman soccer players and cross-country runners as they prepared for state competitions, encouraging them to approach their events with confidence, which is very different from cockiness, he points out. At wrestling meets, he often approaches those he has just vanquished on the mat with words of encouragement and coaching tips on how to counter some of his moves.
It doesn’t occur to him that he is giving away secrets. He always has a Plan B, says Ben Smith.
“I like the battle, the mental challenge,” Cox says. “I’m good at anticipating things. I know what my opponent’s going to do, and I know what I’m going to do to react. I don’t get into positions and give up; I wrestle through them. I don’t stop; that’s when people can capitalize. God didn’t make humans perfect, so there’s always a slip-hole. You just have to find it. There’s always a way.”
This quiet confidence will carry him through his college career with NCAA championships as the goal and an accelerated Olympic attempt. His initial plan to train for the 2020 Olympics was thwarted when the International Olympic Committee recommended wrestling be dropped after the 2016 games. A final decision is due in September, but Cox has already made the mental adjustment to step up his timetable by four years.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” he says.
There are no heroes for Cox, no champions he idolizes. He loves his family and respects his coaches, but Olympic champions don’t render him awestruck. “I respect them for what they’ve accomplished, but I don’t look up to other wrestlers. No disrespect, but I aspire to be better than them. I don’t look up to them because I want to surpass them. I know what I want — to be the best there ever was. That’s my plan.
“I heard a quote once, and I love it: ‘When you want to win more than you want to breathe, that is when you’ll succeed.’ I’m going to be successful because I’m going to work harder than everyone else. I’m going to work to make it happen.”
“Muscle and speed can only take you so far; your mind can take you farther.”
Jaydin Clayton is writing the first few chapters of athletics history for Fr. Tolton Catholic High School, blazing a trail for the Trailblazers. Open only two years, Tolton already has a couple of Class 1 state championships, courtesy of Clayton. The high school junior’s list of accomplishments continues to grow, in a pattern eerily similar to his friend J’den Cox:
Four Missouri USA Wrestling titles before he entered high school.
2007 Cliff Keen World All-Star Team.
Two state high school wrestling championships at Tolton in two weight classes — 113 and 132; sporting a 67-0 record, Clayton is undefeated in high school and hasn’t lost a folkstyle wrestling match since he was in seventh grade.
A 2013 national championship from the National High School Coaches Association.
The well-rounded 17-year-old athlete also golfs and plays football and basketball. He is a devotee of chess, playing matches with his stepfather, Mike Eierman.
“I like chess,” he says. “It’s a lot like wrestling. You always have to be thinking two moves ahead of your opponent.”
It was love that brought Clayton to wrestling. Eierman, an All-American from Nebraska who trained at the U.S. Olympic Center in Colorado, moved to mid-Missouri in 2003. He worked as a volunteer assistant coach under Brian Smith at the University of Missouri and coached the Rock Bridge Wrestling Club. Then, he met Heather Selsor and her son, Jaydin. Heather and Mike started dating, and little Jaydin was along for the ride. That ride included a lot of wrestling matches.
“I fell in love with Heather and I fell in love with Jaydin as well,” Eierman says. “We’ve been together nine years … it was just meant to be. I was supposed to be in their lives.”
Clayton has trained at Eierman Elite Wrestling ever since his stepfather built the facility next to their home in Millersburg. He took to the sport Eierman loves and has relentlessly pursued improvement. Like his friend J’den Cox, Clayton looks to his uncle for inspiration, the late Jared Selsor, a 23-year-old University of Missouri student who died in 1999.
“My uncle died when I was real young,” Clayton says. “He wrestled at Mexico High School, and I know he’s watching over me, enjoying my success. It keeps me motivated.”
Clayton is an entertaining wrestler for fans of the sport, says former Mizzou wrestling coach Wes Roper. “One thing that impresses me about Jaydin is his high-risk, high-reward wrestling style,” Roper says. “He is exciting to watch and so dangerous. He doesn’t just want to win, he wants to pin!”
The difference is how he approaches a match, Eierman says. “When it’s time to wrestle, it’s showtime,” Eierman says. “Jaydin’s going to put on a show for everybody.”
New Battle wrestling coach Ben Smith likens it to a switch. “Jaydin Clayton and J’den Cox get ready for a match the same way — they laugh and socialize and play games, just having fun. As they walk to the mat, you can see them flip that switch. Their body language changes, and suddenly they’re all business. I think it’s because Mike Eierman keeps wrestling fun for his kids.”
Eierman says he wants the kids he coaches to enjoy wrestling — there’s really no point in playing a sport if you don’t like it. Winning is the fun part, but he doesn’t put up with tantrums or other unsportsmanlike behavior. When 8-year-old Jaydin “threw a fit” because his opponent scored on him in the second period of a match in a Kansas City tournament years ago, Eierman stopped the match, and pulled him from the tournament. “I’ve never had a problem with his attitude since then,” he says.
The lesson was in evidence when Clayton was in seventh grade and lost the championship match at the Missouri USA Wrestling state tournament. “He acted like a winner there,” Eierman says proudly. “He shook hands with his opponent’s coach and hugged the winner. You have to learn how to lose before you learn how to win.”
Eierman emphasizes “mind over muscle” when coaching his club wrestlers. “Everyone says the hips are the strongest body part for a wrestler,” he says. “I say your mind is the strongest part. I tell these kids that their opponents may have better technique or a bit more strength, but if they can outsmart them, they can win.”
That philosophy seems to be working for Clayton. “It’s the style Mike has taught me — muscle and speed can only take you so far; your mind can take you farther,” he says. “I watch my opponent’s eyes when I’m wrestling. I can see if they’re doubting — they’ll hesitate. Then I go in for the finish.”
And he does like to finish the match early. Clayton powered his way through the 2013 state high school tournament by pinning every one of his opponents.
“I’m not a big guy who can lift someone off the mat and throw him back down,” he says. “I have to use my mind. Wrestling requires 100 percent attention. You have to focus, like in life.”
Clayton relishes challenges — whether in school, on the mat, or at the chessboard. He maintains A’s and B’s at Tolton — “My school is very difficult, but I like the challenge,” he says — and is coached there by Mike Eierman’s brother, Tony, former wrestling coach at Missouri Valley College.
“I have to keep my mind focused on my goals,” Clayton says. “You can’t focus if you’re drinking or doing drugs. I’ve told my mom I’ll never drink even once in my life. She’s going to hold me to it — we have a bet.”
Clayton’s immediate focus is on winning two more state championships — he’ll compete at 140 pounds this year — and then college and a coaching career. “My big fantasy is to get into UFC,” he says with a laugh. Unlike his friend J’den, he does have wrestling heroes.
“I really look up to Mike,” he says. “He’s my big idol.”
His favorite wrestler, though, is three-time Olympic gold medalist Buvaisar Saitiev of Russia. “He’s phenomenal,” he gushes. “I wrestle a lot like him. I let my arms hang loose and look for my opening.”
Clayton’s only opening for the Olympics may be 2016, perhaps wrestling’s last appearance in the games. He’s planning to be a part of that last U.S. Olympic wrestling team in three years, along with his friend J’den.
“If Olympic wrestling goes away, we’ll still have Worlds,” he says. “My hope is that JC and I could be the last Olympic champions for the U.S.”
Join The Club
Wrestling is one of the oldest sports in the world; its origins can be traced back 15,000 years through cave drawings found in France. Wrestling competition was the focal point of the ancient Olympic Games and one of the original sports when the modern games began in 1896.
Interest in youth and high school wresting has surged in recent years. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports it is the sixth-most popular high school sport in America (behind football, track, basketball, baseball and soccer), attracting more than 272,000 participants to the sport. In Missouri, about 7,400 boys at 231 schools competed in wrestling at the high school level in 2012.
Youth wrestling appeals to parents and children because competition is sorted by weight and age. Athletes of all shapes and sizes can excel and enjoy the sport. Wrestling teaches discipline and offers conditioning that can enhance athletic and mental skills in other areas of life.
There are 152 clubs registered with Missouri USA Wrestling. Mid-Missouri youth can become involved in the sport through these local clubs:
Boonslick Heartland YMCA
Centralia Wrestling Club
Columbia Wrestling Club
Eierman Elite Wrestling
Fulton Kids Wrestling Club
Hallsville Kids Club
Mexico Youth Wrestling Club
Thunderbird Wrestling Club
Missouri Wrestling Foundation
Regional Olympic Training Center
Missouri USA Wrestling
Colorado Springs, Colo.