It’s never easy to step away and leave the past behind, especially if it was glorious while it lasted.
Following his sophomore season, C.J. Cobb stepped away from wrestling after a decade and a half of hard work and success. But he does not regret his decision one bit. In fact, it was his decision to walk away that made him fall back in love with the sport.
This year, the 149-pound senior is rejuvenated as he sits atop the Ivy League, ready to make his run at All-American status.
On this go around, Cobb is sure of one thing: he’s wrestling for himself and no one else.
A dominating grappler
Since joining Penn wrestling, it has been obvious that the Williamstown, N.J., native could do special things on the mat. Cobb knows it, his teammates know it and his opponents certainly know it.
“He’s always filled that role as one of the most talented kids on the team,” junior captain Brooks Martino said.
His teammates applaud his quickness and his hips. The combination of the two allows him to gain an advantage when he gets in scrambling positions.
However, Cobb insists that he is not a “funk” wrestler, a label that he has been associated with due to his unconventional style and skill set.
What he thinks sets himself apart from the competition is not his bag of tricks but his arsenal of attacks. While many wrestlers rely on one or two moves, Cobb boasts five in which he has equally high levels of confidence.
“A lot of people are like ‘watch his single’ or ‘oh, watch his high crotch’ [when discussing other wrestlers],” Cobb explains. “Well I got both and I got a couple of other things.”
As Cobb describes his style of attack, it’s clear that he’s not just a scrambler who improvises. He has a deliberate method of wearing an opponent down and exposing their weaknesses so that he can reach into his repertoire and select the most potent shot.
This unique asset helped him take down sixth-ranked Chris Villalonga of Cornell in January and is what challenges Red and Blue senior Jeff Canfora every day in practice.
“I can’t ask for a better partner to work out with everyday ... he does it all really,” Canfora said.
It was Cobb’s win against Villalonga that vaulted him into the nation’s top ten at the 149-pound weight class.
If Cobb can string together more matches like that, he is bound to compete for an EIWA title and be in the conversation at NCAAs in March. And while he has faced obstacles this year with injury, the senior has stayed on course and remained poised to reap the benefits.
Cobb’s story is not simply one of a great wrestler with a unique style. At this time last year, he was a teaching assistant, not a collegiate athlete. He was focused, but not on wrestling.
The veteran is not supposed to be in the national spotlight right now because when he called it quits, he meant it. In Cobb’s mind, he wasn’t taking a break; he had decided he would never wrestle again.
The 2013 NCAA qualifier and EIWA runner-up faced numerous doubters when he told them his decision two springs ago, and it was hard for him to break the daily cycle to which he had become accustomed.
“A lot of people are wrestling just because of inertia,” Cobb explained. “They’ve been doing it forever. It’s hard to quit. It’s really hard to quit.
“There wasn’t one person on my side when I wanted to quit.”
Many had seen his previous success and questioned why he would throw all his hard work away.
Cobb has a simple answer: “What if I was really good at Halo?” he asks. “Does that mean I should play Halo instead of going to class? Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you should keep doing it.”
A 2013 Academic All-Ivy selection, Cobb had a lot on his plate and it made him question whether continuing to wrestle — which he says amounts to taking three additional classes — was worth it in the long run.
“I was wondering why I was really doing it,” Cobb said. “Because it was obviously making things a lot harder with school. I felt like it wasn’t fair when I looked at my classmates ... they weren’t playing a sport, let alone wrestling.”
Still, these were the people he was competing with for jobs and grades. Cobb says he became wrapped up in the competitive academic culture of Penn and felt like wrestling made it so that he was competing against his classmates with “one hand tied behind [his] back.”
The pressures were getting to Cobb, and he began to forget what made him wrestle.
“I didn’t have my heart in it any more,” Cobb explained, “I didn’t like coming to practice. I wasn’t excited.”
In high school, wrestling allowed him to have an edge for college acceptances. But once he arrived at Penn, Cobb was not sure what wrestling helped him accomplish outside of the sweaty room.
Back and on top
That all changed once he had the opportunity to step back and reflect. Quitting allowed him to consider how much he loved the sport.
“I realized one of the biggest things I get from wrestling is the friendships that I make and the people that I meet,” Cobb said. And he missed that when he was away.
Cobb also missed the competitive juices that at one point had set him on edge.
“Usually, I would get nervous, and that wouldn’t feel good,” Cobb remembers. But after returning, he began to welcome the nerves.
“I would get nervous, and I would be like ‘wow I miss this feeling. This is f**king awesome.’”
The feeling is one Cobb says is unique to wrestling and perhaps a few other sports. It was one Cobb could not find in a classroom.
“People get nervous before a big test, but on a test you can all do well and a test isn’t really fighting against you,” Cobb insists. “It’s just a static thing.
“A wrestling match — it’s a zero sum game. Only one of you is gonna win and, I don’t know, there’s just nothing like that.”
As Cobb tells his story with a calm and deliberate tone, it becomes clear why he is such a menace to opponents. He is thoughtful and unfazed. He can think on his feet and react, but he never overcommits.
Cobb now believes that wrestling is worth the pain and time.
“Even if I gotta take a little less pay after college or not get the perfect job or the highest GPA ... it’s a fine sacrifice,” Cobb noted. “It’s worthwhile, and it’s fun.”
Cobb should not worry though. With his skill set, he’s bound to accomplish great things both on the mat and off.
“A lot of people say that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. Well, it was gone and then it came back, and that was really cool,” Cobb said with a smile.
But now, even though it’s back, there’s no longer a weight on Cobb’s shoulders.
“I know at this point that I’m doing it just for me and not because I’m good or because anybody wanted me to do it,” Cobb said.
“It’s really just for me.”
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