High School Sports

Herald All-Area Wrestling | Friendship with Baldwin helps push Fulk to his first state championship as a senior

The first match between Fox Baldwin and Jesse Fulk, two of the top prep wrestlers in Florida, was held in a cafeteria attached to the gym at some high school.

The bout was so long ago neither Baldwin nor Fulk can remember where it was held, and only Baldwin remembers the result.

They were 4 or 5 years old at the time and just starting to wrestle. Baldwin led for most of the match, as he remembers, until Fulk got Baldwin with a reversal in the final moments to take the lead for good.

One future state champion beat another, 2-1.

"I don't remember many matches from when I was younger," Baldwin said. "I remember losing."

Losses were infrequent for Baldwin. He has been one of the premier wrestlers in Florida for his entire life and finished his Kissimmee Osceola career this season as a five-time state champion. He also stood in the way during Fulk's first three years at Manatee.

Fulk consistently gave Baldwin his toughest matches, except Fulk never won after getting the best of Baldwin the first time the two ever wrestled competitively. Only when Fulk moved a weight class higher than Baldwin for his senior year -- Baldwin competed at 170 pounds, and Fulk jumped from 160 to 182 -- was he finally able to win the 3A state championship he craved.

"Other than his own team," Osceola assistant coach Rick Tribit said, "Fox was probably happier than anyone else to see Jesse win."

The match between toddlers wasn't some one-off bout. For almost 15 years, these two have been regular opponents, two of the greatest in Florida history. Each is the best foil for the other.

During Baldwin's tear through the 2014 state tournament, he pinned every opponent he faced. He met Fulk in the final, where he faced his stiffest competition and longest match. Fulk stayed up for four minutes and 55 seconds before Baldwin pinned him.

Before that, no wrestler lasted longer than four minutes in the ring against Baldwin.

"I have moves that work on 90 percent of wrestlers," Baldwin recalled. "He was stopping all my best moves."

Baldwin estimates the two have wrestled each other close to 100 times, and their familiarity stretches beyond the rings they've shared since before elementary school.

At lengthy wrestling tournaments during their early childhood, Baldwin and Fulk would pass the time playing with dinosaurs and building Legos between matches.

"We'd beat the crap out of each other," Fulk said, "and then we'd get off the mat and immediately go back to playing with each other and being best friends."

After Baldwin bested Fulk in the 2014 state final, he and Fulk both realized it would be best not to compete at the same weight. Baldwin wanted to wrestle at whatever weight would be best for his team, but he also wanted to keep his friend in the loop. He wanted to help Fulk win a state title if possible.

Baldwin made the natural progression to 170 pounds while Fulk focused on powerlifting to add even more muscle mass and jump to 182. It meant that this season was the first time that they weren't regularly squaring off against each other in the ring. It also gave both an avenue to fully showcase their dominance.

Baldwin completed another perfect season, 58-0, and Fulk went 70-3 to break Hurricane records for single-season and career wins.

But during a meet early in the season between the two schools, Fulk and Baldwin decided to throw weights out the window and wrestle in a match which wouldn't affect the team score. Neither had faced a strong competitor to that point, and the best test each could get was from the other.

"It says a lot about those two kids," Tribit said. "They have enough respect for one another that they were like, 'Look, I need you to push me and you need me to push you, and it's early in the season. Let's wrestle.'"

Like Baldwin, Fulk doesn't remember many matches from his childhood and, like Baldwin again, one of the few he does came against his friend and rival. Even the ending was the same.

Baldwin cites that first-match loss to Fulk as a lesson in completing a match. It was one of the earliest takeaways he gathered from the ring and helped propel him along on his record-setting career. Fulk was taught the same lesson during a match with Baldwin later during his childhood. He said he heard a whistle blow for another match on a neighboring mat and let up in the final seconds. This time, Baldwin turned Fulk with a reversal to snatch a victory in the final seconds.

Years later, Fulk stood in the ring at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee for the 2015 3A state championship. With seconds left in double overtime, Fulk trailed as Baldwin watched from the podium, ready to receive the gold medal for his latest state title. He applauded anxiously and encouragingly.

When Fulk took down Miami Braddock's Milton Hope to take the lead with five seconds left, Baldwin's timorous cheering turned into a full-throated roar. For the first time, Fulk was a gold medalist at state. For the first time, the friends could celebrate championships together.

"When I played football, you hated the other team or had a strong dislike. After you beat the crap out of each other you didn't want to go talk and be friends with them," Fulk said. "But I feel with wrestling in particular that two really good wrestlers wrestle each other more than once have respect for each other.

"It was more of a best friend that's accomplishing great things."

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