Cover Story

Get a Grip

Writer Ty Marshal investigates the muscle-bound thrills of arm wrestling

Nearly five dozen arm wrestlers top-rolled, hooked and pinned at the Tilted Kilt Bar and Restaurant, 3017 Erie Blvd. E., to compete for a chance to flex their muscles in the 2015 regional championship coming up in Las Vegas.

Male and female contenders in the “the everyman’s sport” were joined by nearly 200 noisy spectators during the March 21 event. Chalk dust, used by wrestlers to better their grip against their opponents, floated through the air, as contestants waited for their chance at the arm wrestling table, flanked by two officials judging each match.

Matches often take less than 10 seconds, with much of the time spent positioning the player’s hands into the approved grip. The arm wrestling table is designed with elbow cushions, hand pegs that players are required to grip with their free hand during the match, and a single black string on each side.

Pinning your opponent’s arm to the string ends the match.

Watch the video: Get A Grip – (story continues below):

The professional World Armwrestling League, based in Chicago, hosts tournaments throughout the United States. WAL is hosting a “100 Events in 100 Cities” regional showcase to find the “nation’s best arm-wrestler.” Competitors who win regional bouts then head to the Cox Pavilion, located on the University of Nevada-Las Vegas campus, on May 30 and 31, where they can qualify to attend the WAL 2015 Championships to be held July 4 and 5 at the Mirage Hotel and Casino, also in Vegas. At stake will be $500,000 in prize money.

President of the World Armwrestling League, Travis Bagent. Photo: walunderground.com

WAL Tournament Director, Travis Bagent.
Photo: walunderground.com

Travis “The Beast” Bagent, WAL Tournament Director and a world armwrestling champion, was at the Tilted Kilt qualifier. “Most of these guys watch the World Armwrestling shows on ESPN,” Bagent said. “We have some local support here with James (Reid) and Chris Myers, so it’s a no-brainer because of the amateur arm wrestling that’s already happening here in the area.”

Reid and Myers’ group, CNY Arm Wrestlers, hosted the Syracuse WAL visit, billed as “Battle of Arms III: Judgment Day.” The hometown organization’s mission is to “support any and all pullers in upstate New York and to promote the sport to more and more people,” said Reid. “We’re the only WAL qualifier in upstate New York. There’s always been a local arm wrestling community here. We brought in the big names, we brought it to a bigger venue instead of having it in smaller bars.”

Most matches end in a handshake.

Since local contestants train together, they watched each others matches closely, cheering on contestants and clapping. The sport has come a long way from the likes of grass-chewin’ hay-bailers or CB-slingin’ truck drivers.

“Pulling,” as it’s referred to in the arm wrestling community, recently gained national attention with Game of Arms, a 2014 reality-based program that became the AMC network’s highest-rated weeknight original series premiere in its first season. Plans for a second season were dashed when AMC decided to refocus its programming away from reality-based, unscripted programs.

Meanwhile, ESPN has featured arm-wrestling events including footage from WAL’s “100 Events in 100 Cities” and this year’s championship in Las Vegas. A full listing of upcoming ESPN arm wrestling coverage can be found at walunderground.com.

Hand-to-Hand Training

CNY Arm Wrestlers coach, Chris Myers, gives tips and pointers during Battle of Arms III: Judgement Day. Michael Davis Photo | Syracuse New Times

CNY Arm Wrestlers coach, Chris Myers, gives tips and pointers during Battle of Arms III: Judgement Day.
Michael Davis Photo | Syracuse New Times

CNY Arm Wrestlers focuses on training, education and competition. The sport has seen a noticeable increase in participants within the last year, drawing the curious and competitive-minded to the local tables.

Rich Nagy, 32, qualified in third place (Men’s Amateur Left, 216+) at the Tilted Kilt event. He credits a 1987 Sylvester Stallone movie Over The Top as the influence that spurred him to enter his first tournament at age 14: “I was sitting at home one weekend flipping through the TV stations and watched Over The Top. I told my mom, ‘I want to try that,’ and entered my first tournament. I was hooked ever since.”

Nagy has been arm wrestling on and off for more than a decade, but he has been more focused on the sport during the last five years. “Back in 2003-2004 I went to Columbus, Ohio, to watch a professional arm-wrestling tournament,” Nagy said, “where I met good friend Scott Latella from Schenectady, who later started to train me. Then he turned me to Chris Myers, who has taught me a few new tricks and techniques that have helped me along the way.”

Arm Wrestling DivisionsLike many other sports, arm wrestling is divided into men’s and women’s weight classes and further divisions separate right from left hand and novices from pros. There are various rules involved in pulling, with much time spent setting up the players into the proper position at the table. Concentrating on the setup, and properly placing the body, arms and hands, are safety measures to prevent injuries and fouls. A competitor can foul, for example, if they start to pull before the referee calls “Ready and Go.” Competitors cannot cover one another’s thumbs, either, nor can they touch their body to their arm.

A quick internet search reveals various rules followed by different arm wrestling organizations: competitors’ shoulders may not be less than a fist distance away from their hands at the start; wrestlers may touch any part of their opponents’ fingers, wrist or forearm to the pad to constitute a pin; if opponents hands slip during a match, the referee brings out a strap to hold the hands of the battlers together in order to finish the match, referred to as a “strap match.”

Christopher Myers has been competing in the sport for more than 20 years and is a WAL 2014 regional finalist. From 1998 to 2005 he toured the world with Team USA. Myers grew up in Queens and was introduced to the sport during a street fair: “I just happened to be walking by and I got up there and entered this tournament and took third place.”

At the tournament, Myers met professional arm wrestler Jason Vale, who offered to train him. Within six months, Myer took second place in the American championships and went onto become a top 10 arm wrestler within the year.

Christopher Myers. Photo: walunderground.com

Christopher Myers.
Photo: walunderground.com

After retiring from the sport, Myers now coaches for CNY Arm Wrestlers. “Now I’ve got guys who’ve never pulled before in their entire life, and I bring them to their first match and six months later they’re coming home with national titles,” he said. “So I found out I’m a much better coach than I ever even was a puller.”

Myers, who coaches every week at his Chittenango home, touts the sport’s benefits. “Arm wrestling uses muscles that you don’t traditionally use in the gym, and it’s actually a pretty level playing field,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the strongest guy who wins, it’s the person who has the most heart and the most dedication.”

Michelle Dougan has been dedicated to pulling for the past eight months. She’s also been a weight lifter and a personal trainer with Gold’s Gym. Dougan started with arm wrestling after going through some health issues. “What it (arm wrestling) did was pull me out of a rut,” Dougan said. “It gives me a feeling of strength.”

Dougan took first place in the Women’s Amateur Right (136-155 and 176-plus divisions) during the Syracuse qualifier. Dougan, who plans to head to the Las Vegas arm wrestling tables, urges other women to give the sport a chance: “Try it before you say no.”

Her husband, James Reid, agrees on the benefits of arm wrestling for his wife. “It strengthened everything and gave her a purpose to be in the gym. She’s already in good shape, but this gave her more ambition. Obviously I’ve got a vested interest in this because my wife is in it,” Reid said, “but we’d like to see more women.”

Nicole Roof has watched her husband pull for three years and got involved in the past year. “Whatever he can do, I can do,” Roof said. “He helps me and I help him.” Roof placed first in the Women’s Amateur Right (0-135 division) during the Syracuse qualifier.

“We train every Sunday, every weekend, as long as our families aren’t busy, we all get together,” Roof said. “Anybody can do it, whether you’re male or female. I love it and I know other women would love it.”

ARM WRESTLING AT TILTED KILT

Nicole Roof placed first in the Women’s Amateur Right (0-135 division) during the Syracuse qualifier.

‘Pulling’ from History

Wrestling is one of the world’s oldest forms of combat, dating back to 15,000-year-old French cave drawings. Egyptian tomb paintings from 2000 B.C. depict various wrestling positions, including an arm wrestling contest.

During the 1500s, Spanish explorers observed Native Americans using “arms, legs or whole bodies to unbalance or pin their opponent.” In the 19th and 20th centuries, settlers of the American frontier began copying the indigenous style. They called it “Indian wrestling,” which pitted specific body parts against one another including back wrestling, balance wrestling, thumb wrestling, hand wrestling and arm wrestling.

Boy's Life Magazine

“I Scout, so-and-so, challenge anyone in Indian hand wrestling.”

The Boy Scouts of America adopted “Indian” lore and activities from the 1920s through 1950s, which included a similar style of wrestling amid its ranks. Green Bar Bill, author of several versions of the Boy Scout Handbook, wrote an article in a 1936 Boy’s Life magazine describing the game period of a scout meeting: “I Scout, so-and-so, challenge anyone in Indian hand wrestling.”

Political correctness and cultural appropriation aside, arm wrestling seems to have pulled its way through the ages and continues to gain strength in America’s modern subculture.

An Intense Routine

When Steve Hale isn’t working on restoring classic cars and motorcycles with his company, Steve’s Restorations and Hot Rods, the Clinton resident focuses on arm wrestling. Hale, who competed in the WAL’s first Las Vegas tournament in the open/professional class in 2014, explained that arm wrestling “inspired me to stay healthy and have some big goals.”

Steve Hale

Steve Hale explained that arm wrestling “inspired me to stay healthy and have some big goals.”

Hale, 28, sticks to an intense workout routine. “Every Tuesday and most Saturdays we have team practice, which consists of everything from full-speed matches to discussing and practicing various techniques,” he said. “The other five days of the week I split up my training between high-intensity cardio training, which involves flipping and dragging a 400-pound tire, dragging heavy chains through the snow and mountain biking with Fat Gripz (a grip-strength tool that can be added to anything that you use to train your grip) and the other days are heavy weight training in the gym.”

After sustaining an injury in his last tournament, Hale adjusted his stance. “I was in a bad position in a match that caused some strain on my elbow, but thankfully I’m healed up now (after four weeks of recovery) and I definitely learned from that.

“I think the biggest misconception with the sport is the fact that it is a sport,” Hale continued. “People that aren’t involved don’t see it as that. In all reality, professional arm wrestling is one of the most competitive and awesome sports in the world.”

While most matches are short-lived, running from five to 10 seconds, other matches such as Hale’s take longer to play out. During a Tilted Kilt match, Hale was pulling for close to a full minute before finally pinning his opponent.

Michael Grimaldi, a 25-year-old puller from Sauquoit, has been arm wrestling for more than a year. He sustained a broken finger, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to train or compete. Under the watchful eye of coach Myers, Grimaldi has taken first place in local tournaments including “Battle of Arms II and III,” third place in the American Arm-Sport National (187-pound class) and second (left-handed) and first (right-handed) in the Pennsylvania State Championships. He plans to attend the Vegas regionals in May.

Michael Grimaldi. Photo: walunderground.com

Michael Grimaldi.
Photo: walunderground.com

“This sport is like none other,” said Grimaldi. “Almost everyone is willing to help you out and show you the ropes if you’re a first-timer. It’s almost like an unspoken brotherhood. I’ve never experienced any thing like it. Becoming part of Chris Myers’ team has been an amazing experience and the core people have become like a second family. We are always welcoming new people every week.”

Like Hale, Grimaldi focuses on a strict training regiment, “I have been training for powerlifting for a long time and that goes hand in hand with arm wrestling,” he said.

Yet keeping his mind focused may be what helps bring home the wins. “I try and stay as mentally calm as possible,” Grimaldi explained, “until you get up to the table, that is where you let it all out. Some people get all crazy and psych themselves out. I try to stay as calm as possible and then when it’s time to pull, all the crazy comes out at the table.”

Given the impressive turnout at the March qualifier, the muscular sport is clearly here to stay. “Syracuse definitely has a calling,” said WAL tournament director Bagent. “The Northeast is definitely the hotbed for arm wrestling.”

Check out the Arm Wrestling Photo Gallery – CLICK HERE

For more information about CNY Arm Wrestlers: CLICK HERE

For more information about the World Arm Wrestling League: CLICK HERE

Upcoming WAL Events: CLICK HERE

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