The provocation was a familiar one, albeit made in an unusual context. Kaitlin Bennett, a gunslinging open-carry activist and recent Kent State graduate, took to Twitter to challenge Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student and gun-control activist David Hogg to an arm-wrestling match over the fate of the Second Amendment. The tweet was doubtlessly intended as an insult to Hogg’s slender physique, but it took an even weirder turn when a male fan of Bennett’s offered to arm wrestle her in a “gentle” but “aggressive” way.
For myriad reasons, the source of a man’s strength is said to be in his arms. Soldiers have historically been referred to as “men-at-arms”; a good handshake is allegedly able to make or break an in-person job interview; lovers melt beneath the firm caresses of a man’s powerful hands; advisors to leaders serve as their “right hands”; and the ability to slam another man’s hand down on the table is considered the ne plus ultra of stripping a rival of their masculinity.
In that context, then, Bennett challenging Hogg to go mano a mano (or, “hand-to-hand”) is simply another chapter in that long tradition, as is the strange pickup line she received in response.
Yet in spite of its ubiquity as a test of manhood, arm wrestling as both sport and spectacle lags far behind. A terribly cheesy Stallone movie, Over the Top, sought to take arm wrestling nationwide back in the mid-1980s, but underperformed its $25 million budget. A brilliant 2009 documentary, Vassiliki Khonsari and Sevan Matossian’s Pulling John, focused on three charismatic notables in the sport — all-time great John Brzenk, rising star Travis Bagent, and Russian Olympic bobsled-medalist-cum-arm puller Alexey Voevoda — and showed that some degree of drama could be coaxed out of events that are short in duration and hard to film. But it appeared a few years ahead of the Netflix binge-watching boom and didn’t have the kind of long, successful afterlife that Brett Whitcomb’s 2012 GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling did.
Finally, there was AMC’s reality series Game of Arms: A Different Kind of Fight Club, which featured Bagent and some other arm guys going at it in clubs around the U.S., but it, too, failed to gather much steam and was cancelled halfway through its second season.
“You’ll never be able to sell arm wrestling on a global level,” retired MMA star and arm wrestling champion Gary “Big Daddy” Goodridge tells me. “You cannot get the cameras up there the right way. You cannot create extreme drama for the people watching on a sustained basis. It’s a great sport, but even if it gets bigger, it’ll be a niche thing.”
Goodridge, who has knocked out MMA legends such as Don Frye and Oleg Taktarov, was also a giant killer on the arm-wrestling circuit, defeating the likes of Luke Skywalker-looking Brzenk and 500-pound hog farmer Cleve Dean. “I first experienced arm wrestling via my dad, who was over 300 pounds and had fingers the size of my wrist. He could beat me with one finger for a long time,” he says. “But back then I didn’t really understand what I was doing, and by the time I finally got smartened up to the technique, my dad didn’t want any part of me.”
Goodridge’s formal introduction to arm wrestling began when he met old pro Phil Stoppart at a gym in Barrie, Ontario. The teenage “Big Daddy” was already a powerlifting machine, shattering local records in various lifts and specializing in the military press, which he considered the “king of lifts [because] when you lift the barbell to shoulder height in one motion, pause and then lift it overhead via strict form in the next — well, that’s a man-making exercise that can’t be faked.” As such, he thought Stoppart would be an easy mark, someone whose arm he could muscle to the ground with ease, only to have Stoppart “kick my ass with superior technique that could overcome almost any strength advantage.”
As I discovered myself during a stint in grip sports, Goodridge learned crusty old veterans like Stoppart might not be immediately forthcoming with advice, but would devote time to imparting their craft techniques to promising protégés. “Phil taught me the keys to the game: Abdomen tight to the table, arm extremely close to the body, high grip with your fingers over the nail of your thumb, raise your wrist, and most importantly, use your brute strength to pull the opponent’s hand toward you before you start ‘going over’ because that gives you a huge leverage advantage.”
Two years later, at age 18, Goodridge won the Canadian Arm Wrestling Championship. “It was this technique that I practiced constantly that changed the game for me in terms of arm wrestling,” Goodridge says. “I had both muscle stamina and explosiveness already, but once I got the technique down, if I adjusted right to each competitor, I would slam their hands down with ease.”
At 19, Goodridge thought he had hit the real big time. He won the 1986 Canadian Over-the-Top Arm Wrestling championship, which entitled him to $10,000 and a trip to Las Vegas to film Over the Top and the international arm-wrestling tournament that accompanied it. “It was an interesting idea, shooting an actual arm-wrestling tournament as the real arm-wrestling tournament in the movie,” Goodridge explains. “When I got to the Las Vegas Hilton where it was being held, I was a big, muscular dude and close to 230 pounds, but I was surrounded by mammoths. Rick Zumwalt, the guy Stallone wrestles in the movie’s final match, was well over 300 pounds. Cleve Dean was pushing 500 pounds. The entire hotel smelled like Icy Hot or some other topical analgesic rub. I got manhandled by a guy named Rick Vardell, who had hands like hairy tarantula spiders that totally covered mine. I knew how much further I had to go. Meanwhile, John Brzenk, who was truly the class of that competition, won the whole event and a truck, which was the grand prize.”
Goodridge admits that he was puzzled about whether the public would flock to a movie with arm wrestling as its subject. “Honestly, even though I was a cocky teenage kid, I wondered about the future of arm wrestling, because when I went to these meets, it was just like at powerlifting meets: The crowd was made up of people who were dating or married to the arm wrestlers and people who wanted to be arm wrestlers. Not a spectator sport at all, you know?” And so, while arm wrestling — like strongman and bodybuilding to much greater extents — appeared sporadically in the background as ESPN filler, it failed to move the cultural needle the same way football, baseball and basketball did.
Undeterred, though, by the early 1990s Goodridge was winning world championships and more than holding his own against the likes of Dean and Brzenk. “The talent pool for arm pullers had expanded,” he says, “but it was suffering from the same thing powerlifting and mixed martials arts would for the longest time: It was still niche, so you didn’t know if the best guys in the world were the absolute best. What I did know, however, was that by this point, I was stronger and more explosive than almost everyone I encountered, and that it took superior technique to beat me at all.”
He kept at it — despite the marginal payoffs and limited TV exposure — for much the same reason Bennett tweeted her challenge at Hogg: the notion of manliness and toughness. “Oh yes, the masculinity bit,” Goodridge says with a chuckle. “I mean, there’s always a story behind a guy who becomes a fighter or a competitor at anything, because deep down that person wants to win. When I started arm-wrestling, I could always reach deep down and get more strength to pull off a win if I needed to. A lot of people used to tell me they’d never seen anything like it in their lives. Sometimes we’d be training for arm-wrestling, and I’d get frustrated that I was getting beat. All of a sudden, I’d decide that was the last time I was getting beat that day, and I wouldn’t go down after that.
“That’s the kind of inner power and mind control I had back then. That’s why I dominated arm-wrestling for 11 years, even though my hand was so small. Guys like Cleve Dean had hands twice the size of mine and were stronger, but I would still beat them. There were times when nobody could beat my heart or my mind control.”
“What was it that gave me an urge to defeat anyone who fought me?” Goodridge continues. “Well, to be blunt, there was my father — this huge, macho, 300-pound man, strong as heck. We were like Pete and Repeat. He was my friend, and I loved him so much and told him everything. But now that I look back on it, when I was telling him everything, I was even telling him about masturbation and having threesomes with girls I knew. All the gory details. I guess my sisters got it even worse. After that kind of weird abuse, when it comes to a fight or an arm-wrestling match, who cares, right? You can deal with anything anybody dishes out. It’s nothing. How can they hurt you more than you’ve already been hurt?
“Plus, you can give it back and then some. You have so much power over them. You’re unbeatable. Of course, I liked money, and I eventually migrated to fighting because there came to be more money in it than arm wrestling, even if it was a harder way on the body to make a buck. In any case, I had this competition in me, this desire to win at all costs. I believed that in certain areas of performance, people were nothing compared to me and the strength I had. Certainly not in arm wrestling, because at 29, I was a world champion nine times over.”
This unquenchable thirst to be the “best man” is the central theme of Pulling John. In it, each of the three subjects is attempting to become the “best man” for one reason or another. Voevoda is doing it for national pride (his love for his motherland so great that he and many other patriotic Russians doped during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, which led to him being stripped of the two gold medals in bobsled he won there). Bagent, a truculent redneck, is doing it to prove he’s a badass. “It’s a near-collision sport, and the closest thing to a fistfight you can get to,” he says. And Brzenk, a stoic middle-aged Midwesterner, is doing it because he was the best and because he can still beat almost everyone else.
Everything about the documentary is beautiful and affecting, lending these three journeys far more dramatic weight than they would otherwise warrant. And yet, the film did little to advance the cause of arm wrestling. So while Game of Arms, the AMC reality series, gave us an even larger and stronger Bagent, the world Bagent inhabits remains the same as the one Goodridge described from years ago: The audiences at these climactic club showdowns continue to consist mostly of meatheads who are either dating people involved in the sport or who are eager to “pull arms” themselves.
“Every few years, somebody comes to me and says, ‘Is arm wrestling going to get really big?’” Goodridge says. “They were asking that about Over the Top, too. But I wasn’t counting on it there, and I’m not counting on it now. But arm wrestling as this idea of being a test of strength — like, ‘I’m gonna arm wrestle you to show you that I’m a tougher person’ — that will always be something folks talk about. People think that kind of boast means something, because dominating another man in an individual competition means something. In the mid-1990s, when I was at the peak of my arm-wrestling ability, there weren’t many people who stood a chance of beating me. So yes, even I used to think winning meant something, too.”