back to the Black Table

The ghosts of arm wrestlers past were roused on March 19 on the U.S.S. Intrepid. The ship, which saw 31 years of active duty, played host to the Big Apple Grapple XXVIII / International All-Pro Arm Wrestling Championships.

The Intrepid, now a museum, provides a more family-friendly setting for arm wrestling. A cleaner image is just what the New York Arm Wrestling Association is seeking. An NYAWA press release says that

  the idea of arm wrestling "as more of a bar room grudge match between macho muscle men than a legitimate sport" is over: "Today's arm wrestling devotees -- male and female, amateur and professional, blue- and white-collar, spectator and competitor -- are serious about this emerging age old sport. They are health and fitness conscious, and bring dedication, discipline, and enthusiasm to their chosen endeavor."

This change has been brought about, in part, through a partnership between NYAWA and

  the City of New York Parks and Recreation, which sponsors the "Golden Arms" tournament series. Numerous Manhattan hot spots hosted tournaments, including Madison Square Garden, the top of the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

The Golden Arm series invites amateurs and arm wrestling virgins to compete as a way of encouraging newcomers to the sport (any Joe Schmo who has been pumping iron can sign up and test his beefcake status). In contrast, the Big Apple Grapple is billed as an "All Pro" tournament of champions. And while there seems to be no hard and fast definition of what, exactly, a professional arm wrestler is, the majority of the wrestlers who gathered at the Intrepid had met at the Big Apple Grapple before.

At the back of the ship, a stage was erected between a motion-simulation ride called the 4D-X and a souvenir stand selling personalized military dog tags. On the stage was a regulation arm wrestling table, which looked a bit like a card table with handlebars on two of its sides. Two flags hung from the ceiling: one was American, the other depicted a bulldog wrestling an alligator on a black background. About fifty white folding chairs, the kind frequently found at outdoor weddings, were available for spectators.

The crowd consisted mostly of male arm wrestlers, their girlfriends and freelance writers and photographers. A peculiar aroma hung in the air, a cross between ointment (many of the wrestlers were furiously massaging their elbows with electric blue Ice Gel Therapy) and french fries (from the McDonald's in the Intrepid's cafeteria). To keep their muscles limber, a number of the wrestlers were wearing arm warmers.

A few minutes before the official 12:30 start time, Gene Camp, NYAWA's founder and president, took the stage outfitted in a black cowboy hat and mirrored sunglasses. After signaling to cut the psyche music (Shaggy's "Hotshot"), he went over the general rules. Among them, one foot must be on the floor at all times (the other can be used to brace oneself against the table or to flail about wildy in an expression of extreme physical exertion), a fist's distance must remain between the body of the wrestler and his wrestling arm, and no jewelry is permitted on the wrestling hand.

The tournament was broken down into weight classes for men and women, as well as for righties and lefties. (If a wrestler wins both the right- and left-handed categories for his/her weight class, he/she receives the Arm Star Award.) There were about 70 wrestlers entered in the tournament, but not all the classes were represented, so some classes were consolidated or eliminated entirely.

On the men's right-handed side, there was a light weight class (150 lbs or fewer), a middle weight class (175 lbs or fewer), a light-heavy weight class (200 lbs or fewer), a heavy weight class (225 lbs or fewer), a super heavy open weight class (over 225), a master light


weight class (over 45 years old), a master open weight class, and a seniors open weight class (over 60 years old). For the lefties and the women there were only two classes: light weight and open weight. In the championship round at the end of the tournament, the winners from each class go up against one another regardless of size to compete for the ultimate title of King or Queen of Arms.

When Gene informed the crowd that this year the Big Apple Grapple was being filmed by five


local television stations and broadcast online via web-cam, a voice from the back yelled out "I want my Arm TV!"

The competition began. First up in the light weight category were Chris Bird, a small, balding man from Maryland with a pointy goatee, and Eric Torres, a man in leg braces from Riverhead, New York. Almost as quickly as it started the match was over, with Bird the winner.

Next was the middle weight class. Pat Meyers was paired against Pat Baffa, the 2003 right-handed middle weight Empire State Champion. Both men were plumbers from Queens. While Meyers was clearly the bigger wrestler, Baffa, known for his technique, held his own.

The light-heavy weights, heavy weights, and super heavy weights followed in rapid succession. Each match took only about 30 seconds. Gene called two wrestlers to the stage, where, like Olympic gymnasts, they chalked their palms vigorously before approaching their opponent. Each wrestler placed an elbow on the table, extended their forearm in the air, and wiggled their fingers in a last-ditch effort to loosen up. Then they gripped hands, muscled tensed, and waited for the referee's signal to begin.

There were two referees standing inches from the table, monitoring the wrestlers' every move. It was important to watch closely, Gene explained, in case one of the contestants got into an "injury-prone position." One of the refs, it seemed, may have recently been in such a position himself -- his arm was in a sling.

Truth be told, it would have been hard to tell when, exactly, the wrestlers officially started to wrestle, if it weren't for their pained facial expressions. Their arms hardly seemed to move at all. They stood there, locked together, staring into space over the other's


shoulder and gritting their teeth. Once an inch or two was given on either side it was all over -- the wrestler with the advantage would slam his opponent's had to the table.

If a match went on for a particularly long time (say, over two or three minutes), or if there were numerous "slip outs" (when one opponent loses his grip), the wrestlers might "go into the straps." "The straps" were long strips of black rubber that the refs used to tie the wrestlers' hands together, locking them into


position. This prevented further slip outs and also lessened the risk of injury. Dan Sorrese, the 2003 right-handed heavy weight Empire State champion from Deer Park, Long Island, explained that a wrestler's muscles are so tense during a match, and they are concentrating so hard, that a slip out can be shocking and very painful: "It's like your arm is a rubber band, snapping. It hurts like hell."

As each pair competed, Gene provided commentary from the sidelines, offering highlights from the wrestler's career ("Bobby Buttafuoco was the reining King of Arms for twelve straight years in the 80s and early 90s"), explaining why fouls were called (usually "elbow bobbing" -- when a wrestler's elbow leaves the table), or simply chanting the refrain "whaddamatch... whaddamatch..."

Of the few female contestants, there were two favorites. Among the light weights, it was thought that Susan Fischer, the 2004 title holder from Fairless Hills, Penn., would win her category again. Petite, with blown-out blond hair, she looked more like a soccer mom than a ripped wrestling champion. In the heavy weight category, six-time Queen of Arms Cynthia Yerby, a stocky, bowling ball of a woman from Oklahoma was expected to renew her title.

One of the reasons Annette Colantropo, Gene Camp's sister and a champion arm wrestler herself (she won the Grapple several times in the 80s before she was sidelined by a wrist injury), initially got involved in the sport was too empower other aspiring women wrestlers. "I could see women in the audience wanting to get up there" she said. Although there are a few more female competitors today (Annette's daughter, Lauren, who defeated Susan Fischer and took this year's light weight title is among them), arm wrestling is still an overwhelmingly male-dominated sport.

As the competition progressed and more and more wrestlers were eliminated, the matches lengthened and grew more intense. Richard Calero, who took the Arm Star Award in the middle weight class at the 2004 Empire State Tournament of Champions, faced off against veteran wrestler Ron Klemba, and the crowd leaned forward with baited breath. From the sidelines came shouts of the "Go Ritchie!" and "You can do it, Ron!" varieties. Museum goers who had come to the Intrepid for the history wandered over to see what all the fuss was about. Many of them sat down and stayed for a while.

During the brief intermission before the final matches, Ken McKinney, a novice Big Apple Grappler, reflected on his experience. He had traveled here all the way from Lake George, and this was his first time wrestling as a "pro". Normally, he said, he wrestled with his friends for fun. Before this competition, he had never wrestled standing up, something that he said made a big difference. It was like a whole new ball game. He did well, making it to the semi-finals, especially for someone who had not trained at all. He resolved to work on his technique in preparation for next year.

In the end, heavy weight Mamuka Pajishvilli, who won in 2003, was crowned the King of Arms. A huge, hulking man from the Republic of Georgia, he bore a striking resemblance to Vin Diesel. As predicted, last year's champion and heavy weight winner Cynthia Yerby again took the women's title, after effortlessly defeating light weight forerunner Lauren Colantropo.

The winners flexed for the cameras and the trophies were distributed. The audience applauded thunderously, and as their hands slapped together billows of chalk dust filled the air. Surprisingly, there was no monetary reward. The wrestlers at the Big Apple Grapple competed for the title alone, muscling their way to the top, vying for the glory that comes from being crowned King or Queen of Arms.


Lucy Baker edits cookbooks and writes in New York City. She'll take you anytime.