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Arms and the man
Once the province of smoky saloons, arm wrestling has cleaned up its act and gone legit, drafting rules and employing referees. But can it ever be a real sport?

BY CHRIS WRIGHT


THE MILL HILL Club is not the kind of place you’d generally choose to while away a sunny Saturday afternoon. A grotto-like nightclub in West Yarmouth, the Mill Hill has a nicotine glaze to it, the tang of last night’s Bud in the air. It is also not the kind of place you’d expect to witness someone having a religious experience. Yet this is exactly what the guy up on the club’s stage seems to be having. The guy’s name is Allen Stilkey, and he’s shifting from foot to foot, his arms rigid, his fists knotted by his sides. “Go on, Allen!” yell various members of the crowd. “Go on!” Stilkey tilts his cropped head up toward the disco lights, his nostrils huffing, his fright-wide eyes fixed on some invisible point, his mouth pulled down in a cartoon scowl.

Hopping about up there in the gloom, Stilkey looks like some sort of well-groomed mystic, but he’s actually an athlete, moments away from his opening bout in the 17th annual Cape Cod Invitational arm-wrestling championship. His ritualistic dance, it turns out, is Stilkey’s way of winding himself up in preparation for the burst of effort that he’s about to unleash. “Gotta be fast, gotta be strong, gotta be smart,” says one of the day’s contestants, in a reverent tone. Stilkey, meanwhile, looks about to pass out.

Its modest venue notwithstanding, the Cape Cod Invitational is a fairly prestigious event. The competition is run by the Massachusetts-based International Armwrestling Federation (IAF), one of the larger arm-wrestling organizations in America. The Mill Hill’s pool table is cluttered with spangly trophies. And, although the glorious spring weather has left the spectators’ area a little sparse, some of the finest arm wrestlers in New England are here. These guys have all competed against each other in the past, and they will compete against each other in the future. Age-old patterns of defeat and victory will be modified today, and tensions are running high. “Allen!” holler the Stilkey retinue. “Allen!”

Allen Stilkey is full of surprises. Chief among them is his look: young, clean-cut, and trim. Then again, the majority of the contestants here today seem more suited to a gymnastics meet than a barroom strong-arm competition. There’s a crew of shaven-headed twentysomethings from Connecticut who have the kind of good looks and chiseled physiques that would give Brad Pitt a run for his money. Where are the beer-bloated yobs, the purple-faced bully boys? Where are the mustaches, the mullets, the wife-beater tees? Where are all the arm wrestlers?

These sorts of stereotypes drive arm wrestlers nuts. Yet, in all fairness, the stereotypes are not entirely without foundation. “When I got into this sport in the ’70s,” says the balding, bespectacled Bill Cox, 60, founder of the IAF, “it was all dim-lit bars. Back then, if you beat a guy, half of them would lean across the table and punch you. There was always a fight, or two or three or four. Guys would take a poke at my wife as fast as they would me.” Now, he says, “we’ve cleaned all that up.”

SINCE HE formed the IAF in 1989, Bill Cox — along with others like him — has worked tirelessly to bolster the image of the sport he loves. “IAF members shall conduct themselves with dignity and pride,” declares the IAF’s constitution. “Sportsmanship and fair play shall be displayed at all times.”

To some extent, the IAF has succeeded in taking the barroom out of arm wrestling, but there are those who would like to see arm wrestling taken out of the barroom. “We’ve been thinking that maybe we could have some meets outside,” says Harry Bean, 46, a round-bellied, gray-bearded veteran of the arm-wrestling circuit. “Haymarket Square might be a good space. Or we could have some meets on a beach, maybe Hampton Beach, places where people wouldn’t have to go into a bar, where people going by would see what arm wrestling is.”

What arm wrestling is, say devotees, is a legitimate global game. Federations like the IAF have fought hard to establish standardized regulations that can be imposed from Moscow to Miami to Rio de Janeiro. There have even been concerted efforts to make arm wrestling into an Olympic event, a vision that has so far failed to materialize. “They have ballroom dancing but not arm wrestling,” groans a 33-year-old arm wrestler named Tim Sears. “And that kills me.”

As the IAF’s head referee, Sears enjoys a somewhat elevated status in the arm-wrestling world. “I’m there to make sure they stick by the rules,” he says, and this is no small thing. It’s the rules, after all, that distinguish the professional sport from its bang-for-a-buck counterpart, and IAF literature explicates its tenets with considerable gravity: “Elbows must remain on the elbow pad at all times once the match starts, non-competing hand must maintain contact with the hand grip, shoulders must be square with the table. The competitors will have one minute to establish a grip that both are satisfied with, if this cannot be accomplished the referee will set the hands and start the match.”

This last rule covers the trickiest part of an arm-wrestling bout: the moment when contestants literally come to grips. At the Mill Hill, Stilkey and his opponent are having a terrible time of it. They’re standing at the table, doing what looks like some kind of secret handshake. Thumbs and fingers flutter, fists lock and unlock. The two officials bend and scrutinize and bark commands: “Arm in the middle! Back! Elbow on the pad! Hold it!” When it becomes clear that the two men will be unable to reach an accord, the ref straps their hands together. The match is set to begin. And then it’s over. Stilkey raises his arms in victory. “Allen!”

In the 1986 arm-wrestling movie Over the Top, Sylvester Stallone engages in a series of eye-bulging, nut-busting, when-will-it-ever-end battles. In the real world, 30 seconds at the table feels like a lifetime. A minute is dangerous. Usually, an arm-wrestling bout is over before you can say “Grrraaaghhh!” And this — perhaps more than its grungy barroom image — is the sport’s biggest stumbling block in its quest for acceptance. As one arm wrestler puts it, “It’s really not a spectator sport.” In other words, arm wrestling can be boring.

But it isn’t always. As the day’s events at the Mill Hill make clear, arm-wrestling meets are as much about the preliminaries as they are about the actual bouts. There is something strangely captivating about watching these guys prepare themselves for what amounts to a split second of intense exertion. They puff themselves up, coil themselves, get themselves good and pissed off. And then they engage in that oddly intimate grasp. Holding hands over a table — a parody of machismo.

Aware, perhaps, of the show-biz possibilities of the pre-match wind-up, many arm wrestlers make a meal of it. Without a doubt, the most theatrical performance at the Mill Hill comes from Allen Stilkey. But there are others in the arm-wrestling circuit who make Stilkey look like Michael Dukakis. There’s a guy who eats a cigar before every match, another who takes the stage with a bone in his mouth. There are guys who slap themselves around the face. Guys who howl. Guys who all but weep.

And then there are the guys like Jim Witt, who approach the table in brooding, ominous silence. Compared to most of the contestants here today, Witt is a wisp of a man. But he is also the most menacing. He shows no emotion, no hint of nerves or anticipation. He simply shuffles up to the table, dispatches his opponent, and shuffles away again. One guy standing next to me calls him “the silent killer.”

Jim Witt is actually something of an anomaly. Serious arm wrestlers train constantly. They eat right and think positive. They read arm-wrestling magazines. Witt, though, is what Bill Cox describes as a “natural talent.” He’s not particularly fit or, judging by the number of meets that he misses, particularly dedicated. But he has something. No one seems to know what that thing is. The only sure thing is that Witt will return home to Taunton with at least one trophy.

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Issue Date: June 7 - 14, 2001