Arm Wrestling Comes Out Of The Barroom
A promoter and a champion lend their stories
It’s one of humanity’s oldest sports, yet it was never organized until 2 men from a small town north of San Francisco took it from the backroom of a bar to nationwide television.
Dave Devoto was 24 years old in 1956 when his father-in-law suggested one day that they go to Giraldi’s, a local watering hole in Petaluma, California.
To his surprise, the saloon was packed with town folks cheering on their favorites in an arm wrestling tournament.
“It was only for right-handed people and there was only one weight division for all the applicants regardless of their weight,” recalls 91-year-old Devoto in an interview with Sports History Weekly.
The he-man competition at Giraldi’s was the brain-child of Bill Soberanes, a newspaper columnist who had run the event for several years. Seeing potential in the sport beyond its taproom roots, Soberanes and Devoto partnered in 1962 to launch World’s Wristwrestling Championship, Inc. (WWC).
Separately, Devoto became a successful businessman and later bought Petaluma’s radio station, giving him a captive audience to promote the sport.
“I owned the radio station and Bill was the daily columnist for the newspaper, so we had it covered.”
Giraldi’s is long gone and Saberanes died in 2003, but his legacy is immortalized in Petaluma with a bronze sculpture of him and a resident champion locked in an arm wrestling grapple.
WWC’s big break came in 1969 when Devoto lured ABC Wide World of Sports to film the championships in one of Petaluma’s largest auditoriums. It featured competitors in the light, middle, and heavyweight divisions and also included women.
The event drew large crowds and Devoto ended up inking a deal with the network, which went on to broadcast the strongman finals for the next 16 years.
“At one point, it became the highest rated show in the history of ABC Wide World of Sports.”
Devoto made the media rounds, taking his pullers, as arm wrestlers are known in industry parlance, for exhibition appearances on David Letterman and The Johnny Carson Show.
He laid the groundwork for tournaments around the country and in its heyday in the 1970s, WWC had 50 organizations under its banner with 400-500 competitors descending on Petaluma for the annual October bragging rights.
The founders were also invited to Sacramento by Ronald Reagan, Governor of California at the time. After Reagan slammed down Saberanes’ arm in a mock photo op, the future President of the U.S. declared Petaluma the “Wrist Wrestling Capital of the World.”
Devoto’s most memorable match in his 60 years of involvement in the sport was between hometown hero, Jim Dolcini, and the favorite, Moe Baker from Connecticut.
“Moe brought Jim down to about an inch of losing when Jim, out of the blue, pulled him all the way back to the pin. The audience was on their feet for about 15 minutes.”
In the 1990s, Devoto became Vice-President at the World Armwrestling Federation (WAF), representing North America and also tasked with exhibiting the sport internationally.
He traveled the globe with his entourage of American and Canadian athletes, including making multiple trips to Russia where the U.S. reigned supreme over its rivals.
“We were ahead of the world at that time. Later on, they turned dominant.”
On the surface, arm wrestling comes across as a simple contest between 2 opponents with elbows on a table and wrists held in a firm grip, both trying to force each other’s hand using brute strength.
But the sport has grown in sophistication since Devoto’s early days and the image of a hulking, bulging, muscleman isn’t always the profile of a champion.
There are techniques and strategies that come into play. The top roll, shoulder roll, and hook-and-drag are some examples of different moves that are employed.
In the top roll, a competitor tries to roll back an opponent’s wrist. The hook approach summons raw arm power from the bicep, while the shoulder roll centers strength behind the tricep and shoulder muscle to drag down the opponent’s arm.
If Dave Devoto is the godfather of arm wrestling, then John Brzenk is the sport’s living legend. The 58-year-old gifted puller won hundreds of titles, including 4 World Championships in the heavyweight and middleweight divisions.
He started arm wrestling in grade school like any kid in America and was introduced to a regulation table by his father, a practitioner of the burly discipline.
At 13, John broke the inside of his elbow while arm wrestling, but the fracture actually resulted in stronger forearm muscle growth, which he believes gave him an advantage as he matured.
“At 17, I was beating men that I shouldn’t have been beating at such a young age,” he says in phone conversation from his home in Phoenix, Arizona.
In 1984, at the age of 20, he won his first WCC in Petaluma in the lightweight division (rt hand, 151-175lbs). Only 2 years later, he claimed the super heavyweight division (rt hand, 239lbs+) in the Truckers Class at the ‘Over the Top’ World Championships.
‘Over the Top’ was the biggest event in arm wrestling history. It began in Beverly Hills with the first qualifier in August, 1985 and moved through North America, culminating with an 18-hour marathon tournament at the Las Vegas Hilton in July, 1986.
Much of the action that took place at the Hilton was captured in the 1987 Hollywood film drama, ‘Over the Top’, starring Sylvester Stallone. John had a role as an extra in the tournament.
“It was a big budget film and I had a chance to travel and promote the sport. It was very exciting.”
Looking more like a fit tennis player than a hulking arm wrestler when he started winning trophies, John was never a big fan of weightlifting as the primary training method for his craft.
“It’s really difficult to simulate the type of torque that’s put on your body during an arm wrestling match with a weightlifting device. There’s a feel for it and you need to spend a ton of time on the arm table. It’s more complicated than just being strong.”
Watching him at ‘EAST versus WEST’, the sport’s hottest property today with up to 30,000 pay-per-view subscribers, his tactical approach in competition reflects years of experience behind the table.
Standing 6’1” at roughly 225 lbs, his right forearm measured 16.5 inches (biceps 18.25) compared to his left forearm at 13.5 inches.
Despite his pedigree stature as a champion puller, making a living in arm wrestling was never an option due to the absence of committed sponsors. John has been a plane mechanic for Delta Airlines for almost 37 years.
The biggest change in arm wrestling since the early years has been the shift in tournament format, which in turn has affected the athlete’s strategy and fitness preparation.
“It used to be a double elimination bracket that was fast and didn’t require endurance. Now, with 6 matches in a row and only a 90-second break between matches, you need to have the cardio fitness.”
At 58, John is still competing but admits that the aches and pains of creeping age are starting to affect his table top performance. Of the new generation of arm wrestlers, he says:
“The depth of talent today is ten-fold what it was 10-15 years ago.”
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