They began with
Turner's first money match after the five-year dry spell. Brother Bob had been
out looking at cars one day and had seen a heavy-set man at a car lot
arm-wrestling a man who was using two hands. It turned out that the big man had
never been beaten, and was practicing for the national championships coming up
in Scranton. One thing led, as it will, to another, and that weekend Turner
broke his five-year drought. His match against the unbeaten arm wrestler was
built up, with backing from friends and relatives, to $1,200 a side. Turner
took it. So convincingly did he win that the big man turned to him after the
match and said, "Hey, you should be the one going to Scranton."
The site of the
$1,200 match was the Russell Club, a neighborhood tavern in Brockton, now torn
down, where Turner and his wife used to drink with their friends. The week
after the match, the gang at the club got together and urged him to take the
big guy's advice. Turner hesitated, knowing nothing of contest arm wrestling,
but at last, after his friends sweetened their urgings with a promise of free
drinks for a year if he could finish third or better, Turner decided to give
the nationals a shot.
Thus it was that,
at the age of 44, never having entered, or even seen, an arm-wrestling
tournament, Al Turner went to Scranton and marched through one astonished
opponent after another, stopping only when the national championship and a year
of free drinks were safely on ice. It was an incredible feat. The more so when
one bears in mind that Turner's only preparation was his occasionally heavy
work at the lumberyard. He had never trained with weights, and except for the
$1,200 match, he had not even pulled arms for five years. No practice, no
friendly matches in the evenings at the Russell Club. "After bouncing a few
people at the foundry over what were supposed to have been friendly bouts,"
he says, "I decided I'd better skip the friendly matches and just play for
money. I had enough rough stuff in the old days."
days" to which Turner refers were the years 1950 through 1952 when, after
coming out of the Marines with 77 straight wins as an amateur welterweight and
middleweight boxer, he picked up a little extra money by sparring with another
Brockton boy—by the name of Rocco Marchegiano, a.k.a. Rocky Marciano. Turner
had been discharged in 1950, just after Marciano had beaten Roland LaStarza in
a heavyweight match, and for the next two years they were frequent sparring
partners. "I went to 175 pounds right after the service," Turner says,
"but it wasn't enough against that animal. He only knew one thing, and that
was both barrels blazing. That's what he gave you, whether you were fighting or
sparring. I had about as much chance with him in the ring as he had with me on
the arm-wrestling table. He liked to play, though, and he tried me a few times,
without much luck. But, oh, my God, how he could hit!" Turner pauses,
remembering, and laughs. "I'll tell you one thing, he came out of our
arm-wrestling matches looking a heck of a lot better than I looked coming out
of those bouts with him."
In those days, and
for years afterward, when Turner had a match with Marciano or anyone else it
was usually contested sitting down, elbows on a table, with right hands clasped
in a thumb-around-thumb "soul shake" grip. The inverted handshake grip,
in which the thumbs don't touch, was almost never used, even then, by serious
arm wrestlers, though for some reason it is the grip most frequently seen in
the movies—those movies where the bad guy's hand is slowly forced down on such
things as candle flames, daggers and scorpions. The reason for the unpopularity
of the inverted handshake grip among arm wrestlers, as opposed to movie
directors, is that it makes a quick victory much more difficult, because there
are a variety of tricks a weaker person can use to thwart a stronger
opponent—laying the wrist back, for example, and loosening the grip, thereby
giving the stronger player nothing to push or pull against. Because of the
delaying tactics possible with the handshake grip, and because the thumb-lock
grip tends to equalize variations in hand size, the handshake style, with its
marathon matches, has fallen completely out of favor. And good riddance. Had
the old man in Hemingway's story about fishing and fortitude insisted on the
thumblock in his first tie-up with "the great negro from Cienfuegos,"
the match would have ended some 24 hours sooner than it did, though the victory
might then have sustained the old man less well years later, when he was alone
with the great fish and in need.
Regardless of the
grip, one thing the Hemingway story does imply is that arm wrestling—or wrist
wrestling, or hand wrestling, or Indian wrestling, or the hand game, or pulling
arms, or twisting wrists, or whatever it's called in the many places around the
world where it is done—is no fledgling. How old it is only God would know, but
it seems safe to surmise that men have been arm wrestling for at least as long
as they've had tables to play on and something to drink.
Its great age
notwithstanding, until the last few years arm wrestling has remained pretty
much confined to the taverns, lumber camps and docks of America, even though
very few men in this country have reached their majority without arm wrestling.
Who would wager that more men in the U.S. have played a set of tennis or nine
holes of golf than have had a crack at the hand game?
however, is not to be confused with continuing interest, and only recently has
the sport begun to wipe the foam off its upper lip and step out into the heady
glare of the television lights. In the early part of the century, men such as
Hermann Goerner, George F. Jowett and Arthur Dandurand gave arm-wrestling
exhibitions in which they would either face a specified opponent or take on
anyone in the house, but the sport never caught on. During the 1940s and '50s,
however, a bartender, the legendary Ian (Mac) Batchelor, began to focus a bit
more attention on the sport. Until he retired in the 1960s at the age of about
60, Batchelor took on all comers, night after night, year after year, at his
bar in Los Angeles, playing right hand or left, seated or standing, handshake
or thumblock, sick or well, tired or fresh, drunk or sober—and straightened the
arm of every man he met.
During the past
decade, there has not only been disagreement about the rules of arm wrestling,
but also about the name of the game. Though "arm wrestling" has
historically been more widely used, Bill Soberanes, a Petaluma, Calif.
promoter, has employed his considerable talents to make a local event that he,
or somebody, called "wrist wrestling" into such a media success that
for a time it looked as if the term "arm wrestling" would sink slowly
out of sight. Then, in the mid and late '60s, other promoters began organizing
tournaments, most of which they called "arm-wrestling" championships.
But the struggle continues.
consistent and, according to many players, selfless, promoter of whatever the
game is called, is Scranton's Bob O'Leary, who has run either a national or a
"world" championship since 1971. Although O'Leary has never sought
competitors from outside the U.S. or given prize money, this past year he has
begun to send feelers to other countries, and to make plans for big purses. He
hopes to hold the sport's first truly international event in Alberta, Canada in
November of 1979, because his efforts have led players in 14 countries,
including India, Canada and Japan, to take out memberships in his World Arm