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O'Leary has also branched out into "stand-up" arm wrestling, in which the opponents face each other, as usual, elbows down on a pad, right hands in a thumb-to-thumb grip and left hands gripping vertical pegs on each side of the table. But instead of being seated, they stand. In both styles, a referee starts a match by gripping the locked hands and centering them. He says, "Ready," then shouts, "Go!" as he removes his hands. Purists correctly assert that the stand-up style of play places a higher priority on technique than does the seated, where raw strength is more important, but each style has its advocates, and so O'Leary has decided to sanction both.
Undoubtedly, one of the reasons for the popularity of the standing style is that it has received a great deal of publicity through the years from the Petaluma contest on ABC's Wide World of Sports. The Petaluma event has always featured stand-up play, and this has influenced other promoters besides O'Leary. It also features the one characteristic of wrist wrestling that continues to separate it from arm wrestling: the opponents' left hands, rather than gripping vertical pegs, grasp each other in the space between the planted right elbows and below the thumblocked right hands. This double-grip style of play, in the opinion of many competitors, vitiates the spirit of the sport by providing too many opportunities for techniques that not only are hard to officiate but often foil superior strength. The other major promoter in this country, Steve Simons, of the World Professional Armwrestling Association, evidently agrees with these competitors, because his organization, which for the last several years has promoted events with the biggest purses, uses a pegged table.
Whether or not the philosophical, personal, political and monetary differences among the three major, and the dozen or so minor, organizations in the sport will ever be sufficiently resolved to permit standardization of the rules seems unlikely. Promoter George Koulizos of Houston is trying at least to bring the groups together for discussions. One thing is certain—some sort of standardization would benefit both the athletes and, in the long run, the sport itself.
"Hey, look at it this way," Al Turner says, warming to the subject. "I pulled in the 220-pound class at Scranton, sitting down, then dropped to the 200-pound class two weeks later for the big stand-up meet in Ontario, since they didn't have a 220-pound class. How can a guy train to be at his best at a certain body weight and style with that facing him? How do you think a good light heavy would feel if he had to fight one month at 166, the next month at 184 and the next at 175? And if half the time he couldn't hit out of a crouch? C'mon."
In the old days, these discrepancies would not have mattered so much to Turner. Back then he took on anyone, any size, any style. But the purses are growing. He won the $750 first prize in Ontario and $500 last month in Kansas City, and he has now been putting in some hours in his homemade gym for a change because—dare it be said?—he may not have more than 10 or 12 years at the top.
In 1974, having lost in the finals of the nationals to Stanaway for the second year in a row, Turner thought he would hang it up. Reasoning that he had had a lot of great matches, a lot of laughs and a fairytale year in 1972, and that he was, after all, 46 years old, he figured it was time to yield to the young bulls. What he failed to figure on was a weight lifter and arm wrestler from Nashua, N.H., by the name of Ralph Raymond, a New England Frenchman who invited him up right after the "retirement" and told him, "Al, you got too much in the heart and too much in the arm to let it go. You've never even trained, for God's sake! Nature, she can only do so much. You come to my gym a couple times a month and we train. Next year we get that Stanaway."
And next year they did. Since 1974, when Turner began to train with Raymond and regained his national championship, no one within 75 pounds of his body weight has put him down, if you except a controversial decision last year in the finals of the World Professional Armwrestling Championships in Houston, when Bob Howell, a powerful young player from Reno, got the jump on Turner by making his move before the referee had called "go." The ref didn't call it, and Turner was so far down before he began to pull that, strong as he was, he couldn't make it back.
Just how strong is this 5'11�", 205-pound, 50-year-old man? Well, he can hold himself steady for 15 seconds in a halfway position in a chin-up, with 75 pounds tied to his waist, using only one hand. With four years of concentrated weight training added to his natural gifts, no one in the sport, not even the super-heavies of 242 pounds and more, can handle the poundages he can in the specialized exercises—one-arm curls, wrist curls, table curls—favored by arm wrestlers. These days, although he often runs five miles a day and handles quite a bit of lumber at the yard, most of his exercise is done in the attic over the second-story walkup apartment where he lives with Barbara, his wife of 29 years. He goes up to the attic, which is lit by a single bulb on a long cord, at least four evenings a week and tackles a two-hour session of arm, wrist and hand work with dumbbells and pulleys and leverage devices that would sore up an orangutan.
But his most important workouts come once every two weeks when either he and Barbara drive up to Nashua or Ralph Raymond and his wife drive down to Brockton. In a corner of the Turners' neat dining room, in a place of honor surrounded by 50 or 60 arm-wrestling trophies, is a framed statement, given to Turner by Raymond. "What a disgrace it is," the plaque reads, "for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable."
And so, every second Saturday, they stand side by side and read that statement (Raymond has one, too) and then they put a case of beer in a cooler and disappear into their gym, reappearing three or four hours later after having pushed, pulled, yanked and twisted on the weights, after having pushed, pulled, yanked and twisted on each other, and after, of course, having drunk every last beer in the cooler. "I love those Saturdays," Turner says, in that wonderful boxer's voice, "We don't drink fast, but we drink steady. It keeps us loose, prevents injuries. We have to be careful. Ralph's 49, you know."