The he-man, however, faces a problem precisely because he is one of a kind. What, after all, is the measure of a man among men who have developed their own measures? Would Baker be expected to hoist hogs, or would anyone try to jam Dean into a 55-gallon drum and demand that he jump out of it? No, clearly they had to develop a basis of comparison, a means of communication beyond the babel of their own stunts, and so it was that Baker, Davis, Jubinville and Batchlor, along with a host of others, one as manly as the next, became pioneers in the sport that Dave Patton has mastered: arm wrestling.
Arm wrestling! The lingua franca of he-men! What boy has not measured his impending manhood by pitting his arm against the arms of his fellows? What barroom, what truck stop, what union hall, what locker room cannot sing of the sweat and tears that flow from an epic "pull," as the arm wrestlers sometimes term their matches? Arm wrestling calls to the man who is strong from lifting weights and the man who is strong from digging ditches; it calls to the man whose arm is as thick as a python and the man whose arm is as thin as a cable; to pretty boys and to boys whose prettiest features will always be their tattoos; to big men, to little men and to women of almost feral intensity; to the drunk and the sober, to the screamers and the shy...and, on this morning, on a Manhattan street corner occupied by one of the greatest arm wrestlers in recorded history, it calls to a cross-section of the residents of New York City, which means every kind of person in the world.
But who in the world would arm wrestle Dave Patton? He hasn't lost in something like 12 years. He may weigh only 160, yet his shoulders and neck are so developed that he sometimes looks hunchbacked. He has been known to knock an opponent off his feet with the force of his pull. He works out incessantly, with true he-man specificity, doing 756 biceps curls per session, jacking himself into a state of Pure Pain, concentrating not on his arms—anybody can have big arms!—but on his tendons. The tendons, the hand: these are the weakest parts of the body, and these are what Patton attacks when he arm wrestles, stealing his opponent's strength, short-circuiting the shoulder, bypassing the biceps, reducing the biggest man to his smallest muscles and then humiliating him.
Patton loves that, taking down the big men. He used to go by the nickname Giant Killer, until the spectacle of his beating men twice his size stopped being a surprise, and aficionados simply recognized him as Dave Patton, the master—the master of technique, the master of mind games, "the master of all things," in the words of one opponent. And yet...as the New Yorkers pass him by in their grand, grotesque parade, what they see is not an athlete, a champion, a master; what they see is a fellow manning a sort of lemonade stand of machismo, a fellow who could not weigh much more than...well, 160 pounds...and so they line up to take their free shot at him and collect their thousand bucks.
There are big guys with gaps between their teeth and big guys in leather jackets and big guys who look like tax attorneys and big guys prodded by their girlfriends—"C'mon, he's a little guy! You can beat im!" There is a carload of fledgling arm wrestlers from Queens, and a gnomish 4½-foot-tall woman named Rosa with a scarf wrapped around her head, and a little man with a cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth who mills around, asking, "Vat iz ziss arm rayzling?" More than anything else, though, there are derelicts, with bloodshot eyes and sharp, pickled breath, with spittle on their faces, and they line up, too, to take a shot at Patton, the vestigial he-man in each of them stirred not only by the promise of a payoff but by arm wrestling's democratic essence: the possibility that someone, anyone, in this great city might just be strong enough, manly enough, to step up and, from out of nowhere, blow the champion away.
Yes, they step up, and they go down. The big guys, the derelicts, the arm wrestlers from Queens, even Rosa—one after another, Patton deposits their fists onto the table, sometimes gently, sometimes with a summary and dismissive vengeance. You can see them trudging from the table in defeat, feeling their biceps, flexing their hands and their disbelieving fingers. Pretty soon the big guys start leaving ("He cheats! I want my grand!"), and the acolyte arm wrestlers start gripping Patton's hand, just to feel the power, and the derelicts start commandeering the show, promoting it to passersby ("Pin the champ! Pin the champ and win a thou!") and a certain peckish and bewildered look creeps across Patton's face, a look akin to what one might see on Carl Lewis's were he consigned to running races with pedestrians in street shoes.
See, Patton is not standing on the corner of 33rd and Broadway to promote himself, at least not entirely. He is standing there to promote the sport of arm wrestling. He has been pulling since high school in Chantilly, Va., when he used to battle the big guys—the football players, the football coaches—for lunch money. It was around then, too, that he got into a scuffle with a Washington Redskin offensive lineman after challenging him to a pull in a pizza joint. Patton won his first national championship in 1979, when he was 19, and from the start he has conducted himself, by god, like an athlete, like a serious student of a serious sport, never playing the fool, never screaming, gesticulating, or bugging his eyes like a professional wrestler, always keeping quiet, watching, learning, working out and winning, always winning. And now...what does he want? Money? Sure, he would like to make some money, and he sometimes wonders why he didn't concentrate on tennis or bowling instead of a largely amateur sport like arm wrestling, in which a promoter's idea of a big payday is a thousand bucks. Patton still has to work—he earns $46,000 a year as a computer and electronics engineer at TV Answer, Inc., in Reston, Va.—but arm wrestling is his disease, he would do it for nothing, he does it for nothing, and what he wants, more than anything else, is legitimacy, the respect due to him as a world-class athlete. That's what he is, world class, and the only way people are going to know it is for arm wrestling to become an Olympic sport and for Patton to have a shot at winning a gold medal.
"I think I deserve that," Patton says, "because there's a lot of sports in the Olympics that are not everyday things, not part of life, like arm wrestling. Everybody has arm wrestled at least once. I mean, there's no one I know personally who's done any synchronized swimming."
Arm wrestling is part of life, all right. That is its bane and its glory. How can arm wrestling be an Olympic sport if people arm wrestle for drinks in barrooms? How can arm wrestling elevate itself to some august echelon of athletics if its ambassador, Dave Patton, not only promotes it on a Manhattan street corner but also sees, toward the end of that stunt, the man in the corduroy cap leading a convocation of derelicts across the avenue to challenge him with their champion? They went out to find this guy, and now they are bringing him back, a thin black man in a black wool cap and a black vinyl jacket. They're pushing him forward, and they're bouncing up and down, they're so excited.
"I'll bet him!" the man in the black wool cap is declaiming. "Show me the money first! I'll wax this sucker!" He steps up, and Patton, without effort, takes him down. "Oh, you got a little knack to it, I see," the man says. He walks off, then does an about-face and returns to the black table. "I don't like the way you took me down," he says. "Let's go again. But we go when I say. Ready...go!" Patton takes him down again and then again, with his left hand, and this time the guy reaches across the table and squeezes, gently, Patton's biceps. It is a he-man's homage, and now, as the guy trudges off, the little man with the cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth walks up to Patton and says, "Is ziss the champ? Hello champ, velcome to New York. Ve like people like you."