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There is a belief among arm wrestling advocates that for the sport to advance, it has to be taken out of the barroom. Too macho, the barroom—too déclassé, too old-fashioned, too redolent of boozy brawlers and certainly not suitable for a sport supposedly being considered as a demonstration sport in the 1996 Olympics. There's a new breed of arm wrestler, you know, guys like Patton, clean and quiet, more an athlete than a character. In the old days, well, you had characters, that's for sure. Back in the '60s and '70s, when organized arm wrestling was just getting started, you had Baker and Jubinville and Dean, who were in their prime. You had Apache Dan Carr, who, after losing a match in Scranton, Pa., climbed a column of coal ash and spent the night howling at the moon. You had Mad Dog Bosley, who used to go to tournaments with a bone in his mouth, a collar around his neck and a leash connecting him to his manager's hand. You had Samson Margolese, who used to bang his head against the wall until he bled and then splash the blood in the faces of his opponents.
The sport has always been big on characters; now it has to be bigger than them, the arm wrestling advocates say. At a tournament in Hartford, for example, there is a bunch of guys who drove three hours from New Jersey, earnest young fellows, clean-cut, tattooed tastefully, if at all, eating grilled chicken and tuna salad instead of bar food, talking technique all night long. There is this handsome kid named Jason Vale, from Queens, who beat cancer a few years back and has devoted himself to arm wrestling and the Lord. There is even Dave Patton himself, presiding rather than pulling, promoting the tournament for his sponsor, Yukon Jack, a company that distills a particularly potent liquor and stages its various arm wrestling events in barrooms across the country, barrooms that attract a variety of....
Well, in arm wrestling environs, despite the presence of earnest athletes like Patton, you always come back to the characters. You can't help it. What else would you call Mickey Butkus? He calls himself Psycho. He's a wiry wisp of a kid with pale blue eyes and a scrubby satanic beard and mustache and an assortment of tattoos that are extravagant and expressive. He has on one arm an eagle flying into the sun, and on his other arm, a Tasmanian devil demolishing a scorpion, and on his chest, a broken heart. The broken heart suits Butkus because away from the arm wrestling table, he is gracious and sensitive and soft-spoken. His heart is broken, at least in part, because he knows that he will never be the arm wrestler that he had it within himself to be.
"I'm a good arm wrestler," he says. "I could be a great arm wrestler if I had all five fingers." Butkus has four fingers on his right—that is to say, his arm wrestling—hand. He lost his right index finger in a childhood farming accident, and so the techniques that the earnest fellows from New Jersey talk about all night long, the techniques Patton refined, Butkus can't use. He has to rely, instead, on strength and on the advantages that his Psycho persona give him. He has to approach the arm wrestling table with his eyes distended and fanatical and his cheeks pumping like a bellows and his mouth open in a deadly howl. He has to grip his opponent's hand and then cry, "I can't arm wrestle this guy, ref! He's got five fingers!" and then use the distraction to take the guy down. He puts on a show, Butkus does, standing on one leg like a stork, wrapping his other leg around the leg of the table, his brow broken up in a dozen herringbones, his lucky pink hat turned sideways on his head, his T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of his sponsor, a local bail bondsman.
Butkus has even made some money from arm wrestling, though not by winning tournaments. No, he sometimes makes money hustling, all the way from Vermont to Wildwood, N.J., going into bars, pretending he's wasted, luring some big lug into a pull for money and then—surprise!—pinning him in a flash and heading for the exit. The only thing Butkus doesn't do is win, at least not when it counts, late in a tournament, when the earnest fellows pay no mind to his diversions and use a technique known as the top roll—moving one's fingers higher up in the grip and rolling the wrist back to bend an opponent's wrist to the table—to attack his four-fingered hand.
When you come right down to it, the characters don't seem to win much at all. They have a different sort of role, and they know it. Roy Maurer is one of the characters. His tattoos are even more abundant and baroque than Butkus's, because his roommate was a tattoo artist, and Maurer let him practice on him. Compact and well built, he has a blond Fu Manchu mustache, and a tattoo cobra winds around his neck. He recently broke his hand "punching someone in the head," Maurer says, but he's pulling in Hartford anyway, not because he's impervious to pain but rather because he's responsive to it. He loses fairly early in the tournament, but later on he sees the guy who beat him gripping his elbow and grimacing. "I hurt him before," Maurer says. "I do that to people. They say, 'I won, but you hurt me.' I say, 'That's good; you beat me, but at least I hurt you.' I'm into pain. They say there's a thin line between pleasure and pain. I walk that line."
The characters, you see, seem to know something about arm wrestling that the advocates of the sport don't. The advocates can talk all they want about how arm wrestling is emerging from the barroom with a new sense of propriety and purpose, but the characters know that arm wrestling is a theater of pain. It is about pain. Men scream when they arm wrestle. They grunt and bellow. They start crying. In the epic contests of arm wrestling legend, their noses bleed.
In Hartford most of the matches end in an instant, but the ones that don't, the ones that go on a minute or so—a minute is a very long time in arm wrestling—or two minutes, or even three, become extravaganzas of suffering. Jason Vale, the earnest fellows from New Jersey, the disciples of Dave Patton—these, by the end of the night, are the contenders, and at one time or another they each fill the barroom with their wailing and lamentations. The characters, like Mickey and Roy, play symbolic roles, reminding newcomers how extreme the sport can be; they stand around gobbling Advils, marked for life, and when Maurer sees one neophyte go down with what looks like a broken arm, he just gazes at him, the white edge of his teeth flashing under his baleful mustache.
You don't see many broken arms in arm wrestling tournaments anymore. You used to see them fairly often, especially on ABC's Wide World of Spoils, but the referees have been alerted to what is known as "the broken-arm position"—when the wrist strays outside the plane of the shoulder—and they usually interrupt a match before torque snaps anyone's upper arm. In Hartford, though, there is a guy in the heavyweight division who broke his wrist in a motorcycle accident three years ago, and after he loses a match the same bone looks like one of those subcutaneous creatures in a horror movie, moving and pulsing and growing as the guy stares at it in terror. The guy doesn't really look like an arm wrestler. He's blond, with a soft, pinkish face, and he's not taking it very well, this beastie under his skin. He cries, "Oh mother oh mother oh mother," and lets his wife kiss his wrist.
"I told him not to do this," she says, "but he loves it so."