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Arms and the Man
Tom Junod
June 14, 1993
For the sport's he-men—and Everyman—arm wrestling is a universal test of strength and will
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June 14, 1993

Arms And The Man

For the sport's he-men—and Everyman—arm wrestling is a universal test of strength and will

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"A thousand dollars," says the man in the corduroy cap.

"That's right," says the man in the long coat.

"A thousand dollars.... I arm wrestle that man, and you give me a thousand dollars, is that right?"

"Well, you have to beat him," says the man in the long coat, who is putting up the money.

"I see." The man in the corduroy cap is a derelict, but his manner of speech is finicky and ostentatiously dignified. "Well, I'm going to have to think about this," he says. "But I'm coming back. And when I do, the champ better watch out."

He squints at a man standing on the corner of 33rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan. The man's name is Dave Patton, and he is the lightweight arm wrestling champion of the world. Patton is smiling. It is early morning, and the shadow of night is still squatting on the streets of New York, but Patton smiles the way he always smiles when anyone challenges his supremacy. The smile is at once put-upon and serene, and it makes him look like a maître d' who takes pleasure banishing rude customers to bad tables. In fact, with his sharpie's mustache and his hairline receding enough to reveal two wedges of scalp, the 160-pound Patton does not resemble anyone's idea of an arm wrestler. Now, sizing him up in the morning darkness, the derelict smiles too, showing his bad teeth, and his voice rises high and shrill as he says, "Watch out, champ!"

It is Patton's first challenge in a morning of challenges intended to demonstrate that no man ought to challenge Dave Patton. He has assembled a big, black table on this street corner, and he has put on a pair of black leather gloves to protect his precious hands. And now, as he props his elbow on the table's padded surface and stands smiling under a piece of poster board that says PIN THE CHAMP AND WIN $1000, he watches his first challengers slink away into the remains of the night.

There are many ways to measure a man. There are as many ways, in fact, as there are men, and the manlier the man, the more specific, the more exacting, the more outlandish the measure. A librarian, for example, might measure his manhood by the simple fact that he lifts weights, while a weightlifter has to measure his by how much weight he lifts. A strong man may have to prove that he is tireless, a tireless man that he can endure pain, a man who can endure pain that he can administer it, and so on, until we arrive at the most rarefied stratum of masculinity, reserved for men who have distanced themselves from the merely strong and merely tireless and can lay claim to that antique and enduring title: he-men.

Dave Patton is a he-man, but he is only the product of all the he-men who came before him.

Moe Baker of Bristol, Conn., was one. How do we know? Because Baker, according to his partisans, not only had 18-inch forearms but could also jump straight out of a 55-gallon drum without ever touching the sides. Cleve Dean, a 600-pound hog farmer from Georgia, was a he-man, too, because he could pick up a full-grown sow under each arm and walk around. Ed Jubinville of Chicopee, Mass., was a he-man because he had mastered the art of muscle control and could make, say, his left pectoral muscle flop around like a fish pulled fresh from the sea. And the legendary Mac Batchlor, from Los Angeles, was a he-man because he could fold four bottle caps in half simply by placing them on his fingers and closing his fist. Like all the great exemplars of their breed, these men grew impatient with the standard measures of manhood and chose to define themselves by feats so specific, demanding and utterly useless that no one ever thought to follow.

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