Called the Godmother of Arm Wrestling, Sue holds workouts and clinics in the basement of her Fairfax, Va., home. She has competed just once—in 1983, to fill out a female field. "I placed second," she says almost apologetically. "Understand: I'm getting on in years."
She's not all that old, actually, only 64, and is quite youthful and animated. Not to mention tough. She tests Dave's strength before matches by having him squeeze her hand. "Give me everything you've got," she'll say.
Dave tries not to disobey his mom. "But I don't give her everything" he says.
"He's afraid of crushing my bony little hand," Sue says.
It took a little arm-twisting to get Dave started in arm wrestling. He was eight when a neighborhood kid challenged him. "I was little and he was big," Dave recalls. Big won. Dave didn't lock knuckles again until high school, when the football coach at Chantilly High in Fairfax said he was too runty for the team. It was then, after seeing a wrist-wrestling tournament on Wide World of Sports, that he resolved to become a wrist warrior. At 20, he won his first of 10 straight world wrist-wrestling championships.
Patton keeps lean and hard by hoisting light weights for up to four hours a day. But he says there's more than brawn to arm wrestling. "Big muscles don't help," he says. "You want them like a squirrel's, not a cow's. Cut my arm open and you wouldn't find meat, just knots and tendons." The key is a quick, powerful start and an egoless approach. "It's like running a 100-yard dash and playing a chess game at the same time," he says. "You make countermove after countermove while exerting all your strength."
What little income Patton derives from his sport comes mostly from the recent emergence of a 13-city circuit of regional contests—paying $1,500 to the winner—leading up to the Nationals, in Tampa on June 26. The venues are places like LT's, or Bobby Valentine's Sports Gallery, in Stamford, Conn., or Bobby McGee's Conglomeration, in Long Beach, Calif. Barrooms are natural arenas for arm wrestling. It was in a saloon, after all, that Hemingway's old man of the sea wrestled a Cuban for something like 24 hours.
Dave's most ferocious opponent was Bert Whitfield. They met in hand-to-hand combat at the 1983 world wrist-wrestling championships in Chicago. Eventually, Patton gained the upper hand, forcing Whitfield down, inch by inch. But Whitfield held just above the tabletop. And held. And held. Patton's eyes welled with sweat. When Whitfield succumbed 11 minutes later, Patton was so pooped, he couldn't speak. Or open his hand.
"It took less time to deliver him," says Sue.
"I don't have any recollection of that," says Dave.