Strong Arm Tactics

Wrestlers' weekly Whitestone workouts

The humerus is the thick arm bone that runs dependably from the elbow to the shoulder. It takes a strange combination of forces for it to break in half, but when it does, the upper arm buckles, issuing first a wooden groan and then a loud crack that sounds like a firm step through a dry cellar stair. At least, that's what mine did one recent summer night in Queens. nnn nnnnnn Pretty much every Thursday night for nine years the best local pro and amateur arm wrestlers have come to Jason Vale's serious basement group in Whitestone—a kind of arm-benders' salon. When you meet him, the 30-year-old Vale is surprisingly boyish, even normal-looking. He's the 1997-98 Petaluma (California) world heavyweight champion, but at six feet and 180 pounds, he's more like an agile handball player (which he also is) than a nationally ranked heavyweight. This Thursday, there would be "about 20 or 30 guys—but we're not a lot of bikers or anything," he promised. "We begin each time with a prayer." It sounded a little like AA.

In Whitestone, about 15 square-shouldered guys mill around in Vale's converted basement, a room filled with FedEx boxes, glowing computers, two regulation standing arm-wrestling tables (with gripping pegs and pin pads), and a gleaming corner skyline of trophies. Powerful hands join as Vale leads a prayer for "strong fellowship." While guys start squaring off across the tables, stretching their forearms for the torture to come, Vale works the room: "Marty, have you pulled Paul yet?" "Roy, get in a hook with Harry." The Jason from Greek mythology led his crew of argonauts in search of the golden fleece, and this Jason and his basement posse chase after trophy in Maryland, Delaware, Nevada, and Nebraska (where as a middleweight he won the Nationals July 24). The former Sunday-school teacher has survived three cancers since he was 17, and credits God, laetrile, and other cures he explains in full on his "Christian Brothers" Web site (www.apricotsfromgod.com). Early on, Jason advises, "May the Lord direct your mind and your hand"—which wonderfully applies both to arm wrestling and writing.

Unlike macho barroom arm wrestlers, the basement guys are friendly, nearly apologetic about winning. The atmosphere is one of strenuous learning. Even nationally ranked arm wrestlers like Paul Walters observe etiquette as the sweat breaks over their faces. My first "pull" is against Danny Habig, 29, a thin, smiling carpenter with wire-rim glasses, who holds 154-pound pro titles in three states. He calls the match as he puts my larger arm to the table: "See, what you're doing here is giving me your arm." Thump. (Evidently, he drops lots of bigger, experienced wrestlers.)

After 18 years away from the sport, Bronx-born superheavyweight Marty Soven, 49, recently got back into competitive arm wrestling. "I'm using it like a Zen thing," he explains. "Plus, I like the people." His conversation cuts a wide, easy swath from that day's Superfecta to the inner life of the late Jerzy Kosinski. "What I'm doing is using hydraulics; it's almost like a car jack." The evening closes with a tape session and hot dogs.

At first, it's easy to underestimate arm wrestling. But make no mistake, the sport has technique, strategy, and dicey physics—the twisting, combined torque of muscles pulling in opposite directions. The basic components: hooking (a classic strength pull of two locked, curled wrists); back pressure (defensively pulling toward yourself to neutralize the opponent's hook and open his arm); side pressure (aggressive, pulling laterally toward your opposite shoulder); and toprolling (blocking the initial hit and "finger-walking" up the hand to loosen your opponent's grip). But knowing how to unbend the opponent's arm is nothing without "tendon strength, technique, and bone density," says Vale. And hand size helps, too. Bobby Buttafuocco, Joey's more accomplished brother and an 11-time New York Arm Wrestlers Association heavyweight champion, is a Thursday visitor with "Killer hands," according to Soven, "monster hands. You can't pull out." (At competitions especially, wrestlers spend much longer fighting for initial hand advantage than they do on the match, which might last between 10 and 30 seconds.)

Whatever local growth the sport has seen through the years is due in large part to a single man, Gene Camp. Basically, organized arm wrestling in New York City goes through Gene Camp. His "Golden Arms" tournament series are held at street fairs, race tracks, and beaches from spring until October's final in the Port Authority terminal. Camp started the NYAWA in 1977 because, "I used to watch the Petaluma Championships each year on Wide World of Sports. I was an arm wrestler in those days, but there were no tournaments in town." This year he's opened his citywide tournament to pros, hoping to draw arm wrestlers from all over. "I want it to be like the marathon. Someday they'll be coming from India."

Just the few things I'd learned about leverage and shoulder placement improve my performance the next Thursday. Marty demonstrates the beginnings of back pressure ("like pulling your thumb toward your nose") and the all-important inside hook, a way of turning your weight sideways into the pin. After the other guys have wrestled almost an hour, they put me at the table. I do pretty well against 150-pound amateur champ Harry Wilson, then go righty against Mike Selearis—a nationally ranked lefty pro—followed by a lithe older wrestler, Roy Ramsland.

When hands slip out at tournaments, the call goes up to "Get the straps." Roy and I wrestle a few times with our hands tied together, which is easier for novices, since there's less technique. During a break, Marty looks proud. "You did better. Just closing your thumb a little bit can give you that extra tension." I feel a burn in my arm ("Good. The brachialis muscle"), but I've won three pulls—better than I deserved, since those guys were tired. Still, Marty makes no allowances. "Once a man puts his arm up, once you lock with him, that's that."

After a week's hiatus (Jason and Marty went to Vegas for a "power pull" tournament), the following Thursday finds the tables set up in the driveway. Maybe it was the glare of the streetlights or the Mister Softee truck that distracts us, but tonight there is no prayer. My first pull is against a polite, long-armed amateur named Tony. I work his arm back to about 30 degrees before twisting into a crude inside hook for the pin. That's when my right arm breaks. Crack. The guys form a circle around me and my rubbery arm, flopping uselessly across the table. They try to cheer up Tony, noting his graduation to the ABCs (Arm Breakers' Club), while I woozily assure him that it's okay, it's not his fault. Tony, almost as pale as I am, won't have it. "No, it's very not okay."

Luckily, several of the guys there have previously cracked their bones in competition—one is even in a cast. Craig Saputo, an amateur champ at 150 pounds, sees patiently to my arm, while lefty pro Selearis sits me on a garbage can and the impressive female arm wrestler, Ilya Dall, arrives with a cell phone to dial an ambulance and my wife. Saputo asks Jason to pray for my arm, and they both place their hands on it. "Lord, heal Nate's arm stronger than it was before," says Jason. When the ambulance comes, he thoughtfully brings a bottle of whiskey aboard for shots. "You'll come back stronger," they shout as the doors close. "It's your battle wound. You've got a great story."

Two days later, I see Marty at the Orchard Beach "Golden Arms" tournament in the Bronx. He looks sort of mystified. Turns out no one has ever seen a guy break his arm while winning. I almost feel proud.

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