Why you should care
Because winning is less about brute strength and much more about leverage. Like life.
I don’t remember the genesis of my longtime fascination with it, but for years now I’ve had this sustained — and very much unexplained — curiosity about arm wrestling. I grew up elbow-deep in childish palm-in-palm battles in middle school, but these were typically decided with creep wins — that is, with one classmate gaining an unfair advantage by shamelessly licking his opponent’s knuckles mid-wrestle. It was gross then. Would be gross now.
But in college, I was drawn to the occasional on-campus arm wrestling tournament — yes, we had those — until I saw one good friend separate his shoulder mid-battle in a different kind of gross.
The deal sealer, though? On meeting my future wife, I was taken by the fact that her sizable family grew up with a small collection of VHS cassettes they watched over and over again, one of which was Over the Top. If you aren’t familiar with the 1987 film, Sylvester Stallone plays the formidably named Lincoln Hawk, a surly trucker who wins the favor of his estranged son by entering a major arm wrestling tournament. All of this contributed to a fascination with arm wrestling that exceeded any interest in more mainstream one-on-one combat sports like boxing or MMA. Arm wrestling was minimalist and primal.
Devon Larratt and Ian Carnegie recently appeared on Inside the NBA, where they each beat Charles Barkley before losing to Shaquille O’Neal, who enjoyed an advantage by going left-handed.
So I had more than a passing interest when I stumbled into what could very possibly be called an arm wrestling renaissance. Proof positive? An event in Baltimore on May 17 — specifically, one of the supermatch tournaments the World Armwrestling League is staging this summer, which are going to stream on B/R Live, culminating in a championship event at Turner Arena in Atlanta on September 5. Two of WAL’s top performers, Devon Larratt and Ian Carnegie, recently appeared on Inside the NBA, where they each beat Charles Barkley before losing to Shaquille O’Neal, who enjoyed an advantage by going left-handed.
Larratt and Carnegie are both former members of the Canadian armed forces. In fact, most of the top competitors in WAL work in decidedly hands-on fields away from the table. They’re mechanics, contractors, firefighters, carpenters. Which made me wonder: Who are these guys, really?
It’s a query that kicked off a search that eventually led me to WAL president and commissioner Steve Kaplan, who specifically mentions two of the league’s elder statesmen when I ask him about some of the sport’s more fascinating competitors.
“They are two of the greatest ambassadors the sport can have. Both of them train insatiably,” Kaplan says.
Kaplan is talking about 52-year-old Todd Hutchings and 42-year-old Michael Selearis, who for roughly two decades have been among the most accomplished and widely respected figures in arm wrestling. Hutchings trained with John Brzenk, who is generally considered the greatest arm wrestler of all time, and he remains a dominant force, having captured the middleweight title in each of the past three years. Selearis started arm wrestling in middle school, no hand licking involved, and has since emerged as one of the most competitive and colorful characters in the sport.
But Selearis is also the father of four kids between the ages of 1 and 9. When I finally get to talk to him, he is enjoying some quiet time — his little one’s napping — before he goes to pick up the rest of his kids from school. And his day job in Connecticut? High school chemistry teacher, where he routinely challenges students to arm wrestle him. Beat the teacher and you get an A in the class. Selearis remains undefeated in the classroom.
“It all works together. Science, from my perspective, is the explanation for any phenomenon. I always applied science to arm wrestling. Working the angles, maximizing every single degree of leverage on your opponent,” says Selearis. “I get the feeling, and as an athlete it’s all about that feeling. But then I can analyze it with a scientific mind and understand why that works. Looking at the biomechanics of it and the muscle fibers and what they are doing when they are contracted.”
Hutchings also has a professional background that strays wildly from that of his arm wrestling peers. A mechanical engineer by trade, Hutchings has designed everything from fuel systems for diesel engines to mining equipment. He currently designs parts for sewer trucks. And while his tireless training, some of which he does during his lunch break at work, and voracious approach to the table have made him a major name in the sport, he also credits his scientific background for giving him an edge.
“I think it helps me; it helps me evaluate training techniques, supplements, that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of hype out there. Without a scientific or engineering background, it’s hard to sort out what really works and what doesn’t,” he says. “When I’m discussing or debating training and training protocols, I take a lot of data and I take a lot of notes. So I go back and evaluate what’s worked or hasn’t worked in the past.”
My conversations with Selearis and Hutchings dispel almost every perception I had about arm wrestling, up to and including the illusion that I, having not arm wrestled since college, should get back into it. I’m clearly not in any shape to try it again, but knowing that is better than guessing, and with that I gained some extra insight into the one-on-one battles I once considered little more than a grueling meeting of might versus might.