Put Away the Beer Bottles—Arm-Wrestling Has Surpassed the Bar Scene

On Saturday afternoons at Reid Park, David Martinez Campa and Bill Cassell meet to practice their sport. Campa stands 5 feet 10 inches and weighs 155 pounds. Cassell is shorter, more muscular in appearance and says he has 100 pounds on Campa. In a strength contest, all odds would be on Cassell. But as the expression goes, looks can be deceiving: Campa is an arm-wrestling champion.

Arm-wrestling may seem like a pastime spent with a pitcher of beer at a crowded bar, but to Campa, Cassell and thousands around the world, it's a bona fide sport. In the United States, there are different factions, including the Simons Entertainment Group's Armwrestling USA, the Ultimate Armwrestling League and the Professional Armwrestling League.

Around the globe, the sport has a higher status. Cassell explains that in some countries, "You don't have a job. Arm-wrestling is your profession." And in Sweden, arm-wrestling champion Heidi Andersson (yes, a woman) has donated hundreds of tables to schools.

Back at home within the Simons Group's rankings, Campa has been No. 1 in his weight class since 2009. "This little guy walking around doesn't look like much," Cassell says. "But in a tournament setting, I don't have a chance."

Campa adds: "There was a point (in the beginning) where I felt like I was pretty good against anybody. But when I began training, I (realized) no, there's a completely different level. ... Anyone would be amazed how strong people can get at arm-wrestling."

Campa formed Gorilla Arms Tucson about two years ago. He says there are 10 to 15 guys who train in the group. "We're all trying to make each other stronger," Cassell says.

It takes a lot more than a couple of big guns—or gorilla arms—to be successful. "It's a lot more cerebral a sport than two big guys grunting and groaning," Cassell says. "It takes a lot of strategy. ... You have to deal with an opponent and react quickly. At the elite level, it's a split-second decision. If you don't make the right decision, you are probably going to lose."

Campa and Cassell meet at the north end of Reid Park, where a regulation table is located near some exercise bars. The table has two red elbow pads, two pegs and side pads. There's also a bar across the ground. Campa explains that two opponents must grip at the center of the table with knuckles showing and a straight wrist. They have 60 seconds to vie for position before the "go." And if the two cannot find a grip they like, the referee sets one up by taking their hands apart and placing them back together. Once in action, whoever gets to the side pad first wins.

After Campa and Cassell demonstrate the starting stance, they show me the three main techniques: top roll, hook and press. Campa even moves his leg up and pushes on the post. "It's not just two guys pushing with their arms," Cassell says. "It's really a whole body sport."

It may be an individual sport, but having a group to train with is key. "You need people (to practice with) to become better," Campa says. Adds Cassell: "You can't get arm-wrestling strong overnight. It takes lots and lots of practice. I've seen people get injured—muscles pull off the bone—if they are not trained. You can't jump in at the deep end."

One reason the two men enjoy the sport is because title holders and champions are accessible. Two years ago, they met and competed against John Brzenk, who has been named "the greatest arm-wrestler of all time" by Guinness World Records. Cassell puts him on the same level as Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth. Playboy magazine gave Brzenk props with this telling quote: "John Brzenk is better at arm-wrestling than Michael Jordan ever thought about being at basketball."

Campa shows me a YouTube video where he is arm-wrestling Brzenk. In action, Campa's muscles tighten and flex and he uses his whole body to gain leverage. His gorillalike strength is on full display.

Upon learning that Campa and Cassell are arm-wrestlers, some people ask for a matchup. But as quickly as the offers come, the would-be opponents usually step back and say they are joking. That's probably the smartest move of all.


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