Spurred by new reality show, arm wrestling in Maine explodes in popularity

Posted March 02, 2014, at 3:07 p.m.
Last modified March 02, 2014, at 5:31 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — There were faces red with exertion, yelling and hollering, tight shirts, big arms, body art and a bar slinging drinks less than 20 yards away.

But there was also so much more Saturday at the 2014 Maine State Armwrestling Championship at Thatcher’s Restaurant on Foden Road.

“Maybe your [preconception] of an arm wrestler is a big guy with tattoos all over his arms, and you do have that here,” said Bill Sinks, a competitor from Vermont who counts more than 200 wins on his record. “But I’m a general contractor and a fire chief for my town’s department. You have doctors and lawyers and teachers. It’s not just all big, burly guys.”

Case in point: Matthew Bouchard, a quiet, neatly dressed and bespectacled accountant from Caribou, who on Saturday quietly and neatly slammed down enough tree-trunk arms to claim his weight class title for the second year in a row.

The Maine championship event Saturday was the first to be sanctioned by the Ultimate Armwrestling League, and took place less than a week after cable television station AMC premiered a new reality show about the sport to a record 1 million viewers.

Nate Gagnon of 207 Armsports began organizing the state championships in 2013 after what he said were years of sporadic and largely unaffiliated events statewide. In his second year in charge, participation more than doubled, jumping from about 70 arm wrestlers a year ago to more than 150 Saturday.

And it seemed everyone in attendance believed that number will continue to expand in future Maine events as the profile of arm wrestling grows.

“Now with everything going on with the reality show, it will only get bigger and bigger,” said Julie Campbell, manager of Thatcher’s, a venue she said has been under new leadership since January.

“I think it’s [the UAL backing], I think it’s because of the ‘Game of Arms’ television show,” said Gagnon. “There are a lot of things going on that are bringing arm wrestling back.”

On Saturday, Gagnon handed out trophies for first-, second- and third-place finishes in 14 categories of competition, which include classes for left- and right-armed wrestlers, men and women, and a range of weight classes.

Participants waged knuckle-locked battles on two competition-style tables, which featured rectangle pads for the competitors’ elbows, posts they braced their nonwrestling arms on, and a finish line-like string on each side. The competitor in each match whose hand was forced to dip lower than the string first was declared the loser.

Arm wrestlers came from throughout the northeastern United States. Many wore shirts with team logos and chalked their hands for optimized grip.

“You have characters like you do in professional wrestling, but it’s real,” said Eric Berry, the event announcer Saturday. “You’ve got some big farm boys who are used to lifting hay bales, or fishermen who haul traps all day for a living.”

Spectators taking in such a competition for the first time Saturday likely learned quickly that what appears to be a raucous battle of sheer strength, for the participants, involves more nuanced strategy. Art Drewes — a gregarious five-time world champion known by the nickname “Badger” and one of the referees for the Saturday event — said it can take years to learn all the wrist twists, leverage leans and terminology in arm wrestling.

“Knowing what your opponent is going to do is your best offense,” he said. “If you know he’s a hooker, there are ways to avoid getting into a hook. If you know he’s a top roller, there are ways to avoid that, too.”

But though competitors on Saturday tried everything they could to get an advantage on the tables, they always parted with handshakes and back slaps. That sportsmanship is, perhaps, another place where the comparison to pro wrestling falls apart.

“I want to tear the guy’s arm off during the match,” said Sink, from Vermont. “But afterward, I’ll be happy to grab a beer with him.”