By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun
6:32 PM EDT, August 23, 2013
At a time of amped-up competitions like cage matches and extreme obstacle-course races, there's something downright retro about a good old-fashioned arm-wrestle.
A couple of combatants, usually at a bar, usually egged on by onlookers, plant their elbows, grasp hands and try to force each other's arms down. What could be simpler, sweatier and thus more suited to that summer's-end tradition, the Maryland State Fair?
"It's mano a mano," said Steve Simons, who for the past five years has hosted an arm-wrestling tournament at the fair, which began Friday. "It's a chance for ordinary people coming to the fair to get in a competition."
For those who eschew sausage-eating contests or have no heifers to show, arm-wrestling is something of the rock-paper-scissors of the fair: Who doesn't know how to do it?
Simons, a sports promoter based in the San Diego area, has about 10 fairs enlisted this year for his Arm Wrestling USA tournaments, with state winners getting the opportunity to compete in a national event held in Arizona. The local arm-wrestling tournament will be held Aug. 31 in the Maryland Foods Pavilion.
The fair, which runs through Sept. 2, also includes some new attractions like Goat Mountain, featuring the animals in a natural habitat, as well as concerts by Fall Out Boy and Carly Rae Jepson and the usual livestock shows and carnival rides. Fair officials expect about a half-million visitors.
As it turns out, there is something of an arm-wrestling subculture, or rather, several subcultures. You can find a bewildering assortment of associations, leagues and federations online, displaying videos of matches, and selling arm-strengthening devices and books.
In 1974, Simons, an investment banker with an itch to get into the sports business, created the World Professional Armwrestling Association and began staging tournaments across the country in amusement parks and shopping malls.
"I would wrestle the talk-show hostess of 'Good Morning Whatever' at places like the Golden Ring Mall," Simons said.
He eventually sold the WPAA but returned to arm-wrestling promotions after marrying a woman seven years ago who said the one thing she'd like to do is travel more. Simons realized state fairs had just the right "grass-roots America" atmosphere for arm-wrestling, and now the couple travels across the country.
For most, though, it's just for kicks.
"It's a good conversation piece," said Ann LaVigna of the arm-wrestling trophy she won at last year's state fair, now on display in the living room of her Beltsville home.
She came in second out of four in the women's featherweight competition — not bad, considering she entered on a whim and didn't practice or otherwise prepare. She was beaten by a girl she remembers as being in the ninth grade.
"I thought I could take her, but as soon as she gripped my hand, I thought, 'Oh man,' " said LaVigna, 53, a systems analyst at the University of Maryland, College Park. About 15 seconds later, her fears were confirmed.
LaVigna, who hadn't arm-wrestled since she was a kid, goes to the State Fair every year — she works in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources — and when she saw that there would be an arm-wrestling tournament, made a mental note to attend on that day.
"I'm sort of competitive. I work out — not a lot — and I feel like I'm in good shape," said LaVigna, who might enter again this year. "Maybe I can get first place this time."
Chris Kinnaird, 19, goes to the fair every year to help a family friend who has a turkey stand in the Maryland foods area. He'd seen the arm-wrestling, and his dad had competed a couple of times. So he gave it a shot last year — and won the category for men under 145 pounds.
"People took it seriously, but it was just fun and games for me," said Kinnaird, who is a volunteer firefighter in Thurmont and a groundskeeper at a Montgomery County golf course. "I ended up winning, so it was pretty cool."
Both LaVigna and Kinnaird received national rankings from Arm Wrestling USA for their efforts — which came as a surprise to them. Simons weighs the different competitions and compiles the standings, remembering how important such rankings were when he played on the senior tennis circuit.
"I used to spend thousands of dollars going to different places to get a ranking," Simons said. "As we get older, it's a cocktail party story. At the end of the day, no one cares but you."
And so it is with arm-wrestling — he tried to make his system as serious as possible for those interested in getting seeded for the national championships, which will be held in November at the Arizona State Fair.
"But most people take it tongue in cheek," he said.
Still, arm-wrestling has its adherents, those who look longingly to Europe, where it's a much more organized sport, or who see it as the next showy attraction, something like mixed martial arts.
"We're going to bring legitimacy to the sport," promised Bill Collins, who co-founded the Ultimate Armwrestling League four years ago. "We're going to bring arm-wrestling to a whole 'nother level."
Collins, who lives in Los Banos, Calif., is also president of the U.S. Armwrestling Federation, which sends a national team to the world championships every year. Underscoring the pressures of arm-wrestling competition on the international stage, the world federation adopted an anti-doping code in 2005 that follows the World Anti-Doping Agency standards that govern other sports.
Collins says he is working with a network — he declined to name it — trying to get a TV series made about his sport, something that would help turn its competitors into pro wrestling-style celebrities and adding more pre- and postmatch trash-talk.
That's what his beloved sport needs, Collins concedes: to grow beyond its current appeal.
"It doesn't have a fan base like the NFL," he said. "And unless you're an arm-wrestler, it's boring as hell."
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