The sweet refrains of live gospel music -- Jesus is al-l-l right! -- spill out the front door of Leslie Whims' house in West Baltimore, commingling with the not so inspirational sound of motorcycles roaring up and down the street.
"The Mighty Men" (in truth, three adults, three teen-agers and a pair of pint-size boys) are practicing for a gig at a senior center in Dundalk. Whims, the group's 43-year-old manager and guitarist, will be hitting the road on his own in a few months, traveling first to Atlanta, then Russia. He won't be taking along his electric six-string, however.
Gospel music is Whims' first love, but he has a gift for arm-wrestling, and for 18 years now he's been a fixture on the semi-pro circuit.
Arm-wrestling is a traditional pastime of barflies, sailors and macho men. It attracts few tea-sipping, devout Christians. Yet the walls of Whims' living room are festooned with medals, plaques and trophies commemorating six world championships and seven national titles won both right- and left-handed -- testimony to tournament trips he has made to Sweden, Egypt, India, Greece and Israel to compete against the best of the best.
Contrary to the popular notion that arm-wrestlers train by chugging beer, Whims is a fitness fanatic. He doesn't drink soda or eat fast food. A rock-hard 138 pounds, he has 14-inch biceps and Popeye forearms.
In his spare time he'll stick his fists into blobs of thick "Power Putty" and do countless finger extensions. He watches Orioles games on TV and during the commercials knocks off 50 one-arm wrist curls with a 45-pound steel bar. He cranks out 20 pull-ups before bed and can scale a 35-foot-high rock-climbing wall in less than a minute -- without using his feet.
For kicks, Whims will latch onto a pole and, with his arms fully extended, haul himself into a gravity-defying horizontal position. He calls that "the human flag." Nobody conditions themselves that hard to win bar bets.
"I've always said I want to make the Olympic team just once," explains Whims, an auto mechanic by trade. "Arm-wrestling has been around since the world began. It should be an Olympic sport before dart throwing or ballroom dancing."
Darts and dancing are, indeed, official Olympic events. The World Armsport Federation has been trying to earn the International Olympic Committee's seal of approval for about 20 years. The main roadblock is that the federation can't afford the requisite drug-testing system.
Nonetheless, arm-wrestling is considered a full-fledged sport in more than 40 countries and is taken very seriously in some of them (Whims claims he'd be showered with government subsidies and "treated like a king" if he lived in, say, Brazil or Turkey). Still, the number of participants is comparatively small, and corporate sponsorships are scarce. Top arm-wrestlers seldom pocket more than $5,000 a year in prize money; not enough to even cover expenses.
"Our biggest problem in the United States is that there are too many sports," says Karen Bean, co-executive director of the American Armsport Association, which has 1,200 members, most identified by their bulging biceps.
Arm-wrestling's appeal is its one-on-one simplicity. It's difficult to imagine a sport being more intimate without moving the action inside a phone booth. Wrestlers face off across a 3-foot-by-2-foot table. The basic rules take just minutes to learn: The elbow of your active hand must maintain contact with a small, tabletop pad; you must hold on to a support peg with your passive hand; shoulders can't cross the middle of the table.
Surprisingly, there's room for nuance. Experienced arm-wrestlers employ body leverage, assorted wrist positions and grips, strategic feints and intimidation-tactic glares and grunts. One guy is known for chewing garlic to annoy opponents.
Whims grew up on a farm in Phoenix, Md., and wrestled, played baseball and was on the gymnastics team in high school.
In 1985, his older brother, George, asked him to come along to a tournament in Virginia. Les thought they were going to "wrestle" wrestle. But he got turned on to the idea of tabletop competition and began training in earnest.
Michelle Price, Whims' ex-wife and close friend, says he has arm-wrestling "in the back of his mind all the time."
Nothing seems poised to replace it. He intends to sing the Lord's praises forever, and, being a mighty Mighty Man, continue arm-wrestling into his 60s.
Don't bet against him. Whims recently took on state Police Superintendent Ed Norris in a charity match. Norris put up a good fight, but bit the dust in about 20 seconds.
"He's strong as hell," a huffing Norris remarked afterward. "I'm 220 pounds!"
A few days earlier, Whims had entered the GNC Pro Performance regional arm-wrestling tournament held at Power Plant Live! In a semi- final match against Marc Gaeta, an old rival from Massachusetts, he found himself about an inch away from being pinned.
His right forearm looked like a relief map of the New York City subway system -- a web of veins swelled under the strain. But Whims executed a nifty wrist-roll reversal and beat his man.
He went on to take his weight class. Nobody can live like a king on the prize money, but a win's a win.
"Three hundred dollars," Leslie Whims says with a grin upon picking up his check. "Not bad for an afternoon of fun."
Get a grip
Want to learn how to seriously press the flesh? One way is to browse the Web sites Ultimate Arm Wrestling (www.eiyc.com) and Armwrestling-Supersite (www.Armwrestling-Supersite. com). There, you'll find step-by-step explanations of basic moves like the "hook" and "top roll," information about training gizmos designed to develop noodle muscles into ribbons of steel, as well as tournament schedules.
If you'd prefer a more hands-on introduction to the sport, a 14-week, open-call exhibition is now under way in Baltimore. Every Tuesday at 7 p.m., arm-wrestlers in five weight classes lock up at a different bar in Federal Hill. Weekly winners advance to the finals, set for Sept. 11 at Bohagers, where they'll vie for a $1,000 first-place payoff in each division.
It costs $25 to enter the competition. All proceeds go to assorted 9 / 11 charities. Leslie Whims serves as volunteer referee and, for a $20 donation, anybody can challenge him to a one-on-one pull. Extra incentive: Pin Whims and you win $100 on the spot.
To keep things simple, the Federal Hill wrestle-off is limited to right-handed men. Sorry, no women or lefties. The last two qualifying events will be held Aug. 19 (at Boomerang Pub, 1110 S. Charles St.) and Aug. 26 (Mother's Federal Hill Grille, 1113 S. Charles St.).
For more information, call 410-945-4799 or check the Web site www.mobtownproductions.com.