Keeping this grueling sport at arm's length

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Until the other night, the last time I watched arm wrestling was when they used to show it on ABC's Wide World of Sports in the '70s, and you'd see a dockworker and a lumberjack square off in some bar in front of a crowd that looked like it came from a work-release program.

Then I went to Bohager's in Fells Point and watched the Federal Hill Arm-Wrestling Championships, a charity event with $7,500 in prize money, and I was afraid the whole thing had gone too upscale.

The mayor showed up and said a few words, and so did the governor, and there was an honor guard and a gospel group singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." It was all pretty classy, and then I saw this Hell's Angels guy next to me.

This Hell's Angels guy, he was sucking down beer like he'd just walked across a desert. And suddenly, in the middle of one of the opening matches, he rushed the stage and snarled "Break his @#$%& arm!"

Oh, this was a nice moment, and from then on my fears that the sport had become too politically correct quickly disappeared.

To learn about arm wrestling, I hung out with Les Whims, a Baltimore auto mechanic who is a six-time world champion.

Whims was not competing here - he was refereeing - but he won the 154-pound masters division at the world championships in Egypt last year and is headed to Russia in November to compete in the worlds again.

Whims is 42, a compact, soft-spoken man who does not have that exercise-yard-at-San-Quentin physique so many arm wrestlers cultivate.

For a minute I thought of sticking my elbow on the table and saying: "OK, tough guy. You and me, right now."

But you always have to watch out for the quiet guys, and I knew he would slam me down in about two seconds and everyone would see it, including the Hell's Angels guy, and then I'd start to cry and have to leave the joint.

Whims said there were three keys to arm wrestling: "Get a good grip. Maintain back pressure. And speed - you gotta be quick on the go."

Superior technique is why you see so many little guys whipping big, mouthy guys in this sport all the time.

Whims said he was in a tournament once in Virginia and beat a guy who weighed 242 pounds and was built along the lines of a small freighter.

The match took four minutes, which is an eternity in arm-wrestling, where it's usually over in a flash.

The two men were locked in a quivering, back-and-forth battle, each waiting for the other to burn out, until Whims prevailed, after which the big guy presumably left the bar to go hang himself.

Whims said you can see some pretty gruesome injuries in arm wrestling, especially with inexperienced wrestlers.

He's seen guys break their arms; he's seen guys strain so much they snap a tendon and the tendon rolls up their arm like a Venetian shade. But the breaks are the worst.

"It sounds like when you snap a broom handle over your knee," he said. "It sends a chill through the crowd."

Again, there was $7,500 in prize money at stake at Bohager's, so the 19 arm wrestlers in five different weight classes went about their matches with a grim purposefulness.

What does Barry Bonds make for smacking the ball into the next area code, $19 million a year? Fine. But when you're competing in a sport that barely pays beer money half the time and suddenly somebody waves a first-place check for $1,000, you tend to get pretty focused.

My favorite wrestler was Bill Maenza, a 37-year-old software developer from Manassas, Va., who won the 171-pound division.

Maenza would step up to the table with this blank expression on his face, and then he'd proceed to just crush one opponent after another.

Even after he beat a man named Gary Kessler in the finals, he maintained this heavy, robo-wrestler stare. It was like if you ripped open his chest, you'd find a bunch of wires and circuits in there.

Whims said Maenza was basically playing head games with his opponents.

"I do the same thing," Whims said. "I go up to the table and hit 'em with the cold stare. That knocks 'em right down."

The best match of the evening was probably the finals of the 154-pound division between George Whims, Les' 45-year-old brother, and 54-year-old Milt Christmas, a Baltimore truck driver.

The two were locked in a vein-popping standoff for a good two minutes until Christmas capitalized on a subtle tactical error by Whims - Les said something about George not keeping his shoulder squared - and got the pin.

When I caught up with Christmas at the end of the evening and asked him about his strategy during the tense, grueling match, he said: "You just try to shut out the pain."

Which was pretty much what the Hell's Angels guy seemed to be doing with another Bud longneck as I left.

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