It’s become an almost ubiquitous test of strength amongst men of all ages across the world. Steve Hulmes takes a look at arm-wrestling throughout the years, and charts how it became a competitive sport.

The World’s Wrist-wrestling Championship in Petaluma, California was first organised by Bill Soberanes in Gilardi’s Saloon in 1952. Thanks to the combination of young journalist Soberanes’ skills, and the American Broadcasting Corporation picking up the sport and showing it on Wide World of Sports from 1969, arm-wrestling – like its competitors – has gone from strength to strength ever since.

A Worldwide Sport

The largest professional arm-wrestling league in the USA is known as the Ultimate Arm-wrestling League (UAL). Competitors are divided into six categories: Featherweight at 68kg, Lightweight for those between 69-75kg, Middleweight at 76-84kg, Light Heavyweight 85-93kg, Heavyweight 94-106kg and Super Heavyweight for those who weigh in at a mighty 107kg plus.

Before you decide which category you might best be suited for, however, take heed of Neil Pickup first. Mr. Pickup is the current President of the British Arm-wrestling Federation. He was into combat sports as a child, before discovering arm-wrestling was something he naturally excelled at.

“By the age of 13 I could beat anybody,” he recalls, “including my father who was involved in weight training and fully grown guys who were lifting heavy weights in the gym. I found I was gifted for the sport, I had unusual genetic strength due to having very, very thick arm ligaments and tendons that lend themselves to upper body strength.”

He’s A Natural

So, does it help if you have a natural ability to arm-wrestle, or can those hours in the gym really make a difference? Pickup believes it to be the former, saying: “In most sports the people who excel have
a genetic ability or pre-disposition to do that sport. Arm-wrestling or any other strength sport is no different.” 

What other innate qualities make for an outstanding arm-wrestler? Pickup suggests: “Very large, powerful thick hands, with exceptional wrist strength, but it also depends on your style. If you focus on speed, then ‘explosivity’ with fast twitch muscle fibre is a very important element.  If your focus is top end strength, then there are two types of leverage techniques. Those with short levers – or short forearms – have an advantage with what’s known as the inside technique. Those with long levers have powerful joints and excel at outside arm-wrestling or top rolling. This means they have the ability
to deliver a knock out technique that disables the strength of the opponent. It breaks open the opponent’s wrist and hand and neutralises their forearm.” On a global basis, the World Arm-wrestling Federation (WAF) oversees the sport, and there are 87 member nations including Palestine and Iran. There’s also growing support for arm-wrestling to be included as an Olympic event.

All’s Fair In Arm-Wrestling

Despite its image of impossibly bulked up men hunched over a table, arm-wrestling is in fact an egalitarian sport, favouring equality for all. Not only does the WAF stipulate weight categories for those who are right or left-handed, but also for competitors who are disabled, male, female, under 21 or 40 or 50 plus. Although perhaps that’s only to be expected for a sport that has included exponents as diverse as Sylvester Stallone in the 1987 film Over The Top and Snoopy the dog in a serialised cartoon strip.  You probably wouldn’t think of Snoopy as being a serious contender, yet in 1968, the black and white beagle took himself off to the home of the World’s Wrist-wrestling Championship in Petaluma, California, to prove his own bicep was worse than his bite (as part of the cartoon, of course).  Unfortunately in the final he was eliminated because the official arm-wrestling rules stipulated that thumbs must be locked with the opposing competitor, and Snoopy has no thumbs.

What if you don’t have the genetics to participate?

For spectators, a good starting point is the website The ARM WARS Super Series is the largest and most established professional arm-wrestling promotion in the world, and is broadcast in more than ninety countries and in thirty-three languages every week.

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