A few years ago I ran into a man who claimed to be a professional foosball player. Being thoroughly loaded at the time, I declared this the most absurd thing that I had ever heard and insisted that, professional or no, he could not beat me. He then crushed me seven games straight, unleashing all manner of spins, shots, flips, curves, etc., roundly molesting me in full view of my fellow inebriates and God. The next morning I Googled the words “professional” and “foosball”, calling up some 148,000 entries and confirming in my mind the following fact — whatever else the present age may be, a heyday of rank amateurism it’s not.
I recently had opportunity to revisit this point as a few weekends ago the 25th edition of New York City’s premier arm wrestling competition — the “Big Apple Grapple” — took place on Manhattan’s Pier 86. Now, one might think that of all the many forms of human endeavor, arm wrestling would be among the simplest. Two guys, a flat surface, some hops-fueled boasting — strongest man wins. In fact, this is not at all the case. Like everything these days, arm wrestling is a pursuit for specialists. Half-assing schlubs need not apply.
Or, as Mike Kovalyk, a spectator I met near the back of the crowd described things, “There’s a lot that goes into it. How strong your tendons are, your grip, your rear delt, how much fast-twitch muscle you have versus slow-twitch. Genetics are huge... Plus, you gotta know what to do and when to do it.”
Up on the stage where the grappling went down, there were two men who seemed to have an intimate knowledge of both. Tim Bresnan and Reggie Ward, both Super Heavyweights from Connecticut, were stuck in something of a stalemate. The competition featured five weight classes, ranging from 150-pound Lightweights to the likes of Bresnan and Ward — basically NFL linemen with excessively developed forearms. They had started the match with a minute or so of what I assumed was jockeying for position — clasping, unclasping their hands, shifting their elbows, changing their grips. Then, satisfied, I suppose, one of the officials — clad in an appropriately authoritative zebra-striped shirt — lifted his hands, and the bout began. Ward, in a pair of baggy gym pants and a backwards baseball cap, was getting the better of it, slowly forcing Bresnan’s arm downward, putting the bulk of his 250-plus pounds into the effort. Not done, though, Bresnan battled back — redfaced — stalling Ward a few inches from victory. They stayed this way for a couple of seconds. The crowd — perhaps 150 deep — began to cheer.
“We gotta good match!” the announcer yelled.
“Keep that shoulder in!”
“Finish this thing!”
The table began to rock beneath the pair’s shifting weight. Two officials jumped onto the ground, each grabbing a table leg and clinging on to secure it. Ward gave Bresnan’s arm another sharp tug, trying to force it to the table. Bresnan’s face, meanwhile, had moved from red to a vaguely ominous shade of maroon. Manly grunting emanated throughout the hall.
Then, suddenly, it stopped. The two straightened from the table and backed away. Ward walked in circles about the stage, obviously disgusted at something.
“What happened?” asked the announcer.
“Time out,” said an official.
“Time out?” the crowd shouted in disbelief.
“What’s that about?” I asked Kovalyk.
“Elbow fault,” he said. In his zeal to beat Bres-nan, it seemed that Ward had lifted his elbow off the table.
A minute later, they were back at it. This time, though, they’d just restarted when Ward faulted again. Two and you’re out, which meant Bresnan took the win, adding an anti-climatic end to what had been one of the most — and to be perfectly honest, one of the only — exciting matches of the day.
Because the truth is, despite its many virtues, arm wrestling doesn’t make for the world’s greatest spectator sport. Mainly this is a problem of brevity. The average Grapple match was over in one or two seconds — a length not exactly conducive to dramatic tension or mythic story arcs.
Which is not to say, however, that the day was anything less than wildly entertaining. There were steely glares and raucous taunts and mounds of absurdly well-developed musculature. There was one woman who competed in heels and another who reapplied lipstick between rounds and plenty of others who looked like they could probably stomp me with an unfriendly glance. There were haircuts that would be equally at home in either Williamsburg or Broad Channel. There were cowboy hats and oversized American flags and reflective sunglasses. There was a champion named Buttafuoco (admit it, you just snickered).
And anyway, on a certain level, there’s something inherently entertaining about spending time immersed in a heretofore unfamiliar scene, gawking at the rituals of yet another of our many self-selected tribes. There seems no limit to the range and specificity of human enthusiasms. It’s a situation both amusing and bewildering — heartening and discouraging at the same time. Frisbee-golfing, spoon collecting, video-dancing, wife-swapping — there’s an expert constituency out there for just about everything.
Interestingly enough, the highlight of the afternoon was delivered not by some grizzled veteran but a rookie on a lark. South Ozone Park’s Mirline Berrouet came to the contest at the behest of her high school chemistry teacher, and, despite going up against what was advertised as some of the toughest competition in the Northeast, made her way into the final round and a second place finish.
Clad in a black “NYC ARMS” T-shirt, Berrouet started her improbable run by crushing former National Champion Sue Fisher.
“A huge upset!” the announcer shouted as the audience — if not stunned, at least surprised — burst into applause.
And from there she kept rolling, each time climbing shyly up to the stage and beating down her opponent. Then, with a sweetly sheepish smile on her face and her eyes fixed firmly on her shoes in a way that would make Conor Oberst proud, she’d shuffle back into the crowd and take her seat, clapping politely for the next round of competitors.
In the semifinals she beat Fisher again, and though she went down in the final round to this year’s champion, it was an undeniably outstanding debut.
I caught her on her way out, and asked if she’d mind taking a minute to talk. Still shy, but accommodating nonetheless, she agreed.
And so, reportorial jackass that I am, I pumped her for quotes, insight, motivation. Why had she come to that day’s competition? Her teacher had suggested it. Had she ever arm wrestled competitively before? No, she hadn’t. Was she surprised at how well she had done? Yes, she was.
So what, exactly, was this anyway, I asked. The start of a semi-pro arm wrestling career? The precursor to a tour schedule and twice-a-day workouts? Or was it just a gas, a game, a one-time thing? A fierce rebuke to professionalism and its devotees? A small triumph for those few of us still out there who, basically, have no idea what we’re doing?
I looked at her expectantly. Just what did it all mean?
She paused for a moment before she spoke, eyes still on her shoes, wisely averting the gaze of the madman before her.
“I don’t know,” she said with a quiet grin.
“I just wanted to win, I guess.”