American Arm (Wrist) Wrestling

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Arm wrestling is frequently thought of as a sport. Many would disagree and claim it to be a simple contest between two individuals who think of themselves as a stronger person than their opponent.

The object of the competition is to force your opponent’s wrist down flat on a tabletop in a position behind the shoulder from which it is impossible to respond because the muscles in the arm cannot gain leverage. It is called a “pin.” The successful competitor is determined by a referee and is considered the winner when the ref sees the defeated wrist touch the tabletop.

Arm wrestling can be done in three forms. The most popular way is standing at an elevated arm-wrestling mat, with the elbow “anchored” in a specified “home square” near the edge of the mat. (Most professional competitions use this form.) The second form is seated at a table, also with the elbow “anchored” in a specified “home square” near the edge of the table. The third form is lying prone on the ground with the elbow “anchored” half the distance between the competitor’s shoulders. The elbow must stay in place; if the elbow is lifted off the “home square” it is cause for immediate disqualification.     

Although it seems logical that the concept would have developed naturally in most civilizations when personal competitors are involved, there are no relevant records of historical significance available prior to the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

Spontaneous competitions spring up every day and night in places where macho (Type-A) personalities gather. Picture two brothers at the breakfast table (when Mom becomes the referee) or two tough guys in a bar bragging about how hard they worked that day. Other favored sites are gymnasiums, parks where the combatants can sit at a picnic table, and sandy beaches.

A true stereotypical arm wrestler has never emerged because of the overly broad spectrum of people who choose this way to settle differences. For example, it is not only strong men who arm wrestle, little boys love to show off in this way. So do little girls, and big girls, too! On occasion a young man will be challenged by a young woman. And many business disputes have been settled between men in $500 suits arm wrestling in 4- and 5-star restaurants.

Arm wrestling has become a universal symbol of competition. The postcard below is a fine example of how world currencies compete for the business dollar or euro.

Photos of arm wrestlers find a way into many family photo albums, especially endearing are the ones that picture a nine- or ten-year old arm wrestling with his grandfather. (At one United States Armwrestling Association (USAA) event I attended around 1995, the competitors were invited to bring their favorite photos for an ad campaign. I will never forget the photo of twin brothers – about six years old – arm wrestling on the kitchen table; they were both as naked as jaybirds.)

The USAA was founded in 1985 and is one of two organizations that hosts events around the United States and worldwide. Their primary mission is to garner respect for the sport and to provide qualified referees for competitions and exhibitions.

The USAA is also responsible for setting and maintaining rankings for their members. The ranking system includes the following classes:  Beginner, Amateur (with sub-classes at low level and competitive), Contender (with sub-classes at amateur contender and dominate contender), and Professional (with sub-classes at low-level pro, competitive pro, pro contender, pro dominate contender, nationally ranked pro, and world ranked pro.

In America there are more than 600 arm-wrestling clubs and/or teams. Most teams and clubs welcome members by weight class and age. The competitions they sponsor are frequent and for specific competitors. One list of events in a 2007 competition in California included the following: fathers vs sons, grandfathers vs grandsons, men wearing shirts and ties vs men without shirts, tough guys vs other tough guys, tough girls vs other tough girls, a tough guy vs a tough girl, priests vs parishioners, saints vs sinners, fat people vs skinny people, and man vs machine.

If you are interested in learning, but not participating in events, there are many ways to be involved. You could be a promoter, or sponsor a kid who wants to participate, or become a referee. And just spectating or cheerleading is always fun.

The sport is not recommended for children under age 12 or seniors over age 80.

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I remember a series of Peanuts strips in which Snoopy entered the World Wrist Wrestling Championship contested in Petaluma, California.

I always wondered if the rules allowed dogs to compete. But perhaps the rules didn’t apply to Snoopy.

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