Petaluma, Calif. — Like any good Cub Scout, I learned to play it safe. I look both ways when crossing busy intersections. I never play with matches, and still unplug the toaster before digging out burned raisin bread with my fork. Today, like any reporter who doesn't cover coups and four-alarm fires, I can safely hug the sidelines, watch others stick out their necks, and then write about the ordeals in the news room.
Until last week I had never risked life or limb in the line of duty. So what I was doing wrist-wrestling that 390-pound Hawaiian named Homer for ABC's "Wide World of Sports" still puzzles me. Anything for a story? As one of the referees whispered to me as I stumbled onstage before several hundred screaming spectators, "Buddy, you gotta be brave or stupid!"
It all started quite innocently a month ago with a newspaper notice for the " 1980 World's Wrist-wrestling Championship" in Petaluma, 30 miles north of San Francisco. It sounded like a classic case of California hyperbole for an event that couldn't draw more than a dozen football players from the local high school. I began to recall my own high school days in Milwaukee, arm-wrestling during woodshop class. The next thing I knew, I was driving north to lay down my $20 entry fee. I figured a few other 198-pound weaklings would show up in Petaluma, but perhaps should have known better the moment Arnold Schwarzenegger's lookalike began his push-ups in front of Petaluma's Veterans Memorial Building.
The entire parking lot was bulging with biceps. Two bruisers were pumping iron (blue barbells, to be precise) inside a Dodge van padded with red crushed velvet. In the hall I joined the line of Popeyes and Olive Oyles weighing in. (There were four men's weight classes, two women's.)
I soon learned this was the 19th annual World's Wrist-wrestling Championship, a contest that attracted over 400 competitors from farm towns throughout the South and Midwest, in addition to national champions from Japan, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia.
"Any awards you would like to list?" a woman at the registration table asked the man in front of me. "Yes ma'am, two-time world champion from Davenport, Iowa." (I had won a three-legged race in the third grade at a Scout-a-rama but decided to keep my mouth shut.)
In the glare of ABC's camera lights, I tipped the scales at a dainty 6 ft. 3 in., 213 pounds, a few chili dogs heavier than my former self. The judge smiled. "Son, anything over 200 pounds goes into unlimited heavyweight division. If you're lucky you might get to pull with Cleve Dean." Dean, the defending world champion, is a 6 ft. 8 in., 466-pound hog farmer from Pavo, Ga. I smiled back at the judge as graciously as possible and began pacing the room for someone who could show me how to defend myself against such a Goliath.
"You've come to the right place, but anything I could teach you now is too late." Kevin Hearon, a wiry, lightweight-class wrist-wrestler from Sequim, Wash. , probably knows more about the elementary physics of wrist-wrestling than anyone else on the circuit. There is even an entire style of wrist-wrestling dubbed the "Hearon technique."
My lesson began. "There are three basic techniques," Hearon said. "The oldest is the Woolsey technique, invented by a guy here in Petaluma. Drive your shoulder down to the arm and tackle with your shoulder. The elbow is the midline of the body and you create a miniature fulcrum. Twist with as little resistance and waste of motion as possible.
'The second is the top roll, which utilizes a good hand grip. Anyone is capable of a one-sixteenth-of-a-second reaction time. If you're fast, you'll win. Most guys will use a preload of back pressure.
"The third technique is the 'jerk and fire.' Some call it the Hearon technique, after me. I learned it from watching Donna Meyers on television. She weighed only 110 pounds and was beating women twice her size. The secret is to apply pressure to your opponent's weakness. Go 90 degrees to the direction of his force."
Hearon suggested that while digesting his instructions I join him and a few of his friends for their training meal. Popeye may need spinach, but wrist-wrestlers crave pasta. So six of us ended up shoulder to shoulder at a booth in Denny's, apparently the only restaurant in Petaluma serving spaghetti and meatballs at 11 o'clock in the morning.
Next to Hearon sat Steve Lusby, a world featherweight champion, who was firming up his strategy. He had read somewhere that prison wardens used pink cells to calm violent inmates and thought he would wear a pink Lacoste shirt to "mellow out" his opponents. Opposite Lusby was Bob Kuhn, a strong, silent type who worked in a Peoria sawmill. He is the Illinois and Iowa state wrist-wrestling champion.
"It's not just strength, it's in your head," Kuhn advises me. "If you're up against a guy who is twice as big as you and he's growling, you've got to growl right back."
Beside him was Jack Barringer, a plump, balding fellow from Ames, Iowa. He made a business of marketing a wrist-wrestling machine called "The Monster," and claimed his device was being used in 24 states and that his company just hit $3 million in franchise sales. "I just sold Arizona for $25,000 and the state of Iowa for $10,000," Barringer said.
On Barringer's right was Marcia Monk, women's lightweight state champion in Nebraska and Iowa. She and her husband make a living setting up and promoting wrist-wrestling tournaments on Barringer's "Monster" in small towns throughout Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, and Minnesota.
"Small-town people love it. There's nothing else to do and everybody wants to be the town champ. Osmond, Neb., has only 800 people in town and 84 showed up to compete. We turn up at county fairs, watermelon feeds, town barbecues, but always make sure not to hold contests during harvest time or Friday night football.I referee and my husband is on the microphone giving the local people nicknames like Dangerous Dan and Terrible Ted."
How had shem prepared for the Petaluma tournament?
"I commute a half-hour to my physical education classes and I drive with one hand and squeeze a hand grip with the other. Of course I do weight training, use the Nautilus, and strengthen my arms by backstroking five miles with my legs tied together."
Back at the Petaluma Inn, where most of the wrist-wrestlers were staying, I saw my first official wrist-wrestling table. Ernie Martinez and Joe Cervantes, of the Capitola-by-the-Sea Professional Arm-wrestling Team, were practicing "quick starts." They looked as if they bench-press Volkswagens in their spare time. Martinez explained the fine line between wrist-wrestling and arm-wrestling.
Both are done in standing position and use a 41-inch table with a padded horseshoe-shape cup for each contestant's elbow. In arm-wrestling, contestants wrestle with their right arms while clenching a three-inch peg with their left hands. Wrist-wrestlers also use their right arms but lock left hands with each other in a finger curl position.
In arm-wrestling, neither contestant is permitted to move his upper body during the first four seconds of the match. In wrist-wrestling, contestants use their entire bodies. Some jump in the air, some climb the legs of the table. Head butting and the use of the chin is outlawed. The ideal wrist-wrestler is 6 ft. 1 in. and has his waist at tabletop level. Many of the shorter entrants walk up to the table teetering on combat boots and tennis shoes converted with 12-inch rubber platform soles. One can't help wondering how their David Bowie footwear goes down in the sawmills of Peoria.
On the second floor of the Petaluma Inn, a team from Ellinwood, Kan., has just finished guzzling lunch (raw eggs) and were, with elevator shoes under their arms, heading for Veterans Memorial Hall. Rick Grossenbacher, a packing house worker in a wool shirt and blue suspenders, introduced himself as "a beef lugger and Christian man from Kansas." His 6 ft. 8 in., 269-pound teammate, Dave McCray, warns me to stay away from Cleve Dean and "the Hawaiian Giant."
Homer Keanu, known on the circuit as "the Giant," is a recreation director in the rural community of Hauula, 27 miles from Honolulu. He has competed in Petaluma since 1969. He weighs 390 pounds, has a 60-inch barrel chest, and was the biggest man ever to enter until 1978 when Cleve Dean flew in from Georgia.
Dean is the Babe Ruth of wrist-wrestling. His name is on the lips of kids from Petaluma to Pavo, his hometown, where he works on his father's hog farm. I met Dean in the back of the hall as the lightweight competition was beginning. He was wearing an orange pullover jersey that read "World's Strongest Men," a leftover from an ABC strong men's competition. Dean looks down and in a kettledrum voice assures me: "Anybody can win this. You don't have to be Mr. America. In fact it's usually the guys with the stringy-looking arms that win." Dean's arms are anything but stringy.
One of Dean's teammates, from Atlanta, is Johnny Walker, two-time world middleweight champion. He warned of foul play: "Watch for the elbow raising and guys jimmying through, trying to yank your left arm. some guys will try to rattle you by stomping on the floor or shaking the table," Walker, who prefers the huff-and-puff-and-blow-your-house-down method, admonished. "I just suck in all my wind, tense up, and when the referee says go I let it all out like an exploding balloon."
Most everyone in Petaluma will admit that wrist-wrestling is as much a battle of wits as a contest of strength. The most successful contestants have a complete repertoire of theatrics. Some pace and snort. Some jockey for "thumb position" and quibble with the referee. There are those who shave their heads, and those who eat garlic, those who wear pink shirts, and those who prefer baseball caps adorned with stuffed antlers.
One of the more creative (and effective) methods of distracting an opponent was devised some years ago by Frank Smith, a middleweight from Concord, Calif. Moments before has match begins, smith peels back the top on a can of live crickets, grabs a handful, pulls out his false teeth, and eats the insects in front of his opponent. This year he was wearing an embroidered tank top which read "The Cricket Eater." He let me peek at the 185 crickets he brought to Petaluma and explained: "They're crispy like potato chips but 100 percent protein. I never eat anything but live ones." Whatever works for you, Frank.
The preliminary matches of Petaluma fill the hall with an abundance of defeated competitors left to nurse what is known in the business as a "loser's limp."
"It was the referee's fault. He gave my start away and I didn't have a chance," New Jersey lobsterman Pete Nistok pouts. He was flown to Petaluma by Muscle's Watermelon Bar, a produce stand in Highlands, N.J.
Lena Bush, Alaska women's lightweight champion, was competing in tight black pants, spiked high heels, and a string of pearls. She had arrived from Anchorage the day before and lost in the first round. "I thought we got two chances. That's the way we always do it in Alaska," she complained, rubbing her wrist.
I was in the hallway interviewing a middleweight wrist-wrestler in a wheelchair when my name was finally called over the loudspeaker. Approaching the table at center stage, I recognized my opponent immediately from his picture in the program. In the first round I had drawn "The Hawaiian Giant."
I ceremoniously dusted my hands with the resin bag. Figuring I could not muster a convincing growl, I began to giggle nervously. Homer Keanu looked slightly puzzled, but returned the smile.
He immediately turned serious when someone from the crowd shouted, "C'mon Homer, whomp the little guy!" My confidence was not building.
A referee in a zebra-striped shirt and "Reagan for President" button looked in my direction. "Are you ready?" I nodded and clasped hands with Homer. "Go!"
It was over in a matter of seconds. "The Hawaiian Giant" slapped my arm on the table like Dole crushing pineapple. Too fast for an ABC "instant replay."
Leaving the stage, I ran into Kevin Hearon. He had won his first two matches and was moving into the semifinals. "What did I do wrong, coach?" I asked.
"Well it would take me less time to tell you what you did right," he mused. "You did exactly two things correctly: You had your feet on the ground and you put your arm up on the table. That's about all I can say for your wrist-wrestling savvy." I thanked Hearon for those words of encouragement and wished him the best.
In the bright lights of ABC's "Wide World of Sports," Cleve Dean, the 466 -pound Georgia hog farmer, wrestled his way to another four-foot trophy and his third World Championship. And then there were those of us left in the shadows to walk away with our souvenir T-shirts and paper certificates. The policeman at the door halfheartedly consoled me: "The pen is mightier than the sword? At least you'll always have the last word."