Arm wrestling looks to climb beyond barroom bragging rights

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              Geoff Hale, right, of Tulsa, Okla., celebrates his win over Tom Holland, of Slough, Berkshire, United Kingdom, in the lightweight battle royale at the World Armwrestling League Championships in Atlanta, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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ATLANTA (AP) — Geoff Hale is a mild-mannered, bespectacled geologist by day.

He takes on a whole new persona when he steps into The Pit.

Eyes bulging. Muscles popping. Boasts flying. Adrenaline flowing.

He becomes the Hale Raiser.

“We all hold it in, because we’re a civilized society, but to be put in an environment where you can just go crazy out there … it’s just freedom is what it is, ” Hale said, his voice rising excitedly. “Freedom to be that animal, that beast, to let loose that natural killer instinct. That’s what comes out when you’re on the table.”

Hale competes in the World Armwrestling League, a fledgling organization that hopes to take this most basic of sports beyond the barroom, to make it something more than a simplistic way to determining who buys the next round of beers and a punchline for Sylvester Stallone’s 1980s crime against filmmaking , “Over The Top.”

The WAL held its final event of the season Wednesday night at the TBS studios near downtown Atlanta, doling out some $100,000 in prize money during a production that borrowed heavily from the theatrics of wrestling (an actual pile of cash was placed in the middle of the table for the matches) and the hype of a heavyweight title fight (an announcer’s booming introductions accompanied the athletes’ entrance into the small arena).

“I believe we’ve tapped into something really cool,” said Steve Kaplan, the league’s president. “In today’s world, there’s not a lot of things that bring people together. The sport of arm wrestling does that, unlike anything else. You see just brutal competition and strategy and moves and counter-moves and people that just want to rip each other’s arms off at the table. But afterward, there’s always an embrace.”

Arm wrestling is merely a part-time job for these athletes, who traveled to the Atlanta from seven countries and a wide range of backgrounds.

There was Hale, who runs a petroleum consulting firm in Oklahoma with his wife, has a 13-month-old daughter and competed in checkered Vans right out of the Jeff Spicoli Collection. After winning a four-man “battle royale,” he had to catch an early morning flight to be back at work on Thursday.

There was David Chaffee, who works as a maximum-security jail guard in Erie, Pennsylvania. He broke his arm not long after taking up the sport but has come back stronger than ever, a 275-pound behemoth who routed his Bulgarian opponent with three quick pins.

There was Devon Larratt, a towering Canadian who is perhaps the sport’s biggest star. The 40-year-old has done seven tours of duty in Afghanistan as part of special forces.

There was Fia Reisek, who grew up in far northern Sweden in a family of loggers, which made for a natural transition to arm wrestling. She has won several world titles and emerged as the strongest of four women competing in the WAL’s middleweight division.

All seemed laid-back and downright normal.

That changed when they were called to the table, egged on by the music and the lights and several hundred screaming fans surrounding The Pit.

Hale takes his cue from a famous cartoon character.

“Everybody loves Joker from ‘Batman,'” he said. “He’s funny, but he’s evil. He’s a bad dude if you really get down to it. That’s kind of what I wanted to create. The guy you love to hate.”

At 41, Chaffee is old enough to remember “Over The Top” from its release in 1987. “I was probably one of the nine people who saw it in the theater that year,” he joked, having been subjected to the ludicrous tale of a long-haul truck driver (played by Stallone) who tries to win back the affections of his estranged son by becoming a champion arm wrestler.

“People always ask, ‘Do you turn your hat around?’ Do you drink motor oil at the table?'” Chaffee said, remembering two of the movie’s more notorious scenes. “No, it’s not really like that.”

Reisek was never much for traditional sports.

She always felt more at home going hand to hand.

“It’s just you against another person,” Reisek said. “So close. You’re gripping their hands and you feel their power. You feel their everything, coming through their hand into yours.”

Founded in 2014, the WAL held five tournaments around the country this year, leading up its Atlanta finale featuring the season’s top competitors. The matches were streamed live over the Bleacher Report app, though there are hopes that the sport will find more mainstream exposure and acceptance.

As arm wrestling grows, drug testing is an issue that must be addressed.

While the league has a policy against performance-enhancing substances, it is merely based on the honor system. Kaplan said some form of drug testing will be introduced for the 2019 season, but it’s not clear how strict it will be.

The final match of the night was the big one: a heavyweight showdown between Larratt, who goes by the nickname “No Limits,” and Michael “Monster” Todd, sporting a long, dark beard and ominous scowl.

Backstage before the match, Larratt prowled the halls in a lime green hoodie and matching sneakers, letting out long, deep breaths that sounded a bit like a steam locomotive struggling to get up a hill. When he stepped out on the stage for the introductions, he nodded confidently in Todd’s direction.

“It’s time, Michael. It’s time,” Larratt said.

The two giants split the first four pins, leading to a decisive final match in the best-of-five title round. Bound together with a thin orange strap to keep their hands from slipping apart, they dug in for a showdown that seemingly had no end.

Two inches shorter but 40 pounds heavier, Todd quickly crouched at the side of the table in a technique that gave him an edge in leverage. He finally wore Larratt down for the pin after an excruciating 2½ minutes that seemed much longer in a sport where matches are often decided in a matter of seconds.

When it was over, these seemingly bitter foes quickly resumed their friendship. Todd praised Larratt for his military service and all he’s done for arm wrestling. Their wives hugged.

Larratt tried to clap for his opponent, but all he could muster was a left hand tapping against his leg.

He can’t wait to do it again.

“I’ve got a lot to work on,” Larratt said. “But I’ll be back. I promise you that. I love arm wrestling like crazy.”