Chicken Grips Pepper One Arm Warfare At Living Fest (Choice Protein Bar Maker Goes Ironically Into The Red)

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AAF Queensland Arm Wrestling Championships; Brisbane Health and Fitness Expo; 12/10/13

“…he’s all Popeye, arms off the proverbial Richter in terms of proportion. The swelling of his triceps recalls images of those free-jawed snakes that can swallow deer whole.”

Report by Nicholas Turner

The Queensland Armwrestling Championships is a low-impact sort of state title to put on. It requires only a table, a pair of custom padded wrestling boards, two referees, and someone to keep track of the draw. Its happens on a Saturday, amid the air-conditioned, epileptically shiny and colourful rah-rah of the Queensland Health and Fitness Expo, on a small stage at the very back of the high-ceilinged Hall 2 of Brisbane’s Convention Centre.  The competitors mill among the modest crowd, relatively undistinguished in a place where every third or forth person is atypically big. Passers-by have paid $25 dollars to walk the narrow arteries of the Expo, hassled and winked at by salesmen, samplers and bouncy personal trainers. They find themselves in front of the arm-wrestling stage out of curiosity and probably also to take a break from the endless propositions. Some will stay long enough only to see a bout or two, and for them the competition will probably seem like a street performance, a demonstration, or else a kind of carnival sideshow from another time. Competitive arm-wrestling is, on the surface, the formalisation of a ritual that seems almost inherently informal, akin to a monkey in a business suit, and at the certain risk of being just as novel. But for others who go the distance to see out this occasionally surprising sub-world of strength, grit and mind-games, there’s just as much to please the sportingly inclined as those who can’t resist a curiosity.

There are six categories for the arm-wrestlers to enter; three weight classes each of left- and right-arm competition. All four of today’s underweight trophies will go home with a single, pretty-faced lad who wears a Miami Heat sleeveless (guess why) and smiles all the time like he knows something that he’s about to make really public and clear. For body-type, he’s all Popeye, arms off the proverbial Richter in terms of proportion. The swelling of his triceps recalls images of those free-jawed snakes that can swallow deer whole. Over the afternoon, his main contestant is a bearded veteran with a nose that looks like it could chop firewood and a moustache that’s gagging for nineteenth century grooming and wax. This fellow’s arms are not so much bulging as plain tree-trunk thick and hairy. When he’s not wrestling, the arms hang like he’s carrying bullions in sacks. He’s your classic Lumberjack-type. Aside from Popeye and the Lumberjack, there’s a third physical type that’s virtuous for arm-wrestling, arguably the most predictable. This one exists only in the open weight division and is your plain old-fashioned Big Boy, corn-fed and unwelcome in china shops. Unlike Popeye and the Lumberjack, the Big Boy’s disproportion is not within his own person but rather in relation to everyone else in the room. One such Big Boy takes out the super-heavy-weight left-arm trophy without breaking a sweat and looks like doing the double before a wily Lumberjack plays a devastating card in the blue-riband event.

That all of this takes place in the context of a Health and Fitness Expo is slightly misplaced. Though arm-wrestling is by no means the only exhibition of strength on offer, it is the only place in which one can see a direct physical contest. Although it makes sense on an immediate level to have strong guys showing their wares here, the wrestling itself is actually something of an anomaly because it separates winners and losers. This is an industry that by appearances wants you to take up the internal challenge, to join the cycle of self-improvement in which the will to improve is the improvement. Here you may well be inspired to be a ‘better’ person, which goes some way to explaining why entities like World Vision and Police recruitment have set up booths for any arbitrage of good-intention.

Everyone is so happy, rosy-cheeked and good-looking here that it’s undeniably seductive. At any moment you can stop to have an unchecked perve at those being paid to stand around strategically underdressed. People are lining up to buy things and signing contracts for services. There’s booths for gym clothes/equipment, digital health assessments, massage, food processors, supplements…you name it, really.  Personal trainers skip about, shaven-legged and funky-haired, enticing passers-by onto rowing machines, bench-presses and weird suspended stretching contraptions. And an amazing number of people of various ages and physical proportions, swept up by the quasi-spiritual and overtly sexual energy of the room, do actually get onto these machines, wearing plain clothes and surrounded by a heap of strangers. Putting down their goody bags to grab whatever part of the machine they’re directed to, they start panting, gyrating, squeaking and sweating under fierce command of good-looking twenty-something men. (I came to the annual ‘Sexpo’ at this very same venue some years ago and witnessed a man from the audience nominate himself to be stripped, dripped with hot wax and whipped over a pummel horse by a topless dominatrix, which at the time seemed to me an extreme imprudence. Though is there any real difference between these two very public displays of private desperation?) The point to be made is that on these fitness apparatuses, as in the company of someone whose been paid to please or hurt you, one can never really lose. It is simply by engaging them that one succeeds, and that seems to be how the health and fitness industry keeps the cycle of feedback closed to all but positivity for those who buy and sign up. Whereas on the arm-wrestling table you can have your ass expressly handed to you, and you might just go away feeling shitty about it.

On the other hand, the negative feedback of fitness is inherent; getting fit hurts and you can’t dodge or share the pain of it. You can only learn to deal with it, maybe to enjoy it, and this sort of mental self-management is a serious personal business, the stuff of human mettle. How could one really argue with the eagerness of individuals to do something as personal as suffering, however publically they find inspiration? The truth is that you don’t get to see all that. You never really know if the person gets what they think they’ve paid for. What you do see is various innovations for putting a price on things that can’t be owned; things like health and fulfilment and happiness.

I take the long route on multiple trips back to the free Gatorade stand by the entrance, forced to ruthlessly sample protein bars because the arm-wrestling runs right over a regular lunch break and the snack-bar’s line-up is almost as formidable as the one to get a photograph with TV’s own (The?) Commando. By the end of the afternoon the girl peddling a particularly palatable white-chocolate and macadamia flavoured health bar will find within herself the gumption to slap my hand as its familiar shadow falls again on the sampling tray. After which I diversify into unsweetened almond milk (very briefly) and Chia seeds. A wash-down mouthful of sports drink remains the common denominator, not least because the boys in the stand are good value for inside-tips and banter. A crowd has gathered on the floor in front of the main stage to wait for the fitness models, who enter just as I’m filling up my lightning emblazed ‘G’ cup. They’re so densely fake-tanned that they seem to have been carved out of mahogany desks. They bear giant plastic angel-wings and glittered bikinis, Mardi-Gras style. And they smile you-know-how at everyone that stops to stare.

As you’d hope, competitive arm-wrestling doesn’t stray too much from the dispute-settling kind we all know and love. But within the simple framework, there’s plenty of idiosyncrasies. Slippage, for example. Most athletes will know that the palms are one of the first places to go oily when the nerves of competition spike. A clean slip can just about throw both wrestlers off the podium, and the released tension of the bout seems to drift ceiling-ward while the referee whips out the strap. This strap is the kind you use to tie down a load when you’re moving house and it goes on after every slip to save a repeat occurrence. Occasionally, however, in an unstrapped bout, the wrestlers will lose partial grip but remain clinging to each other by whatever awkward means. In this case, the muscular demands of the contest change dramatically from shoulder and arm, to forearm, wrist and fingers. Typically, both wrestlers will let go and await the application of the strap. But occasionally a wrestler will feel some advantage from what’s happened and grip his opponent for dear life, hoping for success out of the confusion. Meanwhile the opponent wants out, and tugs accordingly, though the rules forbid him to lift his elbow from the table. It looks terribly unusual and awkward, these big men, once locked in a well-established and archetypally manly encounter of arm-and-shoulder strength, now diddling with the tips of each other’s fingers, something like a couple of fighting cocks that have locked claws. The Chicken Grip is one of sport’s more delectable morsels of absurdity.

The great drama of the afternoon takes place in the heavy-weight right-arm competition, where the as-yet-undefeated Big Boy looks a shoe-in, having already snatched the left-arm equivalent title without much fuss. He is imposing in that very, very obvious way and the sun-glasses wearing teddy bear on his shirt does nothing to dampen his aura. But when he meets an unsuspecting, cap-backwards Lumberjack in an early final, he’s pounced upon by an utterly planned explosion of twitch fibres that leave him reeling, hyper-extended and ultimately beat. After almost four hours of arm-wrestling, the crowd is run-through by its first real shock-wave. Now on the bad end of the draw, the Big Boy finds himself having to take the hard road to the grand final. And he ends up there on the back of consecutive tough wins, needing to beat the Lumberjack twice in a row to snatch the trophy. He manages the first, but the Lumberjack, who turns out to be a sort of genius in the context of this boil-over, has just enough left to finish him off.

Match Day Burger (Various protein bar samples, score range given): 2.5 – 8.0

MDB Cost: N/A (PB samples, gratis)

MDB Service Atmosphere: 7.0

Results: Under 80kg left, Under 80kg right, Under 95kg left, Under 95kg right – Grant Tolentino; Over 95kg left – Alan Kliese; Over 95kg right – Ryan Scott

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