Would you believe that several individuals once bet thousands of dollars that a man who had never armwrestled on an official table would beat John Brzenk? It happened, back in the fall of 1994. This is the story of how the whole thing unfolded.
In the mid-‘90s, Darren Sebring (former AAA State Director for Indiana) was running armwrestling tournaments in Indianapolis which typically offered cash prizes. John Brzenk had competed in at least one of them. "Big Arm" John, a local amateur armwrestler, also competed in these events. It was at one of these events that John Brzenk and "Big Arm" John met.
Around the summer of 1994, “Big Arm” John was playing pool for money with a man named Jim Royer in Toledo, Ohio. Both men liked to gamble and the conversation turned to armwrestling. "Big Arm" asked Jim if he knew anyone good at armwrestling. Jim replied that he did: in fact he knew a local guy who had never been beat. "Big Arm" then asked if Jim would be interested in placing money on this guy if a match was arranged with someone "Big Arm" knew. Jim was very interested, as he had never seen the local guy struggle in an armwrestling match. “Big Arm” asked Jim how much he’d like to bet, and he responded something like “however much you want to bet”. That was all "Big Arm" needed to hear, because luckily for him, and unluckily for Jim, the man that he knew was none other than John Brzenk.
The man that Jim knew was Andy Keith. Andy was a big man, at least 6’4” and weighed nearly 300 lbs. He had supposedly never lost an armwrestling match, but then again, he had never officially competed. Dan Victor (future World Champion) had armwrestled Andy before at a party and lost, and so he knew Andy was good. (This, however, was before Dan knew anything about organized armwrestling.) Jim got in touch with Andy, and Andy was up for the match.
"Big Arm" proceeded to get in touch John Brzenk to see if he would be interested in participating in such a match. John wouldn’t need to bet any of his own money, but rather would get a percentage of the total winnings, should he win the match. Presumably, Andy was offered a similar deal. Because it looked like there would be a significant of money bet on the match, John took advantage of the opportunity.
It took two to three months for the match to come together, but it was finally going to happen on a Saturday at the pool hall in Toledo where Jim and “Big Arm” John originally talked about the potential wager. "Big Arm" had enlisted Darren's help for the coordination of the match. Darren contacted Bill Ballinger, an experienced puller (and World Champion) from Indiana, who agreed to bring an armwrestling table and to officiate the match.
The day of the match, the atmosphere was tense. Thousands of dollars would soon be changing hands. The direction in which the money would go was dependent on the result of a single armwrestling match. Andy arrived first; John was running late. Both had their backers. In total, close to $10,000 was being bet on each side. Dan was betting a couple hundred dollars on Andy, and Jim was betting even more. Many local patrons were also betting on Andy. "Big Arm" had thousands bet on John, Bill Ballinger had $300 on John as well. He would have brought more to bet, but his involvement was a last minute affair and he wasn't able to get to the bank in time.
When John Brzenk walked in, some of the locals chuckled. They thought it was impossible for a guy John's size to beat Andy. At the time, John only weighed about 195 lbs, he wore glasses, and he was wearing a baseball jacket -- he definitely didn't look intimidating. The locals were so confident, that betting went even higher after John arrived, until the total amount wagered was close to $25,000.
Prior to the start of the match, Andy was acting really cocky. He was swearing, saying how John didn't stand a chance of beating him. He was going to "smash" John. The problem was that he didn't really know anything about armwrestling, and he was about to go up against the best in the game.
It took about five minutes for the two pullers to get their grip set up. Andy like to shoulder press, and he was trying to start with his shoulder forward. He refused to listen to the ref, and kept moving and trying to bring his shoulder in. After enough time had passed, Bill asked John if he was okay to start this way, to which he responded "yes".
A fraction of a second after the ref said "go" the match was already over. John had flashed Andy. Andy's response? "What the fuck was that!?" Most of the people in attendance couldn't believe what they had just witnessed: they were amazed that this average size man could defeat a much bigger man, known to be strong, with such ease.
The few who bet on John collected their winnings, and John's share ended up close to $3,000. A few others had heard about the match beforehand but weren't able to get their money in on time to bet. Bill Brzenk, John's brother, wired Bill Ballinger $1,500 to bet on his brother, but didn't get it to him early enough. Mr. Ballinger was a little disappointed that he wasn't able to bet more money as well -- sure bets such as this one don't come around very often.
A funny side story to this match involves Dan Victor. In the weeks following the show, he called a number of different people who were involved in setting up the match. Thought he left several messages, he was having difficulty connecting. He learned afterwards that he was actually facing resistance, because those who won money that day thought he and the other locals were pissed off and wanted their money back. In fact, Dan just wanted to learn more about the sport. He was so impressed and intrigued by John's ability, that he was thinking of giving the sport a try.
This match won't be remembered for its importance, but John may remember it as some of the easiest money he's ever made.
Special thanks to Bill Ballinger, Dan Victor, and John Brzenk.
Copyright Eric Roussin, AHC, Armwrestlers ONLY - No part of this text may be reproduced without written consent from the author.
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