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April 20, 2013

The History of Organized Armwrestling - The Beginnings

Mac Batchelor crushing bottle caps

Armwrestling, in its basic form -- two people facing each other, grasping hands and attempting to force each other's arm down -- has been practiced by various peoples going back thousands of years. The exact origins are unknown and are likely to forever remain a mystery. One thing that is certain is that in more recent times, armwrestling (or "wirstwrestling", a term that was commonly used interchangeably to describe the same activity up until the mid-20th century) was a favourite strength demonstration among many strongmen. During the first half of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for a strongman to give an armwrestling exhibition where he would take on all comers, often offering a monetary prize to anyone who could put his arm down. Many of these strongmen had reputations of being unbeaten and called themselves "world" champions. Between the 1930's and 1950's, however, one man developed more notoriety for his armwrestling prowess than any other -- Ian Gordon "Mac" Batchelor.

Mac Batchelor was a 6'1" 300 pound Los Angeles bar owner and strongman who performed amazing feats of strength. Demonstrations of hand and wrist strength were his specialty. One such display included placing four bottle caps between his fingers and bending them simultaneously while making a fist! Mac also developed a reputation as being unbeatable in arm or wrist wrestling. Mac took on all comers, night after night -- seated or standing, left or right -- and never lost. One night he even took on the entire Los Angeles Rams football team, who had gone to the bar in the hopes that someone would be able to beat him. None of them could. Mac's proficiency led him to being invited to participate in a two out of three challenge match with 280 pound Earl Audet, another man who had a reputation of being unbeatable. The event occurred on December 16th, 1946 at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles. The matches weren't easy, but Mac emerged as the victor and earned the title of "Wrist-wrestling Champion of America". In 1956 Mac "retired" from the sport with his perfect record, receiving a special award to mark this occasion at the Mr. USA contest held in Los Angeles. Though officially retired from the sport at the age of 46, Mac continued to take on tavern visitors for another several years.

Although Mac Batchelor was recognized as being the top wrist wrestler during the middle part of the 20th century, he retired having never actually competed in an official tournament. Organized tournament armwrestling, with official rules and a specialized table, is first believed to have emerged during the 1950s in a little town in northern California.

The match that is credited with having sparked the development of organized armwrestling occurred in the back room of "Diamond" Mike Gilardi's bar in Petaluma, California. Jack Homel, a trainer for the Detroit Tigers who had a reputation for being unbeatable at wristwrestling, was vacationing in Petaluma at the time. Bill Soberanes, a columnist for the Argus-Courier and regular bar patron, overheard Jack say that he had never lost a wristwrestling match. Bill told  Jack that he knew someone who could beat him: Oliver Kullberg, a 200-pound rancher who was supposedly the strongest man in Sonoma County. A date was set, and a crowd gathered at the bar on February 16th, 1955 to witness the match (*many reports state 1952 as being the year that the match occurred, but early articles have been found where both Bill Soberanes and Jack Homel quote 1955). Legend has it that the match went on for three minutes until the table collapsed under their weight. The referee called it a draw. Bill saw how much the crowd enjoyed the spectacle, and thought a wristwrestling tournament would be a great idea.

Jack was interested in the development of the event and built an official stand-up table with moveable elbow sockets so that no competitor would have an advantage simply by having a longer forearm. Some of the rules that were established in the early days involved the banning of thumb-greasing, table grasping (hence the gripping of the non-competing hands), and overlong fingernails. The event was little more than an informal get-together during the first few years, but it wasn't long before it was called the Petaluma, then Sonoma County, then Northern California Championship, then California Championship as the competitors came from an ever widening area. Jack competed the first couple of years, but retired undefeated from competition in 1955 to focus on the administration of the tournament. That year, Dave Devoto, a young man from Santa Rosa, first attended the event with his father, who was a regular at Gilardi's Corner. Dave was a strong young man, but the open weight class and the fact the competition was right-hand only (Dave was a lefty) discouraged him from competing so he chose to sit back and enjoy the show. He was captivated by what he saw and loved the atmosphere. This was when Dave saw Bill for the first time -- they would eventually form a partnership that would lead to huge advances for the sport.

The match that started it all. Oliver Kullberg on the left and Jack Homel on the right.

In 1961, Dave Devoto moved to Petaluma and his insurance office was next door to the Argus-Courier. One of the first people he ran into was Bill Soberanes. They formed a friendship and wristwrestling was one of their common passions. It wasn't long before Dave suggested to Bill that they really try to blow up the event by moving it to a bigger venue and labeling it the World Wristwrestling Championships. Bill agreed and in 1961 they formed the World Wristwrestling Corporation (WWC) with the slogan "Pure Strength and Raw Courage."
Dave Devoto officiates a friendly match between
Bill Soberanes and California Governor Ronald Reagan
The 1962 event was held in the auditorium of the Veterans Memorial Building, one of Petaluma's largest venues. 50 competitors took part in the first World Championships, and several hundred spectators were in attendance. One of the competitors who was expected to do well was a man by the name of Joe Valencia. He was brought up to the event by Tom Flores and Tom Louderback of the Oakland Raiders football team and they were confident that he would win the heavyweight title, as he had beaten all of the Raiders players. They were so confident that they bet $5,000 that he would win the title. Joe was a fierce competitor, psyching everybody out and sometimes even hurting people when he beat them. He did well until he ran into the 1961 champion, 6'4" 270 pound Duane "Tiny" Benedix. Joe reportedly said "OK, boy, I'm taking care of you" to which Tiny replied, "I'm not a boy. I'm a man," and proceeded to pin him. In the final, 5'8" Earl "The Mighty Atom" Hagerman pinned Tiny -- a surprise reversal over the previous year's final when Tiny beat Earl. The match was controversial, with both competitors saying Tiny wasn't ready, but the referee's call stood. Tiny wasn't very happy with the outcome and trained intensely over the next year and took the title back in 1963.

The World Wristwrestling Championships grew in popularity steadily grew in attendance throughout the '60s and on February 7th, 1964, Bill Soberanes proclaimed Petaluma "Wristwrestling Capital of the World.” With this growth came a number of changes to the event. The 1964 event was the first to offer different weight classes: lightweight (uo tp 175 lbs), middleweight (176 to 200 lbs), and heavyweight (over 200 lbs). An open women's class was also first offered that year. The time limit on matches, which was an original rule whereby the referee could stop a match that went on for too long and declare a winner, was eventually removed.

Bill Soberanes, Jack Homel, Joe Schuller (1964 Heavyweight Champion),
and Diamond Mike Gilardi at the 1964 World Wristwrestling Championships

Prior to 1968, the World Wristwrestling Championships received little media coverage. However, a man who lived in Sebastopol, a Northern California town just 15 miles away from Petaluma, happened to read about the event in a local paper, and proceeded to give it a major boost. In April 1968, millions of people learned of the tournament's existence thanks to Charles Schultz featuring the event in an 11 strip Peanuts storyline. In it, Snoopy travelled to the event to compete, but in the end was disqualified because he couldn't grab his opponent's thumb (Snoopy has no thumbs). In the late '60s, Peanuts was the most popular comic strip in America. Worldwide, the strip ran in well over 1,000 newspapers in dozens of countries. Mr. Schultz' contribution to the sport didn't stop there -- in a September 1971 animated Charlie Brown television special ("It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown"), Snoopy is depicted training for an upcoming wristwrestling match with Lucy.

One of the Peanuts strips for the Petaluma storyline

In the late '60s, while the World Wristwrestling Championships were beginning to get more attention, a few armwrestling events started being held in conjunction with powerlifting and bodybuilding events. These events typically featured only one open right-handed class, and the matches were generally seated and took place on a kitchen-style table with two loose chairs. These small tournaments didn't have many competitors and were considered as a sort of novelty act -- something to keep the crowd's attention during breaks in the main competition.

One particular organization that formed around this time that achieved a bit more attention due to coverage in some of the muscle magazines of the era was the International Federation of Arm Wrestlers (IFAW), based in Santa Monica, California.

In 1966, Dick Tyler, was a part-time bodybuilding reporter (credited with coining the bodybuilding contest term "posedown") and student enrolled in chiropractic college in California. He was also involved in the organization of bodybuilding events for Joe Weider of the International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB). This is the organization that has run the Mr.Olympia bodybuilding contest since 1965 -- the top professional bodybuilding contest in the world. Joe was always interested increasing the draw and exposure of his shows and regularly featured non-bodybuilding segments. Dick, always having had an interest in strength disciplines, thought armwrestling would tie in nicely with the bodybuilding events, and Joe agreed.

Dr. Dick Tyler, examining his very first patient

Although Dick had never actually seen an armwrestling tournament, he was able to contact Mac Batchelor and Bert Elliott, who were instrumental in helping to organize the initial event by providing advice on rules and logistics. Bodybuilder and television and film star Bill Smith also helped. (Bill is supposedly a two-time Petaluma World Wrist Wrestling Champion in the 200 lb class in the 1960s, although the official results from Petaluma do not indicate this.) Bert Elliott was a Californian body builder, weightlifter, and strongman who was most competitive in the '50s and '60s. He was most known for his prowess at the bent-press, a classic strongman feat. Mac had retired as the wrist wrestling champion of the world a decade earlier.

Mac Batchelor and Bert Elliot

The first official International Federation of Arm Wrestlers (IFAW) event was held at the 1966 IFBB Mr. Western America contest. The armwrestling consisted of a single elimination, right-handed, seated tournament with an open weight class. A kitchen-type table was used along with two loose chairs. The table didn't have pads, but instead had two square areas delineated with tape that showed competitors where to place their elbows. Non-competing hands were clenched, in the wrist-wrestling style. Bert Elliott officiated the event. Only a handful of competitors took part, with 6'8" Lloyd Lampton emerging as the winner. His technique involved slamming his shoulder into his wrist and forcing his competitors down in one swift and effective move. The IFAW tournament was intended to be an annual event, and therefore Dick thought a special champion belt would be a great award that could be held by the current champion for the year and would subsequently be handed to the new champion whenever one was crowned. A beautiful belt was commissioned: it had a large plate engraved with two arms locked in combat, and on each side of the plate were two smaller blank plates, joined by chains, to be engraved with future winner's names. At the conclusion of the initial event, the belt was handed to Lloyd by Mac -- sort of a passing of the guard: the recognized world champion handing over the reins to the new champion.

1966 Mr. Western America Poster
Bill Smith and Dave Draper in a promotional picture for the inaugural IFAW event
Lloyd Lampton accepting the championship belt from MacBatchelor.
Bill Smith is at the far left, Joe Weider is in the centre, and Bert Elliott is at the far right.
The original championship belt

A second IFAW event was held at the 1967 Mr. Western America contest. Once again, Lloyd emerged the winner. However, the championship belt had somehow disappeared since the 1966 tournament and he was awarded a trophy instead. The whereabouts of this belt remain unknown to this day.

Winners of the 1967 Mr. America. Lloyd Lampton is at the far left.

The next IFAW Armwrestling Championships took place on a bigger stage -- at the 1967 Mr. Olympia contest held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City. Approximately 20 competitors showed up for the event, but because only 10 minutes of stage time was allotted to the armwrestling, the eliminations had to be done off stage in the afternoon. The final four competitors made it to the stage rounds, with two matches and then the winners of these matches faced off in the final. Marc Korman became the new IFAW champion.

Starting in 1968 the IFAW event was being billed as the World Armwrestling Championships. It continued to be held in conjunction with the Mr. Olympia contest in New York City until 1970. The 1968 event was of note because it featured Maurice "Moe" Baker's debut in competitive armwrestling. Moe went on to be one
Moe Baker in the finals of the 1968 IFAW World Championships.
Johnny Haemmerle is the referee.
of the dominant competitors in armwrestling over the next several years. Steve Stanaway, Roy Ridgley, and Ken Meade all made their armwrestling debuts at this event and they too went on to enjoy great success in the sport.  Starting in 1968, Moe Baker won the IFAW World Championships three years in a row. The 1970 event saw two new developments -- the first was the introduction of an under 200 pound class, and the second  was the use of an armwrestling table with hand pegs. This was possibly the first time that such a table was used in organized competition. (Other pegged tables started to pop around this time, so it is difficult to say with certainty that this was the first one.) Johnny Haemmerle, an amateur bodybuilder who officiated the New York City IFAW events from 1968 on, designed and constructed the table in 1969 to reduce what was perceived to be bigger possibility of cheating when the non competing hands were clenched in wrist wrestling.


Johnny Haemmerle proudly displaying his new armwrestling table

In 1971, the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding contest was held in Paris, France. This resulted in plans to move the IFAW World Armwrestling Championships to be held in conjunction with the IFBB Mr. America bodybuilding contest. The event was announced, but for unknown reasons the IFAW event didn't occur, and this was the end of the International Federation of Arm Wrestlers.

Around the time the IFAW was formed, two other men were beginning to hold armwrestling tournaments of their own. Together they formed the nucleus of what eventually became known as the American Arm Wrestlers Association (AAA). These men were Bob O'Leary and Ed Jubinville.

Bob O'Leary owned a sports supplement and strength equipment company. For many years he was involved in judging physique (bodybuilding) contests and had an interest in all aspects of strength. Like Bob, Ed Jubinville owned a strength equipment company as well. He also achieved a small degree of fame as a "muscle control expert". Through lots of practice, he had developed the ability to control every muscle in his body. He would perform his act at many physique shows during the middle part of the century, doing things such as flexing one bicep head while making the other one flop around.

Bob and Ed met through the bodybuilding scene, and realized they both had an interest in armwrestling. They each decided to start running armwrestling tournaments in the mid to late ‘60s in their own hometowns: Bob in Scranton Pennsylvania (generally at the Greater Scranton YMCA) and Ed in Holyoke Massachusetts (generally at Mountain Park, an amusement park -- the famous scene in the movie Pumping Iron where Franco Columbu blows up a hot watter bottle took place on the main stage at Mountain Park).

The Scranton YMCA where Bob's first armwrestling contests were first held

Similar to the IFAW events, these early tournaments had few rules and the tables were not specially designed for amrwrestling. Kitchen tables, picnic tables, and even packing crates were used for the contests. There were no elbow or pin pads. The elbow areas were usually outlined with tape, non-competing hands were clasped in the middle of the table (wristwrestling-style), and most events were sit-down affairs. All events were right arm only.

Both Bob and Ed experimented with tournament formats and rules. For example, Ed’s contests sometimes required competitors to win two out of three matches over their opponents in order to advance. The armwrestling contests were also generally accompanied by other strength or physique related competitions, such as bench press, bodybuilding, table curl, or other "odd lift" contests. A who's who of the bodybuilding and strength world from the era appeared or competed at Ed Jubinville's events.

As the 1960s drew to a close, the World Wristwrestling Championships were enjoying a bit more media attention due to the Peanuts strip, and grassroots armwrestling tournaments were beginning to be held in a few places around the United States, predominantly in the eastern and northeastern states. However, organized arm/wristwrestling still remained out of the public eye for the most part and few people knew of the sport’s existence. This would change thanks to Dave Devoto’s securing of a meeting with an executive at ABC sports in 1969…

MORE TO COME...

Researched and Written by Eric Roussin


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