15 Aug 2013

John Woolsey: From Barroom To World Champ

“They told me I was pretty good,” said John, “so I decided to compete in my first official contest at the World Championships in Petaluma, CA, in 1972.

By the time that contest was over and John had lost a grinder to Roger Jones in the quarter-finals, the arm wrestling community took notice. Jones ended up finishing second to three-time champion Jim Pollack in that event.

And nearly 40 years later, folks are still taking notice. Especially since John, now 61, won the ultra-grand masters title as a 198-pounder at the WAF World Championships in Mesquite, NV, on December 9.

His most recent title is the culmination of a long string of world and national victories. After his 1972 Petaluma appearance, he took first place in the 200-pound class there in 1973 and went 

on to win the World Professional Arm Wrestling Association (WPAA) heavyweight division in 1974 and 1975. From 1972-1975, he competed in 17 regional, national and world championships and came in first place in either the light-heavyweight division or the open class in 14 of them.

“Brzenk may have been a young guy when I pulled him the second time in 1984, but in the year between our first meeting I saw him beat Johnny Walker, Virgil Anciero and Clay Rosencrans. Every one knew he was the real deal. I won two of the western regional qualifiers for the ‘Over The Top“ Tournament in 1986, and finished in the top eight heavyweights. I didn‘t win a lot of events during the 1980s, but almost alway placed in the top three.”

The 1974 WPAA contest, held at Bush Gardens north of Los Angeles, was the first big tournament that involved money. “I won $750 for winning first place in the open class,“ said John. “That money, which was a lot at the time, was equal to nearly a month’s take-home pay. I beat two of the best in the sport at that time, Virgil Arciero in the semi-final and Bob Olson in the final.”

Hairline Fracture Sidelines Him

But then he started losing. In fact, the win percentage flipped over with his winning only three of the next 17 contests.

“The doctor told me I had a hairline elbow fracture,” he said. “I had put so much torque on my elbow that I split the joint, which resulted in scar tissue and bone spurs.”

It also did something else to John: after he healed, and dealing with constant pain, the elbow injuries forced him to become a defensive puller. “Any time an athlete in any sport has serious injury and has to  deal with constant pain, they lose their aggressiveness. To reduce elbow pressure, I had to change my style from that of a power inside-shoulder roller to a top-roller. It took some time to adjust to the new way of pulling, but eventually it helped me start winning again.”

In 1977, he took off a year with his right hand but competed in--and won--a few tournaments left-handed. In the late 1970s, there was an organization on the West Coast called NAWA (National Arm Wrestling Assn.) that offered a one-weight left-hand class. “That was the first left-hand national championship,” he said. “It was held on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA. I won the 1977 NAWA Nationals beating 300-pound Dean Christianson from Portland, OR, in the final.”

His wife, Antonia, also helped him pull back into the winner’s circle by taking 8-millimeter films of his matches, which they would analyze together in slow motion. “We saw plenty of things that I needed to  change or improve.”

And improve he did, going on to beat John Brzenk at Arm Wrestling International Tournaments in Las Vegas in 1983 and 1984, and eventually runner-upping to Johnny Walker and Clay Rosencrans in both events.

After 17 years of competing, John decided to hang it up at age 40 in 1989. “I thought I had enough at that point,” he said, “but in 2005 I went to an international event at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas with Bruce Way, who had starred in the movie ‘Over The Top‘. On the way home, Bruce convinced me to start training again and I entered the PAC (Pro Arm Wrestling Conference) contest at Arizona Charlie’s in Las Vegas in 2006.”

Apparently, John hadn’t lost much strength or technique during his 17-year layoff. He won the masters and grand masters classes in the light-heavy classes, as well as the heavyweight grand master division. Also in 2006, he came in second in the grand masters heavyweight division at the Unified Nationals, and won that title at the Unified Nationals.

In 2007, he won the open grand masters division by defeating Steve Phipps from Washington at the PAC World Championship at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. That tournament was billed as a continuation of the Petaluma contest run by Dave DeVoto. “Dave reminded me after the tournament that I had won this event 34 years earlier and said that this had to be an unprecedented record.”

After retiring and losing 10 pounds, in 2008 John won the light-heavy grand masters division at the WAF World Championships in Kelowna, British Columbia.

2009 was also a winning year that saw John take the light-heavy grand masters title at the Unified Nationals in Little Rock, AK, and also defended his WAF World title by winning the gold medal the same year in Italy.

Trains Hard At Age 61

Even at age 61, John trains with the intensity that has marked his pulling career. “In my early years I spent a lot of time doing one arm preacher curls on a bench with my elbow close to the middle of my body. This provides a slight shoulder rotation that is 80 percent bicep and 20 percent shoulder power. My bicep tendon in my right arm is three times larger than my left to this day from doing that exercise,“ he said.

When he was 40, he did this exercise for ten reps with 120 pounds, and moved up to 130 pounds for eight reps and 140 for one rep. He could also do ten wrist curls with a 150-pound dumbbell on his knee that had a two-inch handle. “Being in good overall shape with good core strength really matters,” he said. At the peak of his long pulling career, John said he had 18.5-inch biceps and 15.5-inch forearms, and weighed about 235 pounds. “The training I do today isn’t quite as intense. There are a few things that I can still do as well, just not with quite as much weight. I have always had great endurance and can still grind the young guys I pull into the ground.”

Now retired from a long career as supervisor of the City of Escondido’s equipment fleet, John and Antonia have a 32-year-old son, John, 29-year-old daughter, Katie, and a two-year-old granddaughter, Casey.

His advice to up-and-coming arm wrestlers: “Take all the good points of the top pullers and decide what’s good for you. We are all not the same and have different abilities. Take all the advice you hear and make it your own and work it into something that works for you. Above all, work on your weaknesses. We tend to concentrate on our strong points that sometimes don‘t apply as well to what we are trying to achieve.”

Written by Jimmy Van Orden (2011)

John Woolsey pulling at World's in Italy 2009
John Woolsey vs Allen Fisher
John Woolsey - NFL Series 1987
John Woolsey vs John Brzenk
1985 the 1st Over the Top's qualifier to the finals in Vegas in 1986
John Woolsey vs John Brzenk - Las Vegas 1984
John Woolsey vs Cleve Dean - Las Vegas 1982

Read other articles written by Jimmy Van Orden here...