24 Apr 2018

THE ORIGINS OF THE WORLD ARMWRESTLING FEDERATION



​​"In the span of 40 years, the World Armwrestling Federation (WAF; previously known as the World Arm Wrestling Federation – WAWF) has grown from an organization with a single member country to one that is 80-plus member countries strong. On April 20, 2018 its efforts were rewarded with the sport of armwrestling being granted full membership status with the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF), an umbrella organisation for all international sports federations. This is quite an accomplishment – fewer than 100 sports have this status – and it is an important stepping stone to getting armwrestling recognized by national governments and the sponsorship possibilities that can come from said recognition. Every organization has to start somewhere: this is the story of how the WAF first began taking shape.

​In the late 1950s, a young man from Scranton, Pennsylvania, by the name of Robert O’Leary was in the navy. During this time, he was exposed to an activity that sailors liked to do to pass the time – challenge each other to armwrestling matches. Though not the best at it, he found the activity to be a good test of strength as well as entertaining.

After leaving the navy, Bob got into the banking business, but within a few years he decided to move into an industry that was more in line with his passion with physical culture: sports nutrition. He formed one of the very first sports nutrition distribution companies in the U.S. He also decided to start hosting physique contests (bodybuilding), powerlifting meets, and eventually by the late 1960s, armwrestling tournaments.

All of the contests that Bob organized in these early days were held at, and for the benefit of, the Scranton YMCA – the YMCA being an organization whose mission the young O’Leary very much supported. During the first couple of years the armwrestling tournaments featured local talent – most of the competitors were from the Scranton area. The matches were contested seating, using a regular wooden table (approximately 2’ wide by 4’ long) and a couple of chairs. A wristwrestling grip was used (i.e. with non-competing hands clasped in the middle). There was a marked off area where competitors had to place their elbows, but there were no elbow or pin pads.

Bob O'Leary

The original Scranton YMCA building

​​Mr. O’Leary was one of the first, but not the only person who was running armwrestling tournaments in the late 1960s. At a bodybuilding show in York, Pennsylvania, Bob first met Ed Jubinville from Massachusetts. Ed owned a weightlifting equipment manufacturing company, and Bob was one of his customers. Bob quickly discovered that Ed too was interested in armwrestling. He had actually been holding annual events at the Mountain Park amusement park in Holyoke since 1958! They decided to stay in touch and help promote each other’s tournaments. It was the start of what would become a lifelong friendship.

An example newspaper ad promoting one of Ed Jubinville's events in the early 1970s
​Some of the first official contests that Bob witnessed were the annual World Arm Wrestling Championships tournaments organized by the International Federation of Arm Wrestlers (IFAW). These contests were held in conjunction with the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding contests held in New York City between 1967 and 1970. These tournaments had a greater reach due to their promotion in Joe Weider’s muscle magazines, and some competitors travelled long distances to compete. Bob met many talented pullers there, and he used the opportunity to spread the word about his tournaments in Scranton.
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Word of the Scranton tournaments also made its way to bodybuilding legend John Grimek, who was the editor of Muscular Development at the time. John was a fan of the arm game, and had actually established a rudimentary set of contest rules around 1961 while working in York, Pennsylvania, writing articles for Strength and Health magazine. (His rules required that non-competing be placed behind the back.) By the early 1970s John had noticed an increase in reader inquiries about armwrestling, and so he decided to start researching an article on armwrestling rules. As part of this research he sent a letter to Mr. O’Leary requesting information on the rules he used for the Scranton tournaments. Mr. Grimek contacted a handful of other armwrestling promoters – most of whom were also bodybuilding and/or powerlifting promoters who had recently begun adding armwrestling contests to their programs.

Bodybuilding greats John Grimek and Steve Stanko pose for a picture for Strength and Health in 1962

​​Bob followed up his detailed response with a call to John, during which he asked if Muscular Development would be open to announcing upcoming armwrestling contests and publishing tournament results. There was a bit of resistance at first, but eventually regular coverage was provided.

The year 1971 saw Mr. O’Leary organize his biggest tournament to date: the North American Arm Wrestling Championships. (This contest would later be referred to as the first Scranton World Arm Wrestling Championships.) The timing seemed right for a big event. By this time, coverage of the Petaluma World’s Wristwrestling Championship had aired on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and introduced millions of people to the existence of organized armsports. As well, with the move of the Mr. Olympia contest to Europe that year, the IFAW ceased holding its World Arm Wrestling Championship, leaving a gap among big title events.

To help drum up even more interest in the event, Bob got the idea of featuring a special two-out-of-three main event match-up between Maurice “Moe” Baker, the reigning IFAW World Arm Wrestling Champion, and Scranton’s own Jim Williams, who held the world record in the bench press. Jim’s involvement resulted in Black Sports Magazine commissioning Jim Van Orden, armwrestling competitor and freelance writer, to write an article about the contest. (Mr. Van Orden also played a role in promoting the tournament.) The article, which also appeared in Strength and Health, provided good publicity for the event and helped establish Scranton as one of the major armwrestling centres in the country..." read all article by Eric Roussin on www.thearmwrestlingarchives.com.

/ Tomasz Wisniowski