Juan Zapata strained to defeat an opponent in the early rounds of the 176-pound weight class. “There will always be someone as strong as you,” Zapata said. “You just have to wait until they’re tired.” (The Ink/David Roza)
Juan Zapata gripped his opponent’s hand and tried to push it down with all his strength. But within seconds, Zapata’s bulging forearm was nearly parallel with the table, pressed ever closer to defeat. As both men strained against each other with pure brute force, it looked like the end for Zapata. And then, suddenly, with eyes shut tight and mouth in a deathly grimace, he slammed the other man’s hand down in one swift move.
Pounding his chest, Zapata, 31, had just won the second in a series of victories on Sunday that would take him to the final rounds at the 38th Annual Empire State Golden Arm Tournament of Champions. The competition determines the best arm wrestlers in the state of New York.
“I waited for the half-second for his pressure to go off as he took a breath,” said Zapata, a Bronx resident who works as a porter at an apartment building in midtown Manhattan. “There will always be someone as strong as you. You just have to wait until they’re tired.”
Zapata’s match was one of dozens held at Cheap Shots, a bar in Queens that sells $3 shots with names like “Buttery Nipple,” and which has hosted the Empire State tournament since the founding of the New York Arm Wrestling Association in 1977.
As they must have done in 1977, Sunday’s wrestlers groaned, shouted and strained like locomotives as they competed for the title in their left- or right-handed weight class. One match at a time, the competitors grabbed palms, thumbs and fingers and bent down to their knees or braced their legs against the table to gain as much leverage as possible, all while keeping their elbows firmly rooted to the pads in front of them. If an elbow slipped, the wrestler would get a foul. If their hands slipped, the two referees would tie the wrestlers’ hands together with a strap.
The matches rarely last more than ten seconds, but the brevity doesn’t deter the passion competitors feel for the sport.
“I’ve tried boxing and wrestling but this is my favorite,” said Ron Delladona, 37, from New Rochelle. “There’s really nowhere to run.”
Beneath the tough-girl/tough-guy intensity of the sport, Delladona said what attracts a lot of people to arm-wrestling is the sense of camaraderie.
“Everyone here is really friendly,” he said. “People get here and they’re hooked.”
As each pair of competitors clasped chalk-dusted hands together, their fellow wrestlers looked on and cheered support. In between matches they exchanged advice with one another and wrapped their hoodies around their arms to keep their bulging muscles warm and relaxed.
Many of the wrestlers competing to be the best in New York were not born in New York. Zapata, originally from Honduras, was one of several foreign-born competitors at Empire State. The roster this year included natives of Poland, Puerto Rico, Japan, Canada, Ukraine and Belarus.
“We flew up just for this on Friday,” said Richard Calero, leader of the four-person Team Puerto Rico, which won the Empire State team competition last year. “There are a lot of familiar faces.”
Very large, square and, frequently, bearded, faces, that is. Walking among the contenders crowded into Cheap Shots seemed like traversing a human mountain range. One of the tallest peaks was Karol Brzozowski, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning worker, whose hands looked strong enough to crush granite.
Brzozowski showed a reporter his favorite technique, the toproll, where he pulls the opponent’s hand up and towards him. The goal: to make the opponent lose his grip, allowing Brzozowski to slam his hand onto the table.
“Anything to get the other guy to the line,” said Brzozowski, who competes in the 226-plus weight class. “The line” is a length of wire stretched across the wrestling section of the table on both sides of the competition area. If a wrestler’s hand hits or goes below the wire, she or he loses the match.
While he currently lives in Yonkers, Brzozowski has known the rules of arm wrestling since he was a kid in Poland, where the sport grips many more followers than it does in the U.S.
Viktar Kazlouski, a native of Belarus who now works in asset management and lives in Stamford, Conn., is one of them. “In Europe, it is a very serious sport,” said. “In the U.S. it’s amateur, most tournaments are at bars.”
Most, but not all. Leagues like the World Armwrestling League (WAL) are changing the state of the sport in the U.S., he said. Since 2014, ESPN has covered WAL national championships in Las Vegas, where professional wrestlers compete for $20,000 title prizes.
When American leagues converge for a national championship, the winners go on to compete at the World Armwrestling Federation championships. One world-class wrestler was competing at Empire State on Sunday.
“I’ve got a metal plate in my left arm because of arm wrestling,” said Ashley Maher, a Canadian who placed fourth in her weight class at the world championships last year. Arm wrestling can place enormous stress on the tendons in the elbow and on the humerus bone in the upper arm, causing fractures and tendonitis.
The injuries haven’t stopped Maher. “Now I play smart at the table,” she said. “If you’re losing it’s okay to let go.”
Maher, who’s competed in Kazakhstan, Lithuania and Brazil, travels to tournaments with her husband, coach and co-competitor Joe Costello. The couple have a weight room in their basement in Ontario, Canada and do core training to keep in shape for the competitions, which run year-round.
“We like this tournament because it has a 125-pound weight class, which encourages lighter women to compete,” said Maher, who won the 125-pound competition Sunday.
As many competitors socialized, Zapata mostly kept to himself until it was time for the finals. He lost the match, but did not lose his resolve. “I was a little disappointed,” he said via phone the next day. “But it’s ok, I have more championships.”
Meanwhile, Kazlouski surprised himself with a win in the 198-pound right-handed amateur competition. “There are a lot of strong guys from Connecticut who weren’t here today,” he said. “But I’ll take it.”
Considering the circumstances, perhaps “grab it” would be a better term.