Ray Yandoli, 53, showed up Sunday morning at Cheap Shots Sports Bar in Flushing not to drink and watch football, but to compete and win at his own sport – arm wrestling.
Yandoli, a limo driver from Staten Island, is a veteran of the sport. In 1996, he took home the title of “New York’s Strongest Arm” before deciding to take a “break” from competing. Sunday was his first day back. “I missed it,” he said. “I missed the adrenaline of it.”
Yandoli was one of 47 amateur and professional arm wrestlers who competed in Queens to place in the 39th Annual Empire State Golden Arm Tournament of Champions for the title of “New York State’s Strongest Arm.”
At least 70 spectators stood lined along the bar counter, applauding their favorite players. They cheered wildly in every match, which each lasted only seconds before a winner was announced. They yelled out words of encouragement while pounding their fists and stomping their feet.
Some had come in support of a family member or friend. Others had come as part of a team. A mix of old and young, slim and brawny men and women competed in the tournament for over four hours, grunting and growling as they wrestled one another.
The players were divided by weight, ranging from “Lightweight” to “Super Heavyweight.” Other criteria split the competitors by gender, age, whether they were considered professional or amateur and by right or left hand.
Many competitors roared with frustration as veins bulged inside their arms and sweat dripped down their foreheads. Others were silent and clenched their teeth as they struggled to win.
Three hours into the tournament, Number 32, Eric Kodar, faced Number 28, Jonathan Laba, in the semi-final round for the “Super Heavyweight Class Right Hand” title.
As the referee shouted, “Go!”, Laba and Kodar’s hands immediately locked into a death grip. For over 20 seconds, they remained in the center with neither man willing to budge their hand and lose.
Members of the crowd clapped their hands in excitement, screaming, “Go, go, go!”
But the noise from the crowd didn’t faze Kodar, who appeared surprisingly calm throughout the match.
Meanwhile, Laba continued to grunt furiously in an effort to pull his hand into a winning position.
In a matter of seconds, Kodar, with his right eye twitching and face pulled up in a snarl, finally wrestled Laba’s hand down to the table.
The referee pointed at Kodar and declared him the winner. Laba congratulated him with a handshake and a pat on the back.
But it wasn’t over yet for Kodar. In the last match for the title, the 320-pound Yandoli stepped up to the table.
The referee again shouted, “Go!” Yandoli and Kodar wrestled silently for what seemed like forever but was actually only about five seconds before Yandoli, giving a final huff, dragged Kodar’s hand down.
“Wow, this is quite the match,” said Gene Camp, the founder and president of the New York Arm Wrestling Association, who was watching from the corner. “There are some unbelievable matches here today.”
The Empire State of Golden Arm Tournament of Champions is New York City’s oldest and most sought-after title, according to Camp.
In 1979, Camp began hosting arm wrestling tournaments in each of New York City’s five boroughs. Since then, he’s grown a name for himself and his tournaments throughout the arm wrestling community. At Sunday’s tournament, for example, some arm wrestlers had come from as far away as Uzbekistan and Turkey to win.
Now that he is back in the game, Yandoli said that he, like many of the competitors at Sunday’s tournament, is looking forward to the next round — competing next year in the World Armwrestling League, which draws the strongest arms from around the globe.