By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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Most people inherently realize -- as if the knowledge were imprinted on their DNA -- that arm wrestling is not so much a sport as it is one of those vaguely embarrassing activities usually spawned by too much beer, like group-singing the Brady Bunch theme or projectile parking-lot vomiting.
Houstonian Gary Ray wasn't born with that gene. He looooooves arm wrestling.
Even some truly devoted arm wrestlers -- the hard-core, technique-driven obsessives who cry they are engaging in a noble Sport, goddammit -- would (and have) balked at giving up two weeks of vacation and spending $3,000 out of their own pockets to travel to one of the most unstable cities in an unstable section of an unstable Russia to participate in an arm-wrestling world championship.
Ray's plane leaves September 25.
Ray, a 40-year-old desk jockey for the Texas Department of Transportation, will be representing the U.S. of A. in the 20th -- sorry, the "XX" -- World Arm Wrestling Championships in Vladikavkaz, Russia. He's the lone Texan on the 43-person American team, which will be competing against 40 other countries for the obscure title.
The guys at Walter's Ice House near the Heights are holding fund-raisers for him, but a search for other sponsors hasn't been that successful. Ray doesn't care. This year he fell back in love with an activity he had gotten away from, and he's boundlessly enthusiastic in pursuing his goal.
"The last three or four months, I've just lived and breathed the sport," he says.
Living and breathing the sport means working out on a series of homemade, complicated contraptions in his garage in a quiet northwest neighborhood. There's an intricate system of pulleys and weights attached to a table; there's a small wheel hooked up to more weights on another table. The way the small wheel is set up, lifting even 20 pounds strains the huge bicep and forearm muscles of Ray and his training partner.
There's a heavy beam across the top of the garage; Ray pulls himself along it, grunting as his arms bear the weight of his six-foot, 210-pound body. A nooselike rope hangs from a tree outside his house, always ready for even more arm and shoulder exercises.
Inside, the decor is standard suburban, with white wall-to-wall carpeting and the usual bookcases and furniture. But the dining room is largely bare; under the chandelier sits a homemade arm-wrestling table, built to international standards, with elbow pads, grips and Styrofoam blocks that match the exact height of the more-solid blocks to which wrestlers must pin their opponent's arm to win a match.
The living room table sports a Super 8 projector, and the couch is full of reels of past arm-wrestling events. More recent matches are on videotape.
Also in the living room is Dr. Eddie Reeves, who says he's a chiropractor, applied kinesiologist and nutritionist.
Ray swears by "Dr. Eddie." Dr. Eddie swears by the wonders of chiropractic.
"Almost all of the world's top athletes use chiropractors, but it's all kept under the table," says Reeves. "The Utah Jazz, Evander Holyfield, Avery Johnson, Sylvester Stallone, Madonna, Bob Hope, they all use chiropractors."
Reeves resembles self-help guru Tony Robbins -- who Reeves works on, by the way, "every time he's in town" -- and there's no stopping him as he talks about what he does for Ray and what he can do for anyone.
"If you sprained your ankle, as long as it wasn't broken, even if it's a really bad sprain, I can have you back on the basketball court in 24 to 48 hours about 95 percent of the time," he says. Psoriasis and hemorrhoids can be cured in 24 hours, too, he says.
Reeves says he has developed a unique training regimen for Ray that identifies weak muscles in the arm and strengthens them. "These are cutting-edge techniques for this sport," he says.
Ray is thankful for the help. He and his second wife, Lisa, emphasize that he takes no steroids, nothing illegal, just a lot of "supplements" available at the GNC stores that dot every shopping mall.
"This guy's doing it naturally, despite the crap his ex-wife tried to spout off about him," Lisa says, apropos of nothing much. "He used to be a 90-pound weakling with no shoulders and no arms, but he did physical work as a welder, and a lot of it is genetics, and a lot of it is working out and taking supplements."
Ray's workouts are intense, whether he's lifting weights or sparring with his training partner, Jeff Tomchesson. "The best way to get better is just to practice, practice, practice," he says.
The arm-wrestling world is decidedly under most people's radar. In the glory days, back in the 1970s and '80s, matches used to show up on ABC's Wide World of Sports. When ESPN was first starting up and looking to fill its schedule with anything slightly resembling a sport, arm-wrestling matches took their place among Australian-rules football and international badminton.
The sport reached something of an apogee with the 1987 release of the Sly Stallone epic Over the Top, a Rocky clone wherein Stallone played Lincoln Hawk, a truck driver whose custody battle over his young son somehow led him to a Las Vegas arm-wrestling tournament.