A Call to Arms

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.

"It's a good movie," Ray says. "It didn't do as much for arm wrestling as we thought it would because it wasn't a real big hit, but it did do a lot overseas because he's real big overseas. It really helped the sport there."

Ray, like serious arm wrestlers everywhere, hopes someday to see the sport become an Olympic event. Until then, though, competitors travel to cities all over the country to compete in events that offer very little in the way of prize money.

It's a life Ray enjoyed for a long time, moving from Houston to Tyler just to train with a noted arm wrestler, vagabonding between events. As in boxing, there are a lot of competing organizations claiming to sponsor championships of every sort, but among the honors Ray racked up was winning the Texas Championships eight times, finishing second in a world championship event and taking the top award at any number of regional championships.

"In the late '70s and '80s I was dominant in Texas," says Ray, who sports the wire-frame glasses and close-cropped hair that one might expect in a highway-department bureaucrat. "But in 1986 I went to work for the highway department, my second daughter was born, and my life just started to change. I had to be a little more settled; I just couldn't go out to every tournament."

He stayed "semi-active" until 1992, when a pectoral muscle "exploded" on him during a match.

He pretty much gave up the game then. He offered informal training to the few youngsters who expressed an interest in professional arm wrestling, he kept working out, but he didn't think he'd be competing again.

A couple of things changed his mind and set him on the road to Russia. Out of the blue, the Seabrook Country Club sponsored an arm-wrestling contest this spring, with a healthy $500 prize. A new "masters" category emerged in the sport, open only to wrestlers over 40. And the national championships, which served as a qualifying tournament for the Russian event, were being held in Baton Rouge.

"I won in Seabrook, and I said to myself, 'Geez, I've been working this hard, and the nationals are so close, why not?' " he says.

More than 300 wrestlers competed in Baton Rouge in July. Ray finished fourth in the masters division.

Only the top two qualifiers could go to Russia; luckily for Ray, the first two finishers elected not to bother, for either financial reasons or lack of interest. Ray jumped at the chance.

"I've been to big events before, but nothing like this -- traveling so far and for such a big event," he bubbles.

The championships are being held in the Palace of Sport in the southern Russian city of Vladikavkaz, which is in the country's volatile Caucasus region. The city lies near the borders of Chechnya and Dagestan, two republics that have engaged in bitter warfare with Moscow over independence.

A bomb ripped through a busy market in the city in March, killing 62 people. Five more people died in a bomb blast in a suburb of the city in May.

Naturally, Ray and his wife are nervous. They've been told 2,000 Russian troops will be providing security, but it's hard not to worry.

"We're getting our wills done, but both of us look at it like 'If you're going to go down, go down in glory,' " Lisa says.

Gary has the same attitude, a mixture of patriotism, fatalism and excitement over the trip that would seem a pose coming from someone who wasn't so wide-eyed enthusiastic and sincere about what he's doing.

"The way I look at it, you could get killed in a traffic accident. There's no worse way of dying than just lying there in some road," he says. "If you have to die, what better way than representing your country, doing something you love?"

The cynics can be damned. Gary and Lisa are packing up their toilet paper and water filter and heading for Russia.

Until this year, he hadn't realized how much he had missed the sport, the intensity of the competition, the camaraderie among the contestants.  

An arm-wrestling match can last two seconds, or it can last a minute that seems like an eternity. Some wrestlers approach the table huffing and puffing, wild-eyed like a preening professional wrestler, but most quietly walk up and place their elbow in the box.

The battle for physical control begins even before the referee starts the match. The two wrestlers try to outmaneuver each other as they grip hands, searching for strengths and weaknesses in their opponent.

"They'll attack you where they think you're weakest," Ray says. "You go a lot by feel. That's why it can sometimes take so long to get a grip -- you're testing the other guy, trying to see where his strength is, where he's putting the pressure."

Sometimes the jockeying goes on too long and the referee takes over, tying the hands of the competitors together as he sees fit.

When they're set, either on their own or by a rope, the referee pulls away and the match begins.

A wrestler can try to blitz his opponent and get the match over as quickly as possible. There are other techniques, with such names as "shoulder roll" or "top roll" or "hammer curling posting move."

Legendary wrestler John Brzenk of Utah hosts a Q&A section on the United States Armsports Web page, and he offers a glimpse into how technical the talk can become.

"Sirius" from Malta asked how to execute a top roll.

There are two ways, Brzenk answered, including one "that relies on superior hand strength along with good side pressure. This top roll doesn't rely on the biceps as much as it does good hand, wrist and finger pressure. The first step in this move is protecting your own wrist by getting a bow in your wrist. The rolling and side pressure into your opponent's fingers should be felt with the meaty part of your own thumb.

"The outside hit relies more on triceps, back and shoulder along with a dominate hand, to control your opponent's hand, open to the side."

Ray is familiar with all the ins and outs of such moves but says he doesn't concentrate on them as much as others.

He says he's known mostly as a "power wrestler," rather than one dependent on technique or strategy.

"The word 'technique' is something of a misnomer," he says. "It's like batting in baseball -- there's a technique involved, and you have to know it, but you have to have the power to do it right. Guys who are in competitions like this one, the bottom line is that they have to have power. I just focus on what I do best -- not try to out-technique someone, but just use my power."

He has had matches where he has been an inch or so from being pinned, and come back to win; he has had a guy all but down but gone on to lose.

"It's truly taught me a lesson in life, that you can't give up or you can't think you've finished the job when you haven't," he says.

Almost always, there isn't much in the way of hard feelings after a match. Although some wrestlers have long grudges with opponents, most are relatively friendly. They'll talk of times they "pulled" someone, the wrestler's term for facing off against someone in a match.

"One of the main things I saw when I went to my first tournament was that the camaraderie is phenomenal," says Lisa. "I used to be a competitive swimmer, and believe me it's not the same there. These guys, they would walk up to the table with hate in their eyes, but when it was all over it was hugs or handshakes. They'll be going up to wrestlers and saying, 'You're great, man, I really need to pull you.' "

"People just love the sport, the competitive nature of it," Gary says. "But when you walk up to the table, the wash of adrenaline takes away any brotherhood."

In tapes of past matches that he shows, the wrestlers range from beefy barroom types to quiet, bespectacled guys like Gary. Some wrestlers look physically slight, until you catch sight of their outsize arms and wrists.

For Ray, the decision to come back to competitive wrestling has spawned a series of reunions. "The creation of the masters category has really brought a lot of arm wrestlers back into the sport," he says. "Probably two-thirds of the people in the class are people I've pulled before."

But the creation of an "old-timers" category may not bode well for the future of the sport. Television has all but abandoned it, purses aren't getting any bigger, and there's not an overwhelming amount of new blood coming in.  

Maybe less than a dozen people in Houston can be considered serious, active arm wrestlers, Ray says.

"The number of people who will walk up to the table is fairly great, but the number who will stay with it is fairly small," he says. "It's easy to walk up to the table. It's an exhilarating feeling to be up there in the spotlight, going one-on-one against someone. But most people can't handle the pressure of being up there, especially if being up there is followed by a big, embarrassing moment like losing badly."

Ray doesn't believe such a moment is coming in Russia. "All I wanted was a shot. I feel totally confident," he says, despite knowing almost nothing about the non-American field. "It took me a long time to get back in shape for what your muscles have to go through to do this, but I definitely feel I'm ready."

He wishes he were a little more ready financially. The Seabrook Country Club has kicked in some support, and there are the friends at the ice house, but many of his letters seeking sponsorship have fallen on deaf ears.

"I respectfully request your consideration of a contribution to aid my attendance," reads one of the half-dozen letters he sent out, featuring all the writerly grace a typical bureaucrat can muster. "I am committed to this cause and will put forth the necessary 'due diligence' to afford myself every opportunity to win as an individual competitor while concurrently contributing to our accumulative point total and potentially, the overall world title for Team USA.

"At the ripe old age of 40, having been a part of this sport for almost a quarter-century, I find myself at a new plateau with a renewed sense of vigor at being afforded this opportunity to compete in an event of this magnitude."

He has had to turn away at least one contribution. His job at the highway department involves serving as a liaison between utility companies, private industries and public-works departments on road projects. It brings him in contact with a lot of vendors.

One sent along a contribution -- two $100 bills and a business card, addressed to Ray at his highway department office. A secretary opened it, and ethics-conscious supervisors advised him to send it back.

Even with the disappointment of his foray into the corporate-sponsorship world, Ray says he's not feeling neglected.

"There are so many people behind me: Dr. Eddie, Jeff, my wife. It's strange because it's coming about because of such a competitive sport, but I really have felt a lot of love from my supporters," he says. "It's really been a great thing."

That love, and the support of his teammates, will have to get him through the upcoming matches. The Palace of Sport holds 5,000 people; if it's filled, it's unlikely the crowd will be cheering on the Americans.

But whether Ray wins or loses, the outcome isn't likely to be known much outside the small circle of people who care about the sport. When his months of training come to a head, when he steps up to the spotlighted table, when it all comes down to a match that may last but a few seconds, he'll be largely on his own.

He'll come back to his desk at the regional office of the highway department, perhaps as a world champion, at the least as someone who has competed at the very top of his profession.

Not that anyone will notice.

The XX World Arm Wrestling Championships of the World Arm Wrestling Federation will take place between September 26 and October 5 in Vladikavkaz.

No television coverage is scheduled.

E-mail Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@houstonpress.com.

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