Arms and the Woman: Brette Trost on Long Island on Women’s ‘Wrist Wrestling’

“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat… This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports…And now from Petaluma, California, it’s the World Wristwrestling Championships”. This classic introduction from ABC’s flagship program was what inspired Gene Camp to gather a large crowd of competitors into Mulcahy’s Bar just off the Long Island Expressway on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

“I was sitting home by the TV watching the Wide World of Sports and I thought I’m a shot-putter and I’m strong and good at arm wrestling,” said Gene Camp, the founder and president of the New York Arm Wrestling Association. He decided to start his own tournament in 1977 in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. 138 people showed up to participate in the sit down tournament. And while 33 years later the tournament may have big name sponsors like Coors Light and White Castle, Camp publicized the original event by standing on street corners. The New York Post came down to do a story and it was the first time Camp had done an interview or had his picture in the paper.

As I walked into the bar, I was promptly asked if I was there to register for the tournament. Immediately taken aback, as my slight physical stature should have given me away as a non-competitor, I soon realized that the women’s competition would not be what the people were here to see.

“I’m always disappointed in how many women show up,” said Ana Kenah, who has now taken her middle school lunchtime pursuits in arm wrestling professional. “I’m always afraid of showing up and not having anyone to compete against.” Kenah runs a kettle corn company in Jersey City, and much of her training comes from churning the kettle corn paddle during the day.

“I went to a tournament in Colorado and no women showed up. I had to arm wrestle guys in the lightweight class.” Kenah, who weighed in at 180 pounds, went up against men who weighed less that 150 pounds. She came in first for the right hand and second for the left hand in that tournament.

Kenah’s worries about a shortage of women competitors reigned true at Sunday’s event, as Camp announced that with ten minutes left of registration, they still needed two more women to enter the competition. “You’re guaranteed an award,” Camp said as he solicited the competitors waiting at the bar over the microphone. Besides myself, Kenah and Joyce Boone, the only women in the bar seemed to be wives and girlfriends of the male competitors. Before the match, Boone and Kenah joked to each other that there wasn’t going to be enough women to fight.

“You have to go and fight!” several competitors begged me as I sat at the bar talking to Kenah. I told them that I was reporting and had to remain unbiased, mostly to cover up my fear of what would happen if I were to go up against Boone, named “New York’s most feared bicep”.

“See?” Kenah jeered at me as I protested. “You wouldn’t go up there and do it. It’s difficult to get ladies to go up there.”

Eventually, another woman came in the bar and entered the competition. Kerry Chapman, one of the women helping Camp run the event, also decided to enter and filled up the four spots needed for the competition. Both women had no chance against Boone and Kenah, as they clearly should have been in a different weight class from the two larger women.

The women’s arm wrestling scene has recently received a boost after an article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted Boone’s remarkable achievements. “Everyone wants to beat Joyce because she’s been getting a lot of publicity and some of the other girls are jealous,” Camp said. Boone, who came back from breaking her right arm in a competition in 1997, has now become the best woman arm wrestler in the world, a status recently solidified after beating the ten-time Canadian National Champion Josee Morneau and becoming New York City’s Queen of Arms.

“I’ve never seen anyone come back from a broken arm and then compete and win on that arm,” Camp said. “It’s truly mind-boggling…She competes like a man. She doesn’t like to lose.”

As the tournament went underway I was surprised by the rapidity by which each of the matches were decided. I had expected grueling back and forth battles, instead, the vast majority of the matches were decided within the first five seconds, “If you surprise the person and you start first, 90 percent of the time you’ll win,” Kenah said.

The Long Island competition, which had a fair amount of amateurs show up as well, was clearly a display of testosterone and machismo as the Long Island townies tried to show off their muscles and reignite the ego boost that was a lower school pastime. But Kenah explained that the tournaments in New York City are much larger and many more serious women competitors show up. That came as no surprise since there is no public transportation to the Eastern Long Island town of Centereach. Though I may not have been able to get a firsthand experience of women competition against the highest opponents, it was clear that the perception of arm wrestling as a sport boys play in the cafeteria has certainly been broken in the professional arm wrestling community. While Boone may be getting attention for her unbelievable achievements, and rightly so, Camp informed me that women have always had a large place in the sport, rattling off the names of several female greats. Despite this, no woman has ever been crowned Arm Wrestler of the Year, a title for which Boone is the current favorite despite competition from Bobby Buttafuoco, this year’s World Championship winner.

Though the professional community of arm wrestlers seems to take their women compatriots seriously, it may still take some time for the rest of society to catch up. Arm wrestling still maintains an air of masculine dominance. The women who are not competitors still remain objectified (see the picture of the Coors Light sponsors) or are merely there to hand their husband’s drinks between matches and cheer them on from the sidelines. It is clear that it takes a truly remarkable woman to enter this type of sport, but it is also clear that if they choose to take this first step, they will be treated with the respect they deserve from their fellow wrestlers.

  • Nyawa

    Superb and detailed Arm Wrestling write-up on Long Island. Thanks to the writer Brette Trost!

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