"He doesn't even belong on my armwrestling table. That's my area, that's my game--he's got no shittin' business being there." --Big Bull Hurley (Rick Zumwalt), from the film Over the Top.

"YOU'RE GOING TO BE KILLED, and your arm will be broken." That's what my friends say. For three weeks -- ever since I decided to enter the Reno Armwrestling Championship -- I've endured the negativity of my so-called friends, and their petty jealousy over the possibility that I may actually excel at something other than mental pursuits. For three weeks, my own friends have been placing wagers against me, gleefully throwing down $20 bills in hopes that I will not win a single armwrestling match. To them this is a "sure bet" and their reasons are as follows:

1. I am small and weak.
2. I have no training, and...
3. I have a liberal arts education (which automatically categorizes me as "effeminate" and unfit to pursue any athletic endeavor).

I will not argue the validity of any of these points. However, I have a few tricks up my sleeve, and they are as follows:

1. I may look thin, but I'm built like a brick shithouse.
2. I may be an armwrestling novice, but I have studied videos and books on the subject.
3. I have natural armwrestling ability, and, perhaps most importantly...
4. I have Rich Savignano.

While most people would be mentally damaged by the specter of their own friends betting against them, I rely on the fact that I have one person in my corner: drinking buddy and East Coast expatriate Rich Savignano. From the moment I told Rich about my plan, he not only rallied to my cause, but offered to accompany me on my trip, serving as my photographer and personal trainer. Though he has had little to no experience in either arena, he believes in me--which is more than I can say for other, more hateful acquaintances. So before leaving on my trip to Reno, as I once again peruse my checklist of qualifications--strength, knowledge, natural ability, personal trainer--I have only one question: How can I possibly lose?

Day One: Registration

I've got the flu. And though the flu is never a good omen when entering an athletic competition, I am still hopeful, and excited to be in Reno. Vegas lovers will ultimately be disappointed in Reno: it's the shinier town's ugly little cousin, with scabies. Even our hotel, the mighty Sands, sits on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. The casinos may be smaller in "the biggest little city in the world," but in this house of mirrors, amid a constant cacophony of slot machine bells, they're just as difficult to escape.

Thanks to the cheap casino liquor (not to mention being looped out of my gourd on Sudafed), an hour passes before we finally happen upon the registration room--which, as it turns out, is easily recognizable. You can't miss all those massive forearms in one place. I step up to the table and announce myself as a reporter from Seattle who would like to enter the amateur division of the competition--and no, no one laughs. They simply take my name and my $20.

Next comes the weigh-in. Armwrestlers have weight categories just like boxers; the only difference is that after you qualify for one weight class, you can also enter in any weight class above it. For example, smartly clothed, I weigh 167 lbs. So I could enter the 166-176 class, as well as any other class up to 250 lbs. My problem is that at 167, I will probably be lighter than those competing against me. I need to get into the 155-165 weight class--which means I either have to lose two pounds fast, or strip down to my "Home of the Whopper" underpants.

As it turns out, the dehydrating properties of airline flight, Sudafed, and cheap liquor have combined to drain every excess ounce of moisture from my body, and so, slipping out of my shoes and sweater, I weigh in at a svelte 163, well within the 155-165 constraints. However, my spirits dampen as I watch my potential opponents flow into the room. They all have the muscles, the mustaches, and the thousand-yard stares of champions; and more than a few are signing up with bottles of Michelob Light in their meaty hands. Now that's confidence.

As my own confidence wanes, Bill Collins approaches. He's the head promoter, and a very personable Hulk, if I do say so myself. Bill turned pro 18 years ago, and holds three world titles. He armwrestled for Team USA in Moscow, winning the international division; and he can also be seen in the seminal movie of the armwrestling genre, Sylvester Stallone's Over the Top. Perhaps sensing my apprehension over the approaching tournament, Bill offers to take me under his wing and show me some tricks of the trade.

I'm introduced to the armwrestling table. It's roughly three-and-a-half feet tall, with a tabletop the size of a road map. It's outfitted with two elbow pads (where your elbows go) and two pinning pads (where, hopefully, the broken wrist of your opponent goes). At each end of the table sits a four-inch-tall "peg" which you never let go of during the match--if you do, it's a foul. Your elbow stays in the elbow pad--if it lifts up, that's a foul. If you move your hand after the ref establishes your grip, that's a foul too. And if you start before the ref gives the "Ready, GO!"... well, then that's what's called a "foul."

But not really. Because armwrestling is like drag racing, and if you wait for the ref to say "GO!" then you're too late. So according to Bill, you don't go on "GO!" you go on the "y" in "Ready." Picture it in your mind: You're staring down your opponent, your grip is perfect, and the ref says, "Ready, G...." Now if you've waited this long to go, then you're too late. You've lost your first match. You have to go on the "Ready..."BAM!! See, that's how you do it! Your opponent's arm is down on the table, the twisted wreckage of its former self, and you walk away victorious.

The second thing Bill works on is my technique. He says I have a "natural" shoulder roll (a move where you throw your entire body, leading with your shoulder, toward your hand, using your weight to force the opponent down), and advises me to use this as my weapon of choice. Bill seems surprised by my strength, and adds, "With a move like that, you should do really well." I don't mention that I have the flu; he seems impressed enough.

Night One: Do the Hustle

It's 10:00 p.m., and registration for the tournament has shut down for the evening. The professionals compete tomorrow; the amateurs (my class) go the day after. Through a previous agreement, when I'm not interviewing subjects, I'm at the whim of my personal trainer, Rich Savignano. "So, Rich," I ask, "what do we do now?" He rubs his chin thoughtfully and replies, "Hmmm. Well, first we eat. Then we drink. Then we find a strip club." Then, after a pause, "That sounds like a good start."

For dining, we settle on a place called The Hof Brau, where I have an uninspiring dinner of canned prime rib, canned mashed potatoes, canned iceberg lettuce salad, and--obviously due to some grievous error--fresh peas. I pop another Sudafed, and three drinks later, I am high, high, HIGH. A pleasant waitress suggests The Gentlemen's Club for fine stripping entertainment, but leaves us with a stern and cryptic warning: "Watch out for those girls, though. They WILL hustle you!" We nod glassily, as only ignorant tourists can.

Now, I've got to be honest: I've never been a big fan of the "lap dance." When a half-naked person is grinding in my lap, I would prefer to have established a more substantial relationship than the exchange of five words and a $20 bill. But that's just me, and if everybody felt as I do, the sex industry would certainly perish and men would get themselves into even more trouble than they do now. So thank God for men like Rich Savignano!--a proud supporter of the sex industry and, in particular, lap dances!

His lap dancer of choice is a lovely young brunette named Gabrielle, who sports the Catholic schoolgirl look (plaid mini-skirt, unbuttoned white oxford shirt, lacy white bra, and the requisite tiny white socks)--a time-honored classic. After Rich pays his $20, she plops down in his lap and goes to work.

"So...," she coos breathily in his ear, "what are you boys [grind, grind, grind] doing in town?"

Rich explains that we've traveled from Seattle to cover the armwrestling championship for our weekly paper. Then he identifies me as the writer.

Grind, grind--STOP, and Gabrielle spins toward me. "You... you don't write for The Stranger, do you?"

"Ummmmmmmmmm...," I say, trying to decide whether to lie or not, "...yes."

"OH... MY... GOD! Civilization!!" she yells, jumping out of Rich's lap and over into mine. "HEY!!" Rich yells. As luck would have it, Gabrielle's also from Seattle.

"OH," she says to me, blatantly ignoring the dejected Rich. "You have just GOT to meet Pussy."

"E-e-excuse me?" I stutter.

"Pussy! She works over at Fantasy Girls! She's from Seattle too! Go and ask the waitress for Pussy."

Now I know I'm being hustled. "I'm SO sure I'm going to walk into a strange strip club and ask for 'Pussy.'"

Rich leans over to her. "Excuse me? Remember that $20...."

"In a minute," she snaps. Then, grabbing my hand, she says, "You. Come with me," and whisks me off down the hall.

"HEYYYY!!" I hear Rich yelling behind us.

Halfway down the hall, Gabrielle pulls me into a phone booth, saying, "Keep the door open. I don't want the manager thinking you're getting a blowjob. Now, give me 35¢."

I do, and she dials the phone. After a moment, "Hi, yeah, Joe? This is Gabrielle. Is Pussy working?" She nods to me that the answer is affirmative. A moment passes, then: "Pussy? Hi! Gabrielle! Guess who I have standing right... here. A writer from The Stranger in Seattle!"

A muffled scream comes over the phone.

"Yeah! No shit!" Then putting the phone to my ear she says, "Here! Say hi to Pussy!"

"Hi, Pussy," I say sheepishly. Pussy barely has time to say "hi" back before Gabrielle rips the phone away. "Pussy! Yeah, that was him, isn't it weird?? Anyway, gotta run! Byeee!" She hangs up.

Back at the table, Rich is none too pleased. "Oh, you're back," he says, feigning surprise, and then to Gabrielle: "You know, I somehow recall giving you $20 in exchange for a lap dance."

"Ohhh, sorry. Here you go," she says, plunking down in Rich's lap and bouncing exactly three times before hopping up and departing with, "You guys are soooo sweet. Byee!"

Rich looks at me. I look at Rich.

"What can I say?" I tell him with a shrug. "They WILL hustle you."

Day Two: The Professionals

The phone rings at 9:00 a.m. It's Bill, the promoter.

"HACKKKAGGAAAAKKKK," I say, sounding something like Tom Waits with a tracheotomy.

"I didn't wake you up, did I?"

"[KAF! KAFFF! KAFFFF!] Uh, no. What's up."

"Just wanted to let you know I'd be in the sign-up room at 10:00 if you want to do the interview."

"[Wheeeeeeeze.] Yep. See you there."

"Okay." Bill hangs up.

Stumbling to the bathroom, I notice that my face looks amazingly similar to last night's canned prime rib. Strangely enough, sucking down nine drinks and a pack of smokes didn't help my flu. Rich, who mysteriously arrived back at the hotel at 5:00 a.m., two hours after I did, lies in his bed unmoving except for intermittent gasps. I shower and shave, and before heading downstairs, I give Rich a quick shake.

"I'm... going... down... to... interview... Bill, " I say loudly. "Meet... me...in... an... hour. Bring... your... camera."


Flinching past the symphony of bells, whistles, and loose change pouring from an acre of slot machines, I reach the sign-up room and learn that Bill has stepped away. In his place is Larry Carmo, one of the referees for today's competition. Pointing out the other refs, I notice that all of them, Larry and Bill included, look like Tony Orlando in different stages of his career--and I mean that in the best possible way. I ask Larry if it's tough work being an armwrestling ref.

He thinks for a moment and says, "Wellll, only if they start squawkin'. Say, if one guy thinks the other guy has even a little bit of an edge? He'll start screamin'. You'll definitely see some squawkers today."

Larry's been around the armwrestling block a few times, so I ask him what kind of person is attracted to the sport.

"All kinds. But what I like about armwrestling is that it's one on one, me against you, my arm against your arm, my technique against your technique. It's a nice way to settle who's the toughest guy."

"Sooo, what's so important about being the toughest guy?" I ask.

"Hey! Don't ask ME why guys act the way they do!" he laughs. "But really, people get the wrong idea about armwrestlers. They think we're just a buncha caveman knuckle-draggers--but it actually involves a lot of strategy. It may be a macho thing, sure, but you should see the ladies. They're worse than the men! Competitive? Whooo! They're VERY serious.

"But what's really fun about these competitions is we're like a big family. Most guys, when you meet them, they'll give you a handshake, right? With these guys, it's an embrace."

Knuckle-draggers who embrace? What is this? Some kind of Iron John meeting?

"Speaking of competitive women," Larry says under his breath, "look who just walked in. You've GOT to interview HER."

Turns out the happy, boisterous woman he's pointing at is Sherry Mundy, who is considered one of the top women armwrestlers in the world. She's tall and wiry, and gives skinny people like me hope for their competitive future. I introduce myself, and learn that she's been armwrestling for seven years. Her claim to fame is taking second place in the Internationals (competing against 17 countries), losing only to a damn Russian. That couldn't have felt good.

"Hell no, it didn't feel good!" she yells before launching into a conspiratorial whisper: "But shit! It's no wonder. They're all in the bathroom doing steroids! Then they come up to you with, 'You wanna try some?' And I'm like, 'HEY! In America we don't do that shit!'"

"You're goddam right we don't!" I yell in agreement. So if Sherry doesn't use steroids, then how does she train for a big match?

"Mmmm, I really don't weight train or practice or anything. I guess I'm just a natural. You know a lot of these people who eat, drink, and breathe armwrestling? Well, I live, eat, and breathe my children. But when I want to have fun? Then I armwrestle. And nothing stops me either--I've even competed when I was pregnant."

"Excuse me?" I blink.

"Actually, twice. I won the Yukon Jack competition twice, and both times I was five months pregnant," she says, then grabs and yells into my tape recorder, "So to all you women who say, 'Ohh, I'm pregnant! I can't do anything!' Well, BULL SHIT, baby! My only problem was I couldn't get closer to the table! HA!"

It's official: Sherry Mundy is my favorite armwrestler in the world. "So where do you see the sport going from here?" I ask.

"I think all of us would love to see armwrestling featured in the Olympics," she says, "but, like I say, for me it's just fun. I'm just here to win some money from the casinos, but if I can take home some money from armwrestling, then I'll do that too!"

I wish Sherry luck in the competition, and notice that we're less than an hour from start time. I'm about to issue an all-points bulletin for Rich when I spot him slowly approaching from across the casino. I swear I can see his head throbbing from here.

"Good morning, sunshine," I say.

"Yeah," he grunts, arriving with a rasping cough. "Just point me to the buffet."

After choking down canned scrambled eggs, we enter the competition area. The room is filled with professional armwrestlers--huge bruisers, some wearing cut-off sweat socks around their arms to keep the muscles warm. Trainers wearing rubber gloves rub down shoulders and biceps, filling the room with the distinctive mentholated smell of Icy-Hot. As start time nears, tension begins creeping into the room. Each competitor deals with it differently: some warm up on the practice tables, while others engage in small talk, glancing nervously at the competition.

The stage is empty except for two tables and two chalk buckets (chalk prevents sweaty hands from slipping). Bill walks out and explains the rules to the full-capacity crowd. Competitors are matched with people in their weight class by luck of the draw. Today's competition will be "double-elimination," which means if you lose two matches, you're out.

The tournament begins. I was under the impression that this might turn out to be a boring ordeal, but nothing is further from the truth. With two tables going simultaneously, there is always an exciting match to watch. Most only last a heartbeat, from the "Ready, G..." until the slower of the two is put down on the pin. Unlike other sporting events, armwrestling audiences are active, and often interactive--they're known to sit at the base of the stage screaming for their favorites, and screaming at the refs.

As for the competitors, one doesn't see Nike swoops decorating expensive shoes or gym clothing; many of the men wear slick-soled cowboy boots, while the women are in tight-fitting Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. The people here are just as passionate as Olympic athletes, though you don't see too many Olympians stepping out into the hall between bouts for a cigarette.

At the end of today's competition, only the best remain, and Sherry Mundy and her arch-rival Carolyn Fisher are invited to the table to settle a grudge. Earlier today Carolyn was beaten by Sherry in a very drawn-out, exciting match, and she didn't like it one bit. Now, as they lock hands in the middle of the table, every muscle in Carolyn's body tenses up, and the refs check to make sure the grip is legal. Satisfied, the ref yells, "Looks good! We're gonna go!" and some audience members rush to the stage for a better look. The ref removes his hand from theirs and says, "Okay... readyyyyy..." BAM! In an eye's blink, Sherry flashes her. "False start!" Carolyn yells at the ref, over the cheers of an exuberant audience. "No way!" he responds. "Sorry, Carolyn!" With a venom usually only witnessed in daytime soaps, Carolyn stares daggers at Sherry and hisses through gritted teeth, "Well, I'll just give you that one then." Carolyn waves at the crowd and leaves the stage with a smile on her face, but it's not a smile one would ever associate with happiness.

Two hours later I'm at the blackjack table losing my sixth straight hand (and subsequently my shirt), when Sherry walks by. I congratulate her on winning with top honors in her weight class, and ask about Carolyn's rather unsporting reaction to their final match.

"Well, Carolyn can complain all she wants," Sherry replies with a shrug. "You know, last year in Tahoe, we were up against each other, but that time it went HER way. So the way I see it, once again we're dead even."

"But!" she adds brightly, "that's the thing about armwrestling. You may win today, but it's all forgotten tomorrow."

My big day is tomorrow, and while rest and recuperation might be a good idea, I'm too busy losing my per diem at the roulette table. Over drinks Rich and I try to strike up conversations with the armwrestlers we had seen earlier in the day. They're polite, but in the same distant way a ship's captain is to a passenger. We're just visitors in this world.

At 1:30 a.m. my trainer pulls the plug on my revelry. "Okay, Fucko. Enough sauce. Get to bed." I ask if he's coming along, and he promises he will after "one more quick one."My eyes flutter open at 5:45 a.m., when a cloud of alcohol enters the room followed by Rich. He stumbles in, bounces off the television, and lands, thankfully, in his own bed.

"You okay?" I ask.

"Readyyy... go!" he says, and my arm automatically mimes flashing an opponent down into the pad. BAM!

"We'll be fine...," he slurs happily, dropping into a gentle, snoring sleep.

Day Three: Showtime

I awake and immediately look over to see if Rich is still breathing. He is. After a quick shower, I pause to curl my arms and flex my guns in the bathroom mirror. "Like two sticks of dynamite disguised as swizzle sticks," I think with a self-satisfied smile. "I am going to kick ASS today!"

Downstairs I run into Bill, who talks me into signing up for two weight class divisions--the 156-165 and the 166-175. This way, in the unlikely event I'm outclassed, I'll still get at least four chances to compete; two matches in each class. As I sign up, I ask Bill why after 18 years he's stayed with armwrestling.

"Well, it's fun. But unlike other sports I've participated in, armwrestling builds a bond with the people you compete with. You give respect and you get respect. You grab hands up there and it seals a bond... like you're brothers."

It's still a couple of hours before the competition, so he invites a friend of his, Mark Pryor, to give me some tips. Mark is a good 6'5", with long hair and a beard, and he's known for his great shoulder roll--that's my move! On the table, he dissects my technique with the utmost seriousness. "Get that elbow in tight," he demands. "Grab my hand. Tighter. Tighter. Remember, the guy across from you isn't your friend. This is YOUR table, and if he gets in your space, then he better be prepared to get a quick, hard shoulder to the nose, or a head butt. You can be friends after the match."

"So much for bonding with my brother...," I think to myself. Bill continues to be very supportive of my chances in today's competition. Mark is somewhat less complimentary, but I assume it's because we share the same shoulder roll move, and he probably views me as future competition.

I thank them both for their time, and look at my watch. It's 12:30 p.m. and Rich still isn't where he's supposed to be--HERE, taking photos. When he finally enters the room, he looks like Frank Sinatra--specifically, the way Frank Sinatra looked just after he died.

I grab him and ask him to help me warm up on the armwrestling table. I get into position (elbow in tight, knuckles up, high up on my toes) and on the "go," flash him down in a heartbeat. "Great," he whines, rubbing his arm. "Now if you don't mind, I'm going to take a nap under the trophy table."

"Don't you have any advice for me?" I ask as he crawls off.

Peeking his head out from under the bunting, Rich offers the most sage advice he can muster: "Hump. Get up there, grab that goon's hand, and PORK IT!" Before I can ask exactly how one goes about "porking it," Rich disappears under the table.

The amateur matches begin. A few matches pass, and I suddenly notice that practically every person competing is a freaking monster. "Their forearms are at least as large as my thigh!" I croak.

"Don't look at 'em, Hump!" rasps a voice from under the table. "It's not the fight in the dog, it's the dog in the fight!"

"Go back to sleep, Grandpa," I monotone.

As brute after brute files onto the stage, it finally dawns on me what a ridiculous thing I'm doing. Really, these guys have been training for years, and some skinny schlub is going to walk in off the street and pork them? My only hope is that my weight division is populated with runts.

Then, over the loudspeaker, "On table one, in the 155-165 weight class, William Humphrey and Doug Berry." Taking a deep breath, I walk up onto the stage, dip my hands in the chalk bucket, and position myself at the table. No one is across from me, and for a moment I think I may win my first match by forfeit. No such luck. My nightmare approaches: this guy, Doug Berry, looks so much like a fireplug my dog would've pissed on him. Thick, THICK veiny arms pop from the holes in his tank top, which groans under the strain of his rippling barrel chest. And excuse me, but what's he doing in my weight class? This joker is 200 lbs. if he's an ounce! I look over at the judges' table to see if they recognize their grievous, horrible mistake. Their innocent smiles say, "Nope! No grievous, horrible mistake here!"

"Ohhhhh-kay," I think to myself as I place my elbow on the pad. "Technique. It's all technique." As we fight to establish our grip, my puny hand disappears into his monstrous paw. The ref scolds us for excessive struggling. "Hey, pal," I snap, "I'm just trying to locate my fingers!"

Finally, our grips are set. The ref yells, "Okay, looks good. We're gonna start." From deep, deep in my core I feel the burning hot magma of energy shooting up, up into my chest, then into my shoulder, my biceps, my elbow, and my fist. This energy spins around and around in my clenched hand like the awesome power of the atom itself and when the ref yells, "Readyyyyy..." BAM! It explodes!

I look down at my hand on the pin. Incredibly, I've been flashed. My head feels woozy, and it hasn't quite set in that I've lost. It becomes pretty damn apparent, though, after hearing over the loudspeaker, "Winner: Doug Berry." However, before I can get too disappointed, my opponent grabs his own wrist and, wincing in pain, hobbles off the stage. Apparently I hurt him.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Rich meets me at the stage. "Hump. What happened?"

"I dunno," I reply. "I porked it and nothing happened. I think he's hurt though."

"Serves him right. The fucker," Rich says, sneering at Doug through half-slit eyes.

At this point, I'm not bummed. After all, I've got at least three more matches to go, and surely I'll be paired up with at least one squirt I can stomp into the ground. My arm is still in good shape, so I'm hopeful. After about 10 matches, my name is called again.

"On table one, William Humphrey and... Doug Berry."

Hey!! It's the same goddam fireplug as before! What the hell is going on here? Then I realize he's also in the other weight division I entered, and by luck of the draw we're meeting again. "Okay... whatever," I think to myself, "This time I'm porking him."

At the table, my hand once again disappears into that bottomless pit with fingers, and after we're done monkeying with our grip, the ref yells, "Readyyy..."

BAM! I explode, but it's like an '87 Toyota Corolla hitting the side of a mountain. And I go down once again--BUT! A little slower this time. "Ah-hah!" I say to Rich as I step down off the stage. "I'm wearing him down, baby!"

The organizers call for a 15-minute intermission, so I figure I'll talk to the fireplug. After two spankings, the least he can do is offer a few tips.

As it turns out, this "amateur" has been competing for five years, is an Alaska state champion, and has won the world-famous armwrestling tournament in Petaluma, California. So why's he still porking novices like me?

"I will never turn professional, and I will not accept money for armwrestling," Doug says solemnly. Though many in the armwrestling biz look askance on Doug's "principles," claiming people like him are actually frightened of the heightened competition in the pros, I respect anyone who would turn down the chance to win a whopping $200 in the pros on principle alone. The chicken.

"So... how'd you whip me?" I ask.

"Well, you gave me your wrist, so I just went over the top. You're armwrestling like an amateur. You're pulling toward the pad, when you should be pulling toward your shoulder."

"Okay...," I say, jotting all this down, "don't give up my wrist, and pull toward the shoulder. Right. So, after the first match why were you holding your wrist afterward?" I totally figured he would give some bullshit excuse like he'd broken it last week juggling sledgehammers, but he actually surprised me.

"I felt it, man," he said. "You yanked me. You got my wrist going toward you and gave me a good yank. Now what you have to do is sink those fingers into the back of the hand. Don't get up there all polite. You got a good hand, just use it."

Returning to my seat, Rich leans over and says, "Did he give you any advice?"


"What'd he say?"

"Said I was too polite."

"Hmmm..." is all Rich can muster before closing his eyes once again.

The proceedings resume, and I'm happy to report that the next time I approach the table I'm meeting a new opponent. However, I'm unhappy to report that this person is also a behemoth, and since this match ends similarly to my previous two, I'll skip the details, other than to say he was very polite (more than me) and he still won.

The sad score: I must win the next match or be disqualified. By now my guardian angels Bill and Larry are concerned their little reporter buddy is gonna be skunked, so they pop over to offer some advice: "Tighten in that elbow!" "Jump the gun if you have to, but get off faster!" We're down to the last few matches. I've seen everybody compete at least once, so I know that no matter who I get, he's going to be a walking meatloaf. Regardless, I'm determined to give it absolutely everything I've got, reaching down deeper than ever before... oh, and I'm also going to cheat. They call my name.

"On table two, William Humphrey... and Doug Berry."

The fireplug. Okay, this is funny. I'm not one who puts much stock in things like karma and fate... but somebody is fucking with me, and I wanna know who it is! As I walk to the stage, promoter Bill pulls me off to the side.

"Okay, listen up," Bill says in an urgent whisper. "Doug has competed in three weight classes. He's Jell-O! Take him down!"

It's true--Dougy is looking a little tuckered out. His normally throbbing biceps just don't have that same old bounce.

At the table, I say to him, "How's it going, Doug?"

"I'm tired."

"Glad to hear it," I reply, as we lock hands for what better be the last goddam time. Already everything feels different, and--dare I say it?--perfect. My grip feels remarkably strong, so I bite my fingers down into the back of his hand in a most impolite manner. I yank his fist toward me, lock my elbow into my rib cage, and summon up so much adrenaline I'm ready to explode like a hydrogen bomb. "Not this time, Dougy. Not this time," I mutter to myself.

The ref approves the grip, and gives the "Ready, GO!" But this time, I do something a little different. Instead of going on the "y" in "Ready," I throw caution to the wind by exploding on the "Re...." Now, I know this is cheating. But I don't care. I'm sure Goliath was pissed about David using a slingshot in a fistfight, but my attitude is, "Fuck him and every other giant on the planet--I'm starting early." BAM! I explode. For the first time in this competition, I'm looking down and my wrist isn't squirming on the pin! It's still up there holding steady like a rock--and not only that, I'm subtly beginning to bend his wrist back! Now, in order to summon every bit of energy needed to put him down, I issue a thick, guttural scream from the deepest part of my being (which Rich later says sounded like a kitten being backed over by a car). And in my mind, I'm saying to myself, "I've got him! I've got him! I've--"

BAM!! I'm down on my own pin again. I've lost... but I am JUBILANT! "Did ya see that??" I yell to Rich. "I held him for at least five seconds!!"

There is momentary confusion in the judges' camp when they somehow get the idea I've won from all my jumping up and down, but this is quickly rectified, and I leave the stage with my arms raised high.

Rich is there to slap me on the back and smile warmly. "You did good, Hump. That's what I call porking it."

Night Three: The Awards

Later that evening at the awards ceremony Doug "Fireplug" Berry takes home six trophies, placing in every division he entered. But here's something I never expected to hear...

"And winning the second-place trophy in the 155-165 weight division, William Steven Humphrey."

As it turned out, there were only two people in that weight class--Doug and me--so I'm going home with a trophy after all! And no one seems to care if I didn't win a single match--they're cheering just as loudly for me as for everyone else. And why not? Passing Doug Berry, I decide to gloat a bit. "See this?" I say pointing to the trophy. "This is for holding you for five... long... seconds."

After saying our goodbyes to Bill and Larry and thanking them for all their help, Rich and I head for a Reno karaoke bar to celebrate. It's really fun, and it should have been the perfect end to our weekend. But in the dark, quiet cab ride to the airport, I find myself staring at the snow sputtering from the sky, feeling sad and disappointed. "Was I fooling myself the entire time?" I ask Rich. "Maybe I was an idiot to think I could just waltz into that tournament and win."

"Then I guess that makes me an idiot too," Rich says. "You can doubt yourself if you want, but I was there the whole time, and I really thought you could do it."

I am lucky to have a friend like Rich, and I've decided to forgive him for not seeing me get my trophy because he was busy eating a personal pan pizza at the casino's Pizza Hut.

It's a full flight back to Seattle, and since we don't have confirmed seats together, Rich is banished to the back of the plane. My new trophy is too big for my bag, and I don't want it to be crushed in the overhead bin, so I hold it in my arms. An older gentleman sitting next to me asks, "Hey, what's the trophy for?"

"Armwrestling," I reply.

"Really?" he says doubtfully, giving me the once over. "I thought armwrestlers were supposed to be big."

"We are," I say matter-of-factly, pulling the trophy to my chest and closing my eyes for the flight home.

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