Former world champion arm wrestler Darrell Belyk (right) takes on Jon Roe, Gauntlet sports editor. If you look closely, you can hear Jon's bones, and dignity breaking.
the Gauntlet

Over the Top

A look at world championship arm-wrestling

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They said 'You'll be greedy once you get your first trophy,'" recalled Darrell Belyk. "'No way,' I responded. 'All I want is a trophy to put on my mantel.' Now it's 19 years later, I have over 300 trophies. I've given some of them away because there's no way I can display that many. I was greedy, yes. I was greedy all the way up to the world level."

When Belyk first started arm wrestling over 19 years ago, he had no idea how far it would take him. He had no idea he would meet Bryan Adams and Sarah McLachlan. He had no idea arm wrestling would allow him to try his broken Russian and shake hands with Boris Yeltsin. He had no idea he would travel to Israel, Russia, Japan and England to challenge people from all over the world on a two by three foot table. But that's exactly what happened.

"Back in Junior High I used to arm wrestle my buddies," said Belyk. "Since I'm dominantly left-handed not a lot of people could touch me, I'd win all the time. During the mid '80s I was at work and a co-worker said 'Hey, there's a tournament happening at a bar downtown.' So I went down there all cocky, figuring it'd be an easy tournament and I was going to be getting my first trophy. I just got my heiny wupped."

Belyk suffered a stroke at the age of three that damaged the right side of his body. He had to relearn everything and function using his left hand. That was over 40 years ago, and now all he remembers is being dominantly left-handed.

"At the Calgary Club at that time they took me under their wing and showed me some technique," said Belyk. "I was working the night shift at the time. What I'd do is go to sleep at four or seven o'clock in the morning, wake up at four in the afternoon, go up to Edmonton--which was the hot bed of arm wrestling in North America at the time because of the nationals and world championships there--train there for a couple hours, then come back for my 11 o'clock shift. I wanted to get the experience from [the more experienced wrestlers] and perfect my skill."

Belyk now works here at the University of Calgary with the department of environmental health and safety. He doesn't have to spend hours driving up to Edmonton anymore; the Calgary Club practices every Sunday night and Belyk trains six out of seven nights a week either at the gym or in one-to-one situations.

Just like anything, arm wrestling takes practice. Contrary to the stereotypical view of arm wrestlers as 300-lb men with horse-like arms using sheer might to smash opponents' hands to the table, arm wrestling requires technique and skill.

"Arm wrestling should really be called hand wrestling because you're trying to get the opponent's hand at a disadvantage," noted Belyk. "What you try to do is build up your forearm, your hand and your wrist because those are the most predominant areas that you use. A lot of people think that arm wrestling is only biceps. The biceps are only a holding muscle. If you're on the defensive, what holds you is your biceps."

There are two main techniques used in arm wrestling: the top roll and the hook. With the top roll--the technique Belyk uses most--competitors try to move their opponent out of his power range, a fist-width between his biceps and his forearm. Once you pull him out of this range, you extend him until he's wrestling with his fingertips. Fingertips are vulnerable, and unless your opponent has been doing his finger workouts, it should be easy to put him below the pin line.

With the hook, contenders try to apply a karate chop to the opponent's wrist, coming around with their shoulder. Since the opponent can't come through the blocking shoulder, he has to go around it, which is a fairly tough thing to do.

After taking in the veterans' advice, and learning their techniques, Belyk was set to breakout.

"In '91 everything started to click," said Belyk. "About 95 per cent of the tournaments I went to, I won. That year I won my first provincials. It was my opportunity to go [to the World Championships in Israel] and I was glad because I placed second there. From there, it's just been good for me."

Since 1991, Belyk has been to the World Championships three other times: twice to Russia in 1993 and 1994 and once to Tokyo in 1999, where he became the world champion in his weight class.

Belyk has seen the event grow over his time on the world stage. Six years ago in Japan there were only 23 countries and 600 entrants. Belyk won the provincials again this year and will be heading to Manchester, England in October to compete against 53 countries with over 1,000 entrants.

"Just like the Olympics, there're medallions and trophies," said Belyk. "There is no money offered. You might have the occasional tournament where there might be money offered. For these nationals I spent an hour and a half a night [training], six out of seven nights a week. A lot of training is a one-to-one, on-the-table type. You try to get those small ligaments within your forearm. You can only get that with the one-to-one. In the gym you can build certain muscles, but you're not going to get to the smaller ligaments that you need for arm wrestling."

Arm wrestling tends to focus on the smaller elements of the arm rather than the bigger muscles. Though arm strength is one of the factors, it won't win a match. Even a massive weight advantage doesn't guarantee victory.

"Back in my intermediate phase I was holding a tournament at the Southland Leisure Centre," said Belyk. "I was around 150 lbs. then. There was this guy who walked in from Winnipeg who was 250 lbs. After the tournament he said, 'Come on, show me some stuff.' I slapped him around the table--he didn't know technique. I knew technique."

Beyond technique and skill, there lies another hidden element of arm wrestling--danger. Referees watching over the match will make sure competitor's heads are always looking at their and their opponent's hands during the match. If contenders look away, or begin to turn, they enter what is called a break-arm position.

"Over the past 19 years I've heard three [arms break]," said Belyk. "Believe me it's not a pretty sound. The rule of thumb is always keep looking at your hand. When you look away from your hand, that begins to make your shoulders go away. Once [your shoulders go away] the only thing that's holding you is the bone in the biceps. What happens is it's a spiral break, not a clean break. What the doctors have to do, they have to open up behind your triceps, get all the muscles and the ligaments, unwrap them around your bone, set them all, and sew it back up. You'll have a nice little scar there."

Who knew arm wrestling was this intense? But with careful preparation, amateurs are able to start beating their friends--without breaking their arms--and can begin to enter local tournaments. Regardless of the 250 lb. body builder stereotype most people have of arm wrestlers, arm wrestling is for everyone and can be enjoyed by anyone.

"To me it's a great sport," said Belyk. "You have people starting kids classes from six-years-old all the way up to the masters class at the nationals where 65-year old people compete. It's for the whole family, men and women. Grandparents with their grandkids, over turkey dinner at Christmas--everyone arm wrestles or has arm wrestled at some point during their life."