On a Saturday spring morning, in a small fenced-in backyard in San Marcos, 40 or so rather dangerous-looking men (and a few women and children) have gathered to celebrate arm wrestler Harold “the Rattlesnake” Ryden’s 35th birthday. For the past three years, Ryden’s birthday party has been an excuse for some of the country’s best arm wrestlers to fly into the area and celebrate a little and compete a lot.
Not every guy at Ryden’s party is particularly muscular, but they all seem tough. Not a metrosexual male in the crowd. Probably not even a single guy who knows what “metrosexual” means. Tattoos coil out from under the sleeves of muscle shirts. Hair isn’t brushed or combed. No one’s wearing any cologne. And though it isn’t particularly bright beneath the one leafy tree in Ryden’s yard, at least half of these men are wearing dark sunglasses. There might be enough testosterone here to fuel the international steroid business.
The Rydens have ordered six enormous pizzas to feed everyone, and multiple coolers are filled with soda and beer. A box is being passed around for contributions to cover Ryden’s present, a new iPhone.
But hardly anyone is eating, or even drinking. Instead, they’re all “pulling.”
“Ya wanna pull a little bit?”
“Yeah. Sure. You pull?”
“Pulling” is arm-wrestling vernacular for “engaging in an arm-wrestling match.” No fewer than seven arm-wrestling tables stand in Ryden’s yard. In the crowded little space, at least three or four matches are going on at any one time.
Finally, Ryden and another fellow don official black-and-white-striped referees’ shirts. “Everybody ready for the supermatch?” Ryden calls out.
For the main attraction of this year’s party, the lightweight arm-wrestling world champion, Vazgen Soghoyan, from Armenia, has challenged the great Allen Fisher.
Soghoyan, 25, is very short and very broad. He seems almost as big across his chest as he is tall. “We call him Popeye,” says one man, pointing to Soghoyan’s right forearm. From wrist to elbow his arm is bulbous, like some kind of huge fish, so big that despite the size of his chest and shoulders it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of him.
But what’s Soghoyan thinking? Why is he challenging Allen Fisher?
“Harold ask me to challenge him,” Soghoyan admits, in his thick Armenian accent. “And anyway, Harold don’t ask, I challenge him myself.”
And why is that?
“Because,” he says, “it always good to arm wrestle the best.”
Soghoyan and Fisher chalk their hands and elbows and line up across from each other, with an arm-wrestling table between them. Ryden and the other referee watch closely as the two men come to grips.
No one’s laughing, or even smiling. This is serious stuff.
Fisher doesn’t go crazy or anything, pounding on the table and yelling, not the way he might in a real competition, but he does have a severe and determined look on his face. The entire crowd of partygoers turns completely silent. One man calls out, “Come on, Fish,” using Fisher’s most common nickname.
Finally, the competitors have a grip that satisfies the referees.
And that’s it. In less time than it took for the ref to say, “Ready, go,” Fisher pins Soghoyan.
“Match!” the ref says.
“Nice hit, Allen,” yells one of the partygoers, with admiration.
And then, someone else says, sarcastically, “You’ve got to work on your start, Allen,” and everyone laughs. Fisher’s start is devastating and flawless.
The two men line up again and come to grips again, and then, again, Fisher wins in less than one second. It’s almost ridiculous. What’s going on?
“Get in a hook,” someone calls out.
“Yeah, let him hook you,” says someone else.
They’re calling for a third match, and they’re telling Fisher to let Soghoyan hook him. Apparently, a hook is Soghoyan’s signature move, his strength.
So Fisher obliges. They start a third match with their wrists bent into hooks.
And this time, it’s just about even. They pull back and forth for over 30 seconds. The crowd’s shouting and calling over their shoulders. But, ultimately, Fisher wins this one, too.
“Show-off,” someone says. And more people laugh.
How has Fisher made such short work of the lightweight world champion?
“I swept through him,” he says matter-of-factly, sipping a bottle of water. “And I wouldn’t let him have control.”
Flash back 32 years, to the back room of a North Hollywood Alpha Beta supermarket in 1976, where a scrawny, 20-year-old clerk’s helper and an older, brawnier deliveryman have put their elbows on the opposite sides of a narrow table, leaned forward, and gripped each other hand-in-hand.
The supermarket manager had heard that the youngster thought he was pretty strong.
“You want to arm wrestle, Al?” he’d asked.
Al, the deliveryman, outweighed him by 60 or 70 pounds, but the clerk’s helper was game. “Why not,” he’d answered. “Sure.” And at closing time one evening, just about everyone who worked at the Alpha Beta gathered in the back room to see who was stronger: big Al or the little clerk’s helper.
All of a sudden, right before the match, Al started to transform into a wild beast. He pounded his chest and rolled his eyes and yelled at the top of his lungs. “Whoa,” thought the younger man. “What’s with this guy?”
And then the two of them went at it.
One minute, two minutes, till no one had any strength left.
And nobody won. They had stood each other up.
Turns out Al the deliveryman was Al Raney, one of the top-ranked heavyweight arm wrestlers in the United States in 1976. And he couldn’t beat this little 150-pound clerk’s helper, this upstart kid by the name of Allen Fisher.
Fast forward to the present day, and you could almost say that Allen Fisher of little Spring Valley, California, is to arm wrestling what Kobe Bryant is to basketball or Tom Brady is to football. He’s arguably the best. A 26-time world champion. Over 50 national titles.