Before watching the 2009 documentary, “Pulling John,” we didn’t think about arm wrestling as something people did on a professional level. We kind of always assumed it was an unsanctioned event, all at once ubiquitous and niche, too complex to be organized. We were sorely mistaken.
Like any major sport, arm wrestling has a central governing body, the World Armwrestling Federation, a defined set of rules, and a specific ranking system. Today, we present five arm wrestlers, “pullers” as they’re called, who, throughout the sport’s recent history, have stood atop that hierarchy’s highest rungs.
The 6-foot-4, 277-lb Alexey Voevoda’s skills are myriad. A two-time Olympic medal winning bobsledder for his native Russia’s national team, Voevoda didn’t pop up on our wrestle radar until after we saw “Pulling John.” He’s won multiple Russian arm wrestling championships and took home both the European Championship and the World Armwrestling Federation Championship in 2004, but his greatest victory of that year, and probably the crowning moment of his career, came when he defeated the legendary John Brzenk at Poland’s Zloty Tur 2004. After two harsh defeats in 2005, Voevoda all but left the sport, returning briefly in 2007 and never since.
The folks at Guinness named him the “Greatest Armwrestler of All Time,” and it’s no wonder why. Illinois-born John Brzenk competed in his first pro armwrestling match in 1981, at the age of sixteen. By eighteen, he’d won a world title. He’s known for facing off against much larger opponents and winning and credits his stellar record to a genetic pool that’s blessed him with forearms that are freakishly large (16 inches around) for his 6-foot-1 inch, 200-lb frame. Over the course of his storied and lengthy career, Brzenk’s only been bested by a handful of competitors and for most, beating him has been as important to them as winning any title. The 2009 documentary “Pulling John” documents his travels, wins, and internal conflict about losing. Though he admits it’s tough, Brzenk can’t help but view occasional defeat as a means of staving of complacency at best, and a welcome relief at worst. When not competing, he works as a Delta Airlines mechanic.
Arm wrestlers don’t get much larger than Travis Bagent, and we mean that in two senses. First of all, the guy’s 6-foot-3, 275 lbs of solid muscle. Second, he’s got an attitude to match. Self-described as the “best armwrestler in the world,” the West Virginia native has given himself the nickname “the Beast” and when asked how many titles he’s won, he’s been known to say simply “a lot.” Braggadocio persona aside, Bagent is revered in most circles as one of the most fearsome left-handed practitioners around. And his right ain’t bad either; he’s proven to be more than amply ambidextrous besting Alexei Voevoda in 2005. This 21-time National Champion and 2003 WAF World Champion is one of the few that walks the walk almost as loud as he talks the talk.
242-lb Arkansas-born Michael Todd is a personal trainer by day, so it’s no surprise he’s one of the best conditioned guys around. 20 time US National Champ, Todd’s been competing since 1990 and lists John Brzenk as his chief armwrestling inspiration. In the video we’ve selected, he takes down Tim Bresnan, among the largest and most physically intimidating opponents any pro could face. Through a rough match, Todd exemplifies the spirit of a sport predicated as much on endurance and skill as brute strength, and his big finish is certainly worth the wait. Sorry if we’ve spoiled it!
You might not think it to look at him, but in March of 2011 Romanian-born Ion Oncescu was inducted into the World’s Hall of Fame as one of the “50 Greatest Armwrestlers in History.” At 12 years old, Oncescu vowed to escape his oppressive Communist birthplace by the age of seventeen. To help him achieve that goal, he began a grueling training regiment he believed would enable him to surmount any obstacle he encountered while fleeing. He never did leave Romania, but his training certainly paid off. Oncescu’s won 5 world titles as of 2010, and fulfilled his lifelong dream of defeating John Brzenk in 2007. In 2012, he set a World Record, taking on and beating 1,000 amateur competitors in 8 hours. Check him out in this video. It looks like he’s barely breaking a sweat.