The gladiators of the U.S.’s ladies’ arm wrestling leagues say their sport is more than just a sideshow
Author Scott Sowers Photography Jeffrey Martin
In June 2012, at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, Va., two women squared off against each other while a raucous, beer-swilling, tattooed crowd stomped its feet and yelled for blood—or at least a fractured ulna. After all, nothing less than the National Lady Arm Wrestling Championship was on the line.
While most rounds are over in less than 10 seconds, this one exceeded the time limit, forcing the referee to blow the whistle while the roadhouse crowd jeered at the lack of a winner. The contestants changed hands, the whistle blew, but neither could gain an advantage before the second time limit expired. The wrestlers switched hands once more, and though the assembled biceps had that about-to-burst look to them, again the whistle blew without a victor.
After three rounds, the women had arm-wrestled to a draw.
The two national co-champions will get another chance at sole possession of the trophy at the national tourney next month in Washington, D.C. But for the time being, sharing the national title under the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers organization (or CLAW) serves as an apt metaphor for an ongoing debate in the world of ladies’ arm wrestling: Is this a real competitive sport or campy improv theater?
While the two women who arm-wrestled that night were surely putting all they had into the bout, their stage-presence was more Hulk Hogan than Evander Holyfield. Co-champion Heather Weizen, from Kingston, N.Y., was dressed up like an Oktoberfest beer girl gone bad, while her rival and co–title holder, hometown favorite Amy Smackhouse, was dressed in all black and sported a bouffant hairdo and way too much eye shadow (à la her punny namesake). Add to the spectacle some bawdy trash talk, and some may find it hard to take the sport any more seriously than a so-called death match between the likes of Jake “the Snake” Roberts and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
“Of course it’s a real sport—that’s not even a question,” says Andrea Kavanagh, the real woman behind the Amy Smackhouse character, pointing to a trail of broken arms since the first league’s inception in a dive bar in Charlottesville in 2008. “There were two broken arms in Charlottesville and one in Chicago that I know about,” she says. In the D.C. league, there’s a working EMT who serves as a medic during events. A former champion herself, Tracie Anderson, who wrestles under the name “Ms. Fire,” will toss a red flag to halt a match if she sees a wrestler getting herself into the “break arm position.”
While the performance aspect varies across the 20-some leagues scattered across the country under CLAW—in addition to Charlottesville and D.C., there are outposts in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles—the capital city takes its lady arm wrestlers very seriously.
“We don’t sacrifice any of the theater here, but in the D.C. culture, the competition is just as necessary,” says Patrick McClintock, a founding CLAW member and a volunteer at American Legion Post 8, which functions as the home base and arena for the Washington league. McClintock helped bring the ladies to the post and serves as a referee during the matches. “It’s a contact sport,” he says of the element of danger. “It’s like trying to make pole vaulting safer—there’s only so much you can do without completely changing everything.”
Still, others in the collective are all about showmanship. Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell, who is credited with co-founding the original Charlottesville league after an impromptu arm-wrestling challenge more than six years ago, says that while she does enjoy the physical aspect, “it was really just an excuse to act aggressive—my primary interest was theater.”
Tidwell, for her part, arm-wrestles under the name C-Ville Knievel. Other inventive names that appeared on the roster at a D.C. event in December included Jackie O’Nasty, who wore a tasteful, 1960s-style women’s suit and a pillbox hat; Mahatma Fanny, whose shtick was being uber-flexible; and Hannah Bell Collector (pronounced like Hannibal Lecter), who was brought onto the stage in a straitjacket and given mock medication via oral syringe.
Sabrina Pratt, who’s spearheading next month’s national tourney in D.C. and arm-wrestles out of Chicago under the name Armageddon, says she “considers what we do as sports entertainment—like pro wrestling.
“But at its heart, these are charity events,” adds Pratt (CLAW has raised roughly $300,000 nationally for a number of causes). “We reach out to a different kind of donor, people who really want to make a difference and have some fun while doing it.”
Scott Sowers is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in Washington, D.C., who makes a point never to arm-wrestle with the people he writes about.