Orangevale resident Tom Nelson is a national player in a sport almost nobody knows about.
That’s all about to change as competitive arm wrestling joins the ranks of crab fishing, gold mining, lumberjacking, house flipping, auto restoring, pawn shopping and costume making as the subject of a nationally televised reality show. Nelson and the four other Northern California men who constitute the Sacramento Arm Benders make their TV debut tonight on AMC’s new reality show “Game of Arms.”
The show promises to be the biggest thing to hit the sport since Sylvester Stallone’s “Over the Top,” the 1987 film about the sport. The AMC show follows the competition and lives of five teams of competitive arm wrestlers. The other “Arm Benders” are Mike McGraw, Kenny Hughes, Allen Fisher and Luke Kindt. The other teams hail from New York City; Kansas City; Erie, Pa.; and Baton Rouge, La.
Competitive arm wresting has existed in some form for decades. “Pullers” compete for prize money in various divisions based on gender, experience, dominant arm and weight of the competitor. The prize money varies but competitors often take home no more than $500 for winning their division. Team competitions are decided by which team amasses the most points, much like track and field.
“It’s a pretty fascinating sport. It’s very primal and visceral … but also very civilized,” said Dan Ilania, one of the show’s executive producers. While there is a degree of violence to the sport, he said it’s similar to a Victorian duel in that there is a very structured way winners are decided.
The show benefits from the ubiquitous nature of the arm wrestling. Nearly every American – man or woman – has arm wrestled around the kitchen table, garage or backyard, Ilania said.
But while most people think about arm wrestling about as much as they think about tetherball, four-square or locking palms in a game of mercy, Nelson has dedicated years of his life to mastering arm wrestling.
Nelson said there is much more to being a champion arm wrestler than having the biggest muscles or being able to lift the heaviest weight. Wrist strength, stamina, power, reaction time, leverage and technique all play a role. He said some people, from lumberjacks to farmers, bring a dynamic strength to the table that doesn’t show up in bulging muscles.
“I’m not talking size strong, I’m talking man strong. Size means nothing,” he said.
As is the case with many reality shows, “Game of Arms” is as much a show about the people who do the activity as the endeavor itself. The world of arm wrestling provided a rich collection of characters, Ilania said.
Nelson said he found his gift for twisting arms through some good-natured banter with his then-boss at United Parcel Service, where he works today.
“I stuffed him,” Nelson said of the result once the talking stopped and the sleeves were rolled up. The boss, who had some experience arm wrestling, told him to get online and find a tournament to enter.
Fifteen years later, Nelson said he’s approaching a dream shared by everyone in his sport.
“It will change the entire sport to the point where every one of us will make a living at it someday,” he said of the extra attention the sport will receive as a result of the show.
“Every single arm wrestler has dreamed about having people know about (the sport),” Nelson said. “The sport is huge but nobody knows about it.”
Call The Bee’s Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @NewsFletch.