The California Armbenders throw down as competitive arm wrestling moves out of the backyard and onto the TV
Baritone grunting. Profuse sweating. Veins popping out of cherry-red necks and foreheads, ready to burst.
A beer can topples onto a pickup-truck tailgate. The smell of grilling barbecue and the music of romping puppies accompany a small tribe of giggling children swinging from a heavy white rope on a tree that men with huge biceps also climb for strength training.
As the sun beats down on a Citrus Heights yard on a recent Saturday in early March, two arm wrestlers with limbs like artillery shells are in the center of the action, facing off for pride and practice.
These are the California Armbenders, and until February, the Sacramento team was an underground legend in the world of competitive arm wrestling. The team boasts 25 professional and a dozen amateur athletes, with many state, national and world titles to its name, and members hailing from Citrus Heights, Orangevale, Napa, Modesto and Turlock.
In 2013, Undertow Films, an unscripted television-production company, cast four Armbenders, as well as another athlete from San Diego, in its newest show, Game of Arms, on the AMC Network.
The show’s February 25 series premiere broke AMC’s record for unscripted television with more than 1 million viewers.
Game of Arms features five teams. In addition to the Armbenders, there are contingents hailing from New York City; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Kansas City, Missouri; and Erie, Pennsylvania. On each episode, two of the teams go head-to-head in hour-long episodes rife with personal drama and athletic intensity. The April 29 episode will feature all five teams facing off in a round-robin tournament for a cash prize.
Armbenders team captain Tom Nelson, a UPS warehouse worker by day, has been “pulling” with his team since 1999. Arm wrestling is a calling for the Nelson family, he says. It started with Nelson’s father, who instilled a competitive spirit in his children. Nelson, along with his sister, brother and wife, have all won tournaments big and small across the country.
Nelson’s own story is ready for comic-book immortality.
One day at UPS, he challenged his supervisor to a match.
“He was the biggest guy you’ve ever seen in your life—265 pounds, all legs,” Nelson says.
The pair wrestled on the hood of a car, and Tom slammed his supervisor’s hand down twice, lefty and righty.
“He looked me right in my eye, calm as day, and he says, ’Son, you go online, you find a tournament, go to it, and tell me how you did.’”Weapons of mass destruction
The weekend Armbenders practice in Citrus Heights involves fun and games, for now. Most of the team is here for the informal biweekly family reunion.
The stars of the AMC show are out on the road. Nelson is currently in Ohio at an AMC-sponsored tournament to promote the show and recruit potential cast members for a possible second season.
Meanwhile, Kelli “Turbo” Nelson, Tom’s sister and the self-appointed team mom, roams the yard watching her boys compete on two beat up, regulation-size arm-wrestling tables.
All the Armbenders here, she says, are “like a huge family.”
Mac “Stop Sign” Telle jokes around with Kelli.
“Usually Kelli punches me in the head if I’m acting up or being a pussy,” he says.
“It’s my job,” Kelli says. “Keeping these boys in line is a 24-seven job. As the team mom, I get to beat up the newbies first.”
Nelson describes his group as “a drinking team with an arm-wrestling problem.”
Their beverage of choice: Bud Light or Corona, not a top-shelf, locally brewed craft beer.
“What the hell for?” he says. “Cheap beer gets you just as drunk.”
Cheap beer suits the sport, since top prize money only averages $500-$1,000 in most tournaments. Nelson’s personal record is winning $4,000 at a West Virginia competition.
An hour with the Armbenders leaves the impression that the Nelson clan is like the Skywalker family of American arm wrestling.
Kelli and Tom’s younger brother Scott Nelson once competed in tournaments until he got bored, going undefeated for two years. Now he’s a mixed-martial arts fighter who trains with Urijah Faber. When Kelli isn’t organizing practices or tending to her own family, she also throws elbows with the Sacred City Derby Girls roller-derby league.
But mostly, arm wrestling keeps her busy. According to Kelli, she and Tom have won “world titles, 10 national championships and about 60 state championships” from California, Oregon and Washington.
Ryan Davis, the host of today’s get-together, lifts up his shirt to show a bruise on his hip from bracing against the metal table frame.
Mike McGraw, the Armbenders founder and 51-year-old guru, hosts practice once a month at his house in Turlock, but couldn’t make it to Citrus Heights today. He started his pulling career at the 1979 Santa Clara County Fair tournament, which he won without practicing. He entered the competition after being mesmerized by pro arm wrestlers on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. He and a friend formed the first Armbenders team 35 years ago, when they decided to compete and train regularly, and a new generation of talent joined the team in 1999, when the Nelson family entered the picture.
Allen Fisher, the San Diego athlete who competes with the Armbenders at the behest of Game of Arms casting, is a 58-year-old legend in the arm-wrestling community, especially in parts of Europe, where the sport is as big as the NFL (Russian competitors are state-sponsored athletes, who allegedly receive steroids for the sport from their government).
The Armbenders knew the iconic Fisher from years of tournaments before the show.
How famous is Fisher, exactly?
According to legend, the arm wrestler was chatting with a Russian competitor at an international competition when the Russian said, “The president sends his best and congratulates you on your recent victory.”
Fisher thought he meant the president of the Russian league.
“Nyet,” the Russian said, “Vladimir Putin is big fan.”
Of course President Putin would idolize a man with 15-and-a-half-inch diameter biceps and fists so large that he can hide a soda can in the palm of his right hand, which dwarfs his left.
Tom Nelson describes Fisher as “a freak of nature.”
“Allen Fisher’s hands are so big, and his waist is so small, that his hands don’t fit in his pockets, which is why he uses a fanny pack,” Nelson says.
Also on the show but absent today is Kenny Hughes, who shocked the world of pullers when he defeated Fisher for a world title at age 16. Now 32, Hughes and Nelson charm audiences with their best-buddies friendship on TV.
The show’s executive producer Ethan Prochnik marvels at the fan engagement. The network, he says, has taken notice of the unusually high ratio of viewers that keep chatting about the show on Facebook and Twitter. If fans keep talking, he says, professional arm wrestlers are poised to explode on the national stage, thanks to these athletes.
But the TV show has brought some friction into the Armbenders fold, too.
Team members talk of on-and-off rumors that Robert Drenk, an Orange County RV and mortgage-finance entrepreneur, would beat Game of Arms to the small screen.
“We’ve been hearing [Drenk] is three months away from his TV show for two years now,” says Kelli.
Drenk scooped up more than 160 top-ranked arm-wrestling athletes and referees, signing them to exclusive contracts promising fame and fortune.
Telle signed up with Drenk, for example, only to reportedly have the millionaire back out of a network deal at the last minute. The disappointment that Telle now can’t even appear in the Armbenders cheering section on Game of Arms is palpable, but legally, he can’t discuss it.
Still, Telle, whose guns would make Arnold Schwarzenegger say, “Hasta la vista, Telle,” may still hit it big if arm wrestling succeeds on TV.
Certainly, TV success would mean a bigger spotlight for all involved.
Kelli hopes the show expands her competition, since only about a dozen American female athletes participate in her weight class.
“I love my arm-wrestling family the way it is, but if the show brings more people to the sport, that’s a good thing,” she says.
“Female arm-wrestler numbers are dwindling, and the possibility of bringing in more women would be amazing.”