John Brzenk is almost 60 years old, but he continues to compete in arm wrestling matches

John Brzenk arm wrestling

An arm wrestling bout begins a few minutes before the referee screams “Go!” with a procedure like a very technical, extremely aggressive handshake. Both arm wrestlers, also known as “pullers,” stand on a table with their elbows pressed into pads as the referee organizes and rearranges their palms and fingers, yelling reprimands when, for example, one puller’s shoulders are not squared or the other’s elbow leaves the pad. The hand position is critical: If one competitor’s webbing (the space between the thumb and index finger) is higher than the other, he or she may gain an edge.

In November, two pullers’ right hands are joined in the middle of a table in front of roughly 100 onlookers in Istanbul. Their nonfighting arms are stiff as a referee kneads their fingers into position and forces their wrists straight. Their left hands are clutching metal pegs on either side of the table. One of the wrestlers breaths forcefully in and out, his white hair cropped perfectly around his face. His left shoulder is stiff and lifted near his ear, and the two conspicuous veins going up his arms are bulging like geographical ranges. His name is John Brzenk, and he is a 59-year-old American who has been pulling for more than four decades and is “universally known and recognized as the greatest arm wrestler of all time,” according to one commentator as he approaches the table.

This superfight, which is available on pay-per-view from Core Sports, is part of the East versus West series, and Brzenk’s opponent, Bulgarian Sasho Andreev, is 26 years old. Andreev is five feet six inches shorter than Brzenk, but he’s densely built, his arms are ridiculously long, and his hands are the size of salad plates and incredibly thick. Pullers with stockier bodies typically thrive at “the hook,” a technique that involves turning and dragging the wrist inward toward the body, drawing the biceps and shoulder into the battle, as Brzenk explained to me two weeks previously. But Andreev’s Gumby arms—”look how long his arms are compared to his body,” one of the two commentators exclaims—allow him to do a top roll, in which the wrist coils, then pronates, over the opponent’s hand. John Brzenk is also proficient in both arm wrestling moves.

The men’s arms are already pressing against each other as the referee starts the fight, releasing their hands, exclaiming “Go!” and stepping back in the same split second. Their expressions twist. Brzenk obtains a top roll and leans to his left, drawing Andreev’s hand toward the table with his bodyweight, but Andreev has him in a hook—his wrist is straight and Brzenk’s is twisted and weakened. Brzenk’s upper lip swells out, and his hairline vein throbs.

“If this goes into an endurance battle, we know the Bulgarian has power there,” one of the analysts said. Both are scarcely hiding their admiration for the sport’s long-time idol. This game is no longer East vs West. Instead, it’s 59 vs 26, and every fan wonders if John Brzenk can actually take a middleweight world title from a guy more than 30 years his junior in a high-intensity, strength-based sport.

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