The Ozzie And Harriet Of Arm Wrestling
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Aired 4/18/13 on KPBS News.
San Diegans Allen and Carolyn Fisher have been called the "Ozzie and Harriet of arm wrestling." They’re both world champions and have been married for 28 years. We visit their La Mesa home to learn more about the sport.
Carolyn Fisher says everyone has an arm wrestling story.
Maybe it's the time you beat your Uncle Sal at the family reunion. Or won your weekend drinking money beating your college roommate.
Carolyn, a 50-year-old, five-time world champion arm wrestler, has many stories. She was a gymnast for many years and you can tell. Her arms aren't bulging like a body builder, but she's pretty buff. When men find out she's a champ, they immediate challenge her to a match (which she usually wins).
It helps that she's married to Allen Fisher, a legend in the sport of arm wrestling. Allen has won 26 world championship titles. They call him Popeye, or Mr. Intensity, because of his focus during a match.
Allen and Carolyn met on the arm wrestling circuit 28 years ago. They were engaged for 11 days. "We weren’t thinking, 'Gee, we’re going to make a name for ourselves as the only husband and wife world champion team in the history of the sport,'" said Carolyn. "But that’s what happened."
Organized arm wrestling has been around since the 1950s. Over the years, more leagues and tournaments have popped up. Arm wrestlers call each other pullers. Today, a world championship tournament can include thousands of “pullers” from countries all over the world.
The Fishers train in their backyard. Under a tarp there’s a weight-lifting bench and an arm wrestling table like the ones used in competition. An old boom box hangs from a strap. In the corner, on the ground, is a pile of trophies. When asked how many trophies he's won, Allen has to guess. "Oh, goodness. Maybe a thousand." He and Carolyn once donated 400 trophies to the thrift store.
In a YouTube video of a 1984 match between Allen and a puller named Gary Ray, you can hear the announcer say Ray's only hope of winning is "to get past that huge hand of Allen Fisher." It's true. Allen's hand is not just large, it's thick with muscle. He has a size 15 ring finger. Then there's his forearms (you can see where he got the nickname Popeye). But other than that, he's not that big of a guy. "I weigh 165. But if somebody grabs my hand, they don’t want to challenge me," said Allen. "It's kind of hard to explain, but I really believe I was designed by God to do what I do."
Allen says he’s been training for arm wrestling since he was a kid, though he didn’t realize it. Growing up in Los Angeles, he couldn’t afford the balls used in handball, his favorite sport. So he converted tennis balls. "I used to climb on top of the roof of the gym where they hit all the tennis balls," Allen recalled. "So I grabbed them all. I used to sit in class and tear the skins off of tennis balls."
As Allen peeled all those tennis balls, he developed muscles in his fingers, hands and forearms. He says those muscles are what helped him win so many matches. "To be a good arm wrestler, it’s not the size of the muscle, but all the connections. Your finger strength, your wrist strength and how that's all connected," he explained.
Carolyn was the best arm wrestler at her bible school, beating all the boys. She entered a tournament in Canada at 17 because she wanted the prize. "First place was a pair of cowboy boots. I really wanted those so I entered it," Carolyn said.
Allen says it's hard to make a living just arm wrestling. The big tournaments don’t happen that often and when they do, the prize might only be $5,000. Top names can make extra money through sponsorships.
The Fishers teach a lot of people how to arm wrestle correctly. Because when it’s done wrong, bad things happen. Arms get broken. "How do people get hurt? Ugh. It takes about 15lbs of pressure to twist a humerus. If you twist it, you’ll snap it," Allen explained. Both he and Carolyn have seen this happen to opponents who adopt poor form as they try to win a match.
The Fishers are the stars of a new reality show about arm wrestlers that’s been picked up by AMC. Shooting starts this spring. It's being produced by the same company behind the Discovery Channel's show "The Deadliest Catch," which follows the crews of large fishing vessels off the coast of Alaska.
The Fishers say they’re not worried about having cameras following them around. Twenty-eight years of marriage (and two grown children) has taught them a lot. "That’s not to say we haven’t had our challenges," Carolyn laughed. "Two world champions under one roof and one of them has PMS." She paused. "And it’s not me!"
The Fishers and a crew of pullers will give arm wrestling tips at an event on Tuesday, April 23rd at 7:30pm at the South Park Abbey, 1946 Fern Street in San Diego. The literary blog The Book Catapult is hosting the pullers during a book signing for Frank Bill, author of "Donnybrook." To learn more about "Donnybrook" and Frank Bill, read CityBeat's feature story.
Full Disclosure: The authors of The Book Catapult are friends of mine.