Sitting on opposite sides of a small table, Brawlly Parton and Angela Death glare at each other, their elbows planted on the table, their hands intertwined in a tight grip. At the command of "Start!" the women grimace and strain as each tries to overpower the other. The audience screams for their favorite. It's over in less than 30 seconds.
Death won by pinning Parton's hand to the table. But the judges, who were distracted by wads of money that had been slipped to them, counted up the loot, then declared Parton the winner.
Was the match fixed? No question about it.
Was it fun? A lot of people wouldn't question that, either.
The competition was part of an exhibition match for the Minnesota Arm Wrestling League for Ladies (MAWLL). The league has been in existence only since mid-January, and if the very notion of it gives you pause, the launch has been a success.
"My co-workers think it's weird, my brother thinks it's hilarious and my family just shake their heads," said Ellyn Grothem, emcee for the matches.
Much more campy than competitive, the league has these objectives: "shenanigans, arm wrestling and philanthropy." All three elements were on display at the match, which took place this month before a RollerGirls competition at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul.
The antics start with the wrestler's stage names, which include the likes of Helga Hammerfist (a k a Linda Tyler) and Babe, the Blue Ox (Liz Elton) as well as the aforementioned Brawlly Parton (Sara Larsen) and Angela Death (Angela Hershberger).
The names are accented by flamboyant costumes — skeletons, Vikings and — you might want to shield the kids' eyes — a cantankerous take on Santa Claus. And it's not just the competitors who are dressed up. The wrestlers are accompanied by entourages made up of friends, siblings and even a few good-natured spouses, who also are in costume.
"I love to perform," admitted Amy "Short Stack" Siegel. "You can create a larger-than-life persona."
Before they start wrestling, the competitors strut around, gesturing and calling to the audience in an effort to attract more supporters than their opponent. The spectators are encouraged to offer bribes to the judges, which the wrestlers' entourages go into the audience to collect.
Once the payoffs are delivered, the judges are free to ignore the outcome of the match to declare a winner based on which one produced a bigger payoff. All the money goes to charity, with a different cause designated for each event.
An age-old endeavor
Arm wrestling has been around since the invention of bragging rights. Aficionados claim that pictorials found in Egyptian tombs can be interpreted as showing it. American Indians were doing it long before Europeans showed up.
In 1952, a promoter in California organized what is believed to be the first tournament (although he called it wristwrestling). The credit for the sport's widespread popularity typically is given to the TV show "Wide World of Sports," which broadcast the tournament's finals for 15 years starting in the late 1960s.
Today there are amateur and professional leagues for men. A few women compete professionally as part of their roles in Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fighting events.
MAWLL is part of the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers (CLAW), which has 18 clubs in the United States and one in Sao Paulo, Brazil. CLAW also is the acronym of the first club, the Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers in Virginia. Admittedly launched as a joke in 2008, their matches became so popular that the Washington Post sent a reporter to see what was going on, and that attention led to other cities jumping aboard.
The Minnesota league was started by Hershberger, Elton and Christina "Miss Claws" Igoe. Igoe and Elton were trying to put together a league when they heard that Hershberger was doing the same thing, so they decided to join forces.
"We heard about how big — huge, really — it was in Charlottesville," Igoe said. "I figured that it was something I could do for a good cause, and Liz was looking for something to empower women."
The league's reception has exceeded all expectations, Hershberger said.
"I was expecting family and friends and a handful of strangers," she said of the inaugural match, which was held at the Hexagon Bar in Minneapolis. "But we packed the Hexagon. And, hopefully, it will keep getting bigger."
Serious about safety
The only person not indulging her silly side during MAWLL matches is Hally Turner, the referee. While she watches to make sure that standard arm-wrestling rules are followed — "elbows on the table, knuckles up, feet on the floor, butt on the chair" — her primary focus is safety.
"I have the only serious role," she said, although she does sport a nickname: Hawkeye Hally. "People have broken their arms doing this. [To learn to be a ref] I had to watch some disturbing videos."
To avoid injury, the wrestler's body should lean the same way as her arm. If she sees anyone varying from that, she stops the match and makes the wrestler correct her form.
The other thing the wrestlers take seriously is the fundraising.
Nonprofit organizations can contact the league to ask to become a partner for an event, but there are three requirements: The charity should either serve women or have been started by women, it must be based in Minnesota and it has to be small. "If you host fund-raising galas, you are too big," the guidelines warn.
New wrestlers are welcome. They're told to come up with a character name, a back story for the character, costume, entourage, theme song and signature move. The more fanciful, the better. Helga Hammerfist was born in Norway more than 3,000 years ago. When she died she was "bjorn again" and became an emissary of Valhalla. Her theme song is Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," and her signature move is the "Ruinstone."
Although they occasionally do exercises to strengthen their forearms, most of the wrestlers confessed that they don't spend much time training. They're more focused on having fun and raising money for charity.
"This isn't about strength," Igoe said. "This is about strength of the heart."