Techno music blares from a portable speaker, and the subway rumbles overhead as one of the jacked strangers arm-wrestling in the street turns and challenges me to a fight. No, he informs me in a heavy Slavic accent, just because my bicep is less than half the size of his does not necessarily mean I will lose — despite its appearance, arm-wrestling is not all brute strength but significantly technique.
Arm-wrestling is still considered little more than a formalized bar brawl by many Americans, but a large and growing group of New Yorkers learned during the pandemic that the sport is much more martial art than muscle. And even more importantly, they learned that in an era defined by disease and international isolation, it is a convenient if combative form of socializing.
Since the day gyms closed due to COVID-19, Mikhail Anoshka has been building an arm-wrestling mecca in front of his family’s Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, home. Inspiration came in the form of a brolic man he had seen doing wrist curls with barbells at the Sheepshead Bay 24 Hour Fitness the week before the gym shuttered.
“I knew he was into arm-wrestling because he had the fat grip on,” Anoshka, a recent college grad, told The Post. “I randomly asked him to arm wrestle, and I couldn’t even move his hand.”
The experience last year renewed the 27-year-old Belarusian native’s childhood promise to himself that he would one day beat his father at arm wrestling — and so he began constructing a table to practice on.
The DIY arm arena took a little over two months, $300, numerous Home Depot trips and the help of his father and grandfather to complete, but once he built it, challengers did come.
“For some, it takes like four train stops,” Anoshka boasted of the further-flung folks who’ve attended the open weekly practices he’s been hosting with the table since summer 2020. Passersby often stop to duel or watch, then return with their families weeks later. The scene can swell to 15 people, all mingling, flexing and fighting at the curbside stadium.
“There was a guy that came from Queens with his wife and child and arm-wrestled for an hour while his wife sat in front of my house,” Anoshka recalled. “Everyone’s welcome.”
So far, the home-welded metal legs remaining shockingly sturdy as 200-plus-pound fighters attempt to pin the other’s wrist. And they’ve informally ensured their hand-to-hand contact is sanitary, Anoshka said. “I usually take the soap out, and we wash hands from [the] garden hose.”
With the world shut down as the pandemic continues and many freshly out of work, there was nothing but time to practice.
Sometimes Anoshka and his new arm-wrestling friends take the table down to Coney Island; periodically they’d come by and use it, even when he couldn’t join.
“There’s some other people that also come [to Coney], and they have their own tables,” he said. “All of my arm-wrestling friends, we met because I have the table.”
All around NYC during lockdown, it seemed, people were getting into the sport and eager to practice, meaning they needed other buffs to battle.
Thanks to the free app Armbet, which Anoshka describes as “the Tinder of arm wrestling,” he and his new friends soon discovered fellow table-owners in Queens, Long Island and even New Jersey to train with.
“A lot of arm-wrestling in the past has been very word of mouth. We created Armbet to help people connect,” app founder and North America’s No. 1 ranked arm-wrestler Devon Larratt told The Post. The app — which was released in March 2020 — now has 20,000 global users and, Larratt and Anoshka believe, has significantly helped fuel a massive grassroots growth spurt in the arm-wrestling community over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While most sports need teams, gyms or equipment, arm wrestling’s limited requirements of two arms and a table made it uniquely immune to lockdown restrictions. As with the unregulated, minimal hardware of roller-skating, it thus experienced something of a pandemic-boosted renaissance. “It’s super accessible — all you need is the willing,” said Larratt. “As long as you have an arm and a hand, you’re good to go for arm wrestling.”
And while the bigger arm-wrestling leagues were slowed by the coronavirus, they’re now back up and running faster than ever.
“It has become more popular than ever,” New York Arm Wrestling Association President Jack Arias told The Post. Arias would know: He’s been an arm-wrestling referee for 30 years and has been involved in the New York Arm Wrestling League since shortly after its 1977 founding. He even appears as an extra in the 1987 cult Sylvester Stallone film “Over the Top,” to which many wrestlers credit first learning about arm-wrestling.
“The enthusiasm for the sport has grown,” agreed Gerren Nixon, founder of the 2-year-old Long Island-based Urban Arm Wrestling League. “You see a lot more teams being formed.”
While Nixon is currently focused on organizing a coalition of New York’s arm-wrestling promoters, he dreams of the day the sport is widely considered mainstream in the US — a day which many believe is rapidly approaching: Arias has even been in touch with people trying to bring the sport to the Olympics.
“Arm-wrestling has been around forever. As early as people have been shaking hands, there’s been arm-wrestling,” said Larratt. “When I started, no one did arm-wrestling. Then, with the birth of the internet, more people were able to see it.”
While many former Soviet countries formally recognize the sport, “in North America, it’s still relatively underground,” Larratt explained.
That’s quickly changing though, with both a streaming service and social media channels increasingly embracing and giving a platform to the sport, exposing it to more people at a time when Americans’ loneliness has reached epidemic proportions and the desire to interact with like-minded souls — and their arms — is paramount.
“So much of the world is being taught to shy away from people, that people are dangerous. But we are pack animals — people belong together — and the sport of arm-wrestling teaches you that together, we get stronger,” said Larratt.
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