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March 19, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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This Ain’t a Scene it’s a Goddamned Arm Wrestle

Interior – Industrial Soviet Beerhall – Night

It was late November and cold as hell when I stumbled into the Zhiguli Beer Hall.

I was in Moscow, about to take the trans-Mongolian rail line to Beijing, and after finding someone in my hostel who could speak English, had decided to go out for a beer. My companion was a potbellied Sri Lankan man in his late 30s called Indika, who was in Russia to find love, and spent every waking moment on his phone Facetiming anyone who would answer his calls. How he planned to find love without speaking a word of Russian, I forgot to ask. The beer hall itself was an old stolovaya (cafeteria), clad in long communal benches and grim interior décor that harkened back to the years of the Siberian gulag.  Most of the patrons’ attention was focused on TV screens showing a local soccer match, but no one was much interested in the outcome; it was just better than looking at the walls.

After we got a couple of steins the size of my head, Indika got up to bother the barman for the wifi password so he could continue Facetiming. I turned and noticed at the end of our long table, the cragged grimacing face of some sinewy old Russian, glaring at me with all the malice he could summon. He was flanked on both sides by compatriots mirroring his distasteful look: one was a skinny guy with a mean face,  the other a titanic beast of a man whose jowls wobbled with an anger barely contained. Indika came back to the table, loudly showing his cousin back in Sri Lanka the bar he was in and drawing much attention to us in the process. I tried to get him to calm down and talk about the soccer that was on TV, but he wasn’t interested. Instead he looked straight down at the Russians glaring at us from the end of the table, pointed at them, and said to me, “Hey Danny, those guys are looking at us!” Through gritted teeth I said, “I know, you fool, stop pointing at them”.

It was too late; the sharks had smelt blood.

The cragged-faced man got up from his seat and drunkenly sauntered over to us. I desperately tried to finish my beer but these steins were huge. The Russian slammed his hands down onto the table with a force that rattled every bottle in the bar,  screaming spittle-inflected into my face, “SPEAK RUSSIAN!”

At this signal his cronies slid down the table with their beers and sidled up to us, too close for comfort. The Russians now surrounded us from all sides. The skinny man leaned his mean face close to mine and started talking quietly in Russian. I threw up my hands in confusion, and he repeated his words, this time with a sinister force behind them.

Indika, oblivious to the danger, took countless selfies.

Now, in preparation for the trip, I had spent some time learning a few key phrases, and it was this stilted phrase-book Russian that I threw out at random to try and remedy the situation. But the man who had screamed in our faces was uncharmed by my flailing pidgin Russian. He leaned in and spits out, in English, “Where – are – you – from?”

“Новая Зеландия” (New Zealand).

The man’s face froze and he said, “Novay Zealandia… I LOVE NOVAY ZEALANDIA!” His initial hostility was buried beneath a sea of alcohol and black bread, as I was bombarded with questions about every Russian’s favourite country.

The exchange would have continued to be a pleasant one, if the mammoth sized jowl-wobbling Russian, whose name turned out to be Valeriy, hadn’t gotten it into his head that he had to contest my New Zealand manhood in an arm wrestling match. I knew I was going to lose, but in the interest of respecting foreign customs (and not wanting to anger a behemoth 8 steins deep) I agreed.
A space was cleared on the table and we locked arms.
Valeriy had the cruelty  to not just finish me off straight away. His arm locked in place on the table and he laughed as I squirmed and flailed about, trying to shift the Christmas ham attached to his body down to the table.
Then out of nowhere I felt Valeriy’s arm begin to give, and like a damned fool my heart filled with glee at my imminent success. But it was all a ruse. The conniving bastard had fooled me good, and finished me off by slamming my hand down onto the table, hard. This would have been bad enough, but Valeriy found the whole affair so hilarious that he stood up, called the whole of the Zhiguli Beer Hall’s attention to my plight, and when they turned around and looked at us he grabbed my hand and we recommenced the whole brutal charade.
This tickled the onlookers mightily. Their laughter filled my ears as Valeriy, after much clowning, easily bested me. I looked to Indika for help, but he was Facetiming a distant uncle and paid no heed to my plight. Valeriy’s eyes grew cold, and he could see that I was completely in his grasp. The man’s face was a canvas of pleasure, reaped from my pain and humiliation. He did not tire of the sport for hours, by the end of which I was a husk of my former self.

Russian hospitality can do that to a man.

Later that night, lying on the sagging bunk of my cheap Moscow hostel, I sweated in fury and rage at the fat-faced Valeriy, and swore that when I returned to Novay Zealandia I would train to become the best goddamned arm wrestler that he had ever encountered. I would return to the Zhiguli Beer Hall and show that meatheaded Russian and his laughing cronies just what kind of hell is unleashed when you damage the tender masculinity of a New Zealand male.

Interior – Present-day Wellington – Day

It turns out that Arm Wrestling is a lot more complex than I first gave it credit for. I had originally assumed that there was nothing more to it than two arms, bulging, throbbing, vibrating, veins popping out of places they shouldn’t even be, red hot tension moving from the wrist outward along the arm up the neck, colouring both competitors’ faces, and coating them in a film of sweat.
Boiled down to the relatively simple equation of:

[(arm Y<arm Z)+flatsurface]+(force x tension x time) = 1 winner (arm Z)

But I was very wrong. There is a lot more to it than that.

The complexity that is Arm Wrestling is apparent within its tricky history. An attempt to untangle this is seen on the New Zealand Arm Wrestling League’s website. Arm Wrestling is an ancient sport, the first contest to be commemorated with a painting, on an Egyptian tomb (this fact attributed to the Ultimate Arm Wrestling League is so flimsy and unsupported a thesis that even Google turns up nothing to support it). The fantastical origin story has the sport somehow travelling from Ancient Egypt to the pre-Columbus Americas, and from there to the European taverns of the early 19th century. But the first recorded Arm Wrestling competition was held in California, in 1952.
You with me?

Well, at this point, even I wasn’t with me. Thoroughly confused but not about to give up, I decided to broaden my knowledge by watching the 1987 movie Over the Top, starring Sylvester Stallone as amiable long haul truck driver Lincoln Hawk, who attempts to win back the love of his son by arm wrestling various meatheads who get in his way. The film features many ridiculous moments, including but not limited to, Stallone letting his 10-year-old son drive his 18-wheeler big rig, and Stallone talking. As the lights came up, I found myself even more in the dark about Arm Wrestling, and sought the illumination of the Wellington Arm Wrestling Club.

The club is in its early days. A boast of seven members in the Facebook group turns out in reality to be two guys in their lounge, with my addition making three. The two guys in question would not have looked out of place in the Stallone movie I had just watched. They were packing serious heat in the guns department (translation: they had big arms), and wore shirts tight enough for the cotton to strain along the bicep. They introduced themselves as Max and Sarkez, and to their credit hardly blinked at my skinny untoned arms that have never seen a gym in their life. I was led into the training grounds, which was where the Arm Wrestling table stood in the centre of Max’s apartment, but not before taking my shoes off.

The setting of the Arm Wrestling table was in close proximity to the kitchen, where Max’s female partner pottered around making pasta, a clever motivational strategy no doubt designed to raise the testosterone levels of the competing males.

As I was new, I was instructed to watch as Max and Sarkez powdered their hands with chalk and gripped hands over the table, looking into each other’s eyes and rocking back and forth with such vigour that I couldn’t tell if they were wrestling or warming up. As they ran me through the basics, I noticed a violent rhetoric attached to the different moves: curling the opponent’s hand was called ‘breaking the wrist’, and changing the angle of pressure was ‘snapping the fingers’. This was possibly a cover for the sexual tension bound to arise when males sweat together in close proximity. The violent rhetoric did nothing to deter my enthusiasm, as I was intent on gaining the skills to bring low my Russian nemesis, Valeriy.

My enthusiasm for the sport did not make up for the blatant difference in strength. Because my inexperience and relative weakness caused a safety concern for Max and Sarkez, I was mostly delegated to saying “ready, go!” to signal the beginning of a match. I took to my position of glorified human starting gun with pride, but soon noticed an issue causing problems for the wrestlers. I noticed that Max was bursting forth at full strength at “ready”, while Sarkez waited patiently for the “go”. Realising that this gave Max an unfair advantage I asked whether I was meant to be saying “ready, go!”, or “ready… go!”? This threw a spanner of confusion in the works and led to about 5 minutes discussion on the pros and cons of both options. After much ado, no clear decision was reached, and I was free to pace the starting call at my discretion.

The moment finally came for me step up to the table and show them what I could do. I locked arms with Max, whose huge hands covered mine and then some, biceps threatening to burst through his shirt. I realised that I was at a severe strength disadvantage, but sought to make up for this with strong willpower. To spurn on this willpower I summoned an image from my memory of Valeriy, complete with cheeks ruddy with mercilessness, jowls trembling in aggression, and that black-holed smile of joy at my misery. At my recollections I felt at once a fire within me begin to burn. This heat began in my chest and worked itself outward to where it was needed in my arms.
The fire was strength.

The strength to forgive.

Because at that moment I realised that no good could come of this vengeance tale. The anger I harboured towards Valeriy was more a detriment to my soul than to his. I had wasted so much of my time and energy seeking revenge on this Russian I hardly knew, and for what? At that instance I resolved to walk the path of violence no longer. I released my grip on Max’s hand and walked away from the table. He was probably relieved because I would have totally beaten him had I not realised that you can solve more issues with love and forgiveness than with Arm Wrestling.

If you are interested in Arm Wrestling, see NZ Armwrestling on FB for more information.
I probably won’t see you there.

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