Armed and Dangerous
By Toby Smith
It usually begins this way: A biker-type will walk up and say, “I hear you’re pretty tough.”
This happens a lot, Joseph Cordova says.
He’s in a bar, minding his own beeswax, when some leather-jacket lummox who weighs a hundred pounds more than him, wants a piece.
“They’re always big, strong and dumb,” Cordova says, laughing.
Cordova stands 5 feet 4 inches tall. If he’s had the Grand Slam that morning at Denny’s, he weighs maybe 130 pounds.
Why not beg off?
“They’re calling me out. I’m a target, the little guy.”
So the little guy bellies up to the bar and puts an elbow down on the counter and locks thumbs. Couple of seconds later, it’s over. Little guy wins.
One loser started howling and clutching his shoulder. “What’s wrong?’’ the big man yelled.
“Dude,” Cordova said, “you just broke your arm.”
“The sport is about pride.”
Jeff Ames, president of New Mexico ArmSports
Fact is, Cordova broke it. “I’ve broken a couple of guys’ arms. See, they don’t have any technique. The bones shatter like 2-by-4s.”
Pound for pound, Joseph Cordova is New Mexico’s best arm wrestler, or puller, as such folks are known. He has won the state arm wrestling crown 10 times, the U.S. title seven times. He’s ranked No. 4 in the world in the 121-pound class. Ahead of him are Eastern Europeans, national heroes who pull for a living. American arm wrestlers work for a living. Cordova, 29, owns a home-inspection business in Albuquerque.
Arm wrestling is enjoying a resurgence. Bigger than foosball but not yet the size of UFC, for years it was what you did on a school cafeteria table during lunchtime. Or in the corner saloon to win a bet.
The Sylvester Stallone movie Over the Top provided an initial lift. The 1987 flick remains the Rocky of arm-wrestling films. Stallone plays a trucker trying to win back the love of his estranged son. To do that, he enters the world arm-wrestling championships in Las Vegas, Nev., and beats a Valvoline-drinking bruiser named Grizzly on the way to glory. Kid loves Dad again.
When that movie faded, so did arm wrestling. The sport started making a comeback a few years ago. The hulking female football coach on the hit TV show “Glee” gave it a boost: Seems actress Dot Jones used to compete and win arm-wrestling contests in real life. More recently, Bruce Way, the actor who played John Grizzly in Over the Top, popped up again. In a YouTube video, Grizzly takes on NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman.
Cordova got into the sport 11 years ago. He had been a good wrestler at Los Lunas High School, winning a state title at 112 pounds. That summer, he decided to enter Valencia County Fair’s arm wrestling tournament. He took third at 178 pounds. He was off and pulling.
“You can’t just be some bodybuilder who benches 600. At this level, it’s like a chess game.”
“The sport is about pride,” says Jeff Ames, president of New Mexico ArmSports.
“It’s about going mano a mano,” Cordova says.
It’s about shirts with no sleeves.
In February, Cordova entered the New Mexico championships. For Cordova to compete here is like, say, Andy Roddick entering a Sunday round-robin at the Jerry Cline tennis courts.
Arm wrestling has moved out of drinking halls. Still, numerous contests are held in sports bars. This one takes place in Sneakerz, on San Mateo south of Montgomery. To make it a challenge, Cordova will move up to the 154-pound class.
In the center of the main room at Sneakerz stand two small tables. Watching over each table are two referees wearing the black-and-white striped shirts of basketball officials. A bucket of hand rosin sits nearby. When competitors finish a match, they put a warm-up sleeve on their wrestling arm, as baseball pitchers do between innings. This is serious stuff. It takes 25 minutes to read all the rules.
Guys—and some women—mill about between matches, their arms at their sides. Not straight along their sides, for cantaloupe-size biceps don’t permit that.
The prevailing look for men is a shaved skull and more tattoos than the USS New Mexico. The scent of chili-cheese fries and body heat fills Sneakerz.
When Marc Lowery comes out for a match, the fans, many themselves with shaved heads and tattoos, let loose with cries of delight. Lowery, a Native American from Nevada, weighs nearly 500 pounds.
Jeff Ames tells the crowd, “Marc’s lost about 60 pounds to get ready for this. Sixty pounds ... that’s an Olsen twin.”
Cordova says, “You lift weights, do chin ups, pull-ups, push-ups. But a match for good pullers is knowing the right moves. You have to know when to attack, when to defend. You can’t just be some bodybuilder who benches 600. At this level, it’s like a chess game.”
Cordova has a sore elbow, which he is nursing this night. Everybody gets those. Ibuprofen is the drug of choice, at least openly.
“Lots of guys tear rotator cuffs, sprain wrists, fracture fingers,” Cordova says. Tendons and ligaments snap like fiddle strings. And then of course there are those broken bones.
“Mostly the humerus, in the upper arm,” Cordova says.
With his wavy black hair neatly combed, Cordova has managed to stay healthy and tattoo-free. Other than forearms that resemble fireplace logs, he looks like the assistant manager at Jiffy Lube.
Moving about like a boxer who punches at a make-believe shadow, Cordova warms up in a back room. His chief opponent this night is Willie Lambert, a personal trainer from Santa Fe. Lambert outweighs Cordova by almost 20 pounds and has about four inches on him. They are rivals.
“It can be intense with us,” Cordova admits. The two are mates on Team New Mexico, but on the table, comradeship is forgotten.
“They want to tear each other’s arm off,” Ames says.
Lambert is a lot like Cordova. Same age, same clean-cut look. The difference is he has not had Cordova’s success. He just missed making the national team. The widespread belief is that he’s envious and ready to put the little guy down.
Cordova’s mother, Sunday Cordova, tells her son, “Go out there and hurt him.”
The two wrestle right-handed, then left-handed. Cordova is the aggressor. Spectators scream, beer spills, an ice hockey game on a big TV goes unwatched. When Cordova wins left-handed, Lambert looks pissed. He confronts Cordova and says something. More screams. Ames steps between them. Later, Cordova can’t remember what Lambert said. Lambert can’t recall, either.
“He didn’t have to get in my face,” says Cordova. “But that’s pulling, I guess.”
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