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Barroom Behind, Arm-Wrestlers Go for Grip on Respectability

January 18, 1987|BILL MANSON

LA MESA — You'll never guess what Marie Osmond, Sylvester Stallone, James Caan, Billie Jean King, Trini Lopez and Mr. and Mrs. Fisher of La Mesa have in common.

They're all arm-wrestlers. They all like gritting their teeth and locking hands, anchoring their elbows, wrenching their wrists and burning their biceps until one of them gets slammed, or the other guy slowly, inexorably compresses him back to horizontal as if he were setting a giant mousetrap. Clunk. Down.

But those stars are strictly weekend arm-wrestlers.

Allen and Carolyn Fisher are different. Arm-wrestling's their life. The reason they found each other. The cement in their marriage, the main furniture in their apartment, the god that consumes their mornings, nights, weekends and annual vacations, delineates their friends and writes the scripts for their dreams at night.

The last place you probably arm-wrestled was in a sixth-grade classroom or in a bar on a bet.

The Fishers get up in the morning, brush their teeth, then lock arms on one of their specially constructed arm-wrestling tables. Neighbors used to wonder about the tortured hisses coming up from the young couple's apartment. Now, they know it's just Al and Carolyn "top-rolling" at the table. They're serious, all right.

And they've gotten serious results. Allen has nine world championships; Carolyn, one.

There are maybe 1,000 serious arm-wrestlers in the United States. Five hundred to 600 usually turn up for the major tournaments like the famous Petaluma Wrist-Wrestle near San Francisco. The sport is also known in such countries as Greece, China, Italy, Germany and India. Canadian women seem to excel in the sport, as do American men. And on top of the top in his class, Allen is one of the most consistent winners.

But to look at him in a crowd, you would say he's fairly standard build. Not your gym-freak hunk. About 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, 30 years old . . . and then you notice his hands. Huge! Lateral muscles cross like burrowing moles under the skin of the top of his hand from his pinkie (which looks like your thumb) to his thumb (the size of your wrist, almost).

Now, look at his arms. The forearms are like thighs, the nearest thing to Popeye outside the comic book. You can't help casting your eyes about for bitten-off spinach cans. You take measurements. Bicep: 15 3/4. Forearm: 16 1/2.

Then, you look at Carolyn. About 5-foot-7, 138 pounds, 24 years old and somehow looking slim, petite, delicate. Until you look closer at her arms. They're not huge, by any measure. But the muscles are lean, mean, hard, the shoulders like a robot's ball-joints.

They've both turned professional in arm-wrestling, but that doesn't mean they don't have to work at other jobs. Allen is a metal-and-glass worker. Carolyn, who's Canadian, is a physical therapist's aide, gymnastics coach and mime teacher.

Right now, they should be in Reno, Nev., competing in the Canadian-American championships, but they couldn't afford to go. It's about $300 to get up there, and even if they win, the prize is only $500. They have sponsors (Unipro, a company that makes vitamin pills and energy drinks), but sponsorship just means a free supply of the vitamins. No financing. Which shows where the sport's at. The big money, the coverage, is not there.

The world still sees it as just one level above the barroom brawl. For Allen and Carolyn, that's an insult. They see it as a serious sport that should be in the Olympics. But for now, the Can-Am contest has to take a back seat to mortgage payments.

So today, they do what they do maybe twice a week.

Everybody has come around to the Fishers' place here in La Mesa for an afternoon of training and competing. A dozen or so people are milling inside a small living room already crowded with exercise machines, a table of food, a large video setup showing old arm-wrestling contests, and an old upright piano creaking under a battalion of trophies.

"Hey! Who's first? Come on, you guys, enough watching the glory days. I want a few good men," Allen calls. He's standing ready at a kind of stand-up bar-table with a joy stick at each, two cushions ("losers' cushions") on each side, and a couple of red plastic doughnuts in the middle. His elbow is jammed into one, his left hand is gripped around the left joy stick, and his right leg is curled around one of the table legs.

An assortment of generally big fellows comes ambling out from where Carolyn has been feeding them and showing the videos. Carpenters, electricians, plumbers mostly. Obviously, guys who have spread the word at work and like the idea of a sport that doesn't make you go out and spend hundreds of bucks on equipment and training.

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