Special diets, secret training regimes and muscles on muscles on muscles – here’s how New Zealand’s top arm wrestlers are prepping their guns for glory.
Hands are dusted. Arms are locked. Nostrils flare, voices go quiet, bottom lips get bitten. Once the referee releases his hands and says “go”, it’s war. “You’re a warrior at that specific moment,” says Anton West, a Tauranga-based arm wrestler who’s been involved in the sport as long as he can remember. “Your inner demon comes out. You want to win at all costs.”
A good arm wrestle is a game of chess that can be over in seconds. “You’ll try and set a trap … and use different moves,” says West. Competitors size each other up, testing for moments of vulnerability in muscled-up arms that have been training for this moment for months. “You can be super strong in a gym but the moment you jump on an arm wrestling table, you can experience pain that you’ve never had before because there’s different fibres, different types of muscles, that are working.’
In arm wrestling, size isn’t a reliable indicator of strength. “If you’ve got the biggest biceps in the world and you’ve got weak wrists, I will control your wrists and cut power off to your arm,” says West. “It means nothing.”
To succeed in their chosen sport, a small but dedicated local contingent of arm wrestlers build their own exercise equipment and create unique training regimes. They grow gigantic muscles in places on their shoulders, arms and hands where there were previously none. They compete in physical endurance tests that can leave them quivering wrecks. They suffer brutal injuries so bad doctors tell them to give up their chosen sport for good. It’s advise they refuse.
There’s precious little prize money to be won in arm wrestling. The only gains to be had are boasting rights and minor Instagram fame. So why do it? “This is not a silver spoon sport,” West Auckland arm wrestler James Wells says. He loves it because of the camaraderie that builds between competitors, and unlike many other sports, there are few barriers to entry. Age doesn’t matter: New Zealand’s active arm wrestlers include a 73-year-old. “You do not have to come from money. Inheriting good genetics is a bonus, sure, but hard work and consistency will go a long way.”
It’s that feeling of domination, of rolling their hand over their opponent’s and smashing their fist down into the pad in triumph, that keeps them going. Winning an arm wrestling match is a feeling like nothing else West has experienced. “Mate… it’s almost an out-of-body experience,” he says. “You’ve got your nemesis, ‘This guy’s beating me.’ You train your socks off, you’re in a war with this guy – and you beat him.
“It’s relief. It’s excitement. You know you’ve … bloody done it.”
At the end of the month, it’s all on. Iron Hand, the biggest arm wrestling event ever held in Aotearoa, is taking place on May 27 in the main auditorium of Zeal West – a small community complex next to Henderson’s West Wave swimming pool. Guns will be flexed as a contingent of New Zealand’s competitive arm wrestlers takes on visiting athletes from Uzbekistan and Australia. Prize money of $5,000 is at stake, and anyone can take part across weight classes ranging between 75-105+ kilograms – but you may want to size up the competition if you’re thinking of rolling up and entering on a whim.
“There’s a lot riding on it,” says West, who has spent months organising the event. It’s a rare chance for New Zealand’s small army of arm wrestlers (numbering around 70, almost all of them male) to compete on a world stage, and West admits he’s feeling nervous. Australia’s visiting competitors include their intimidating reigning champ Lachlan Adair, and he’s seen what Uzbekistan’s team, including a former world champ, can do to opponents. “They’re really passionate about the sport,” he says. “Their training camps are [intense] … the power those guys can generate is absolutely insane.”
New Zealand has only been competitive in arm wrestling for the past decade. Despite this, and two years of cancelled competitions during Covid lockdowns, West rates our chances. “I believe our boys have stepped up,” he says. “I can see them training like crazy. They’re on a roll.” He’s been training hard too, cramming in 45 minutes before work, then two hours after most week days, and even more on weekends. He creates his own equipment, including PVC piping wrapped in tea towels, to help build up the muscles needed to be competitive.
But, at 90 kilograms, West is a minnow compared to current Aotearoa champ Maateiwarangi Heta-Morris. He’s nicknamed “The Beast” for good reason. “He’s a big human. He’s in the big boy class.” Everyone will have their eyes on him at the event, especially when he matches up against Adair, who won their last encounter, a match that opened with both men bellowing at each other before enduring a brutal three-part showdown.
Lately, Heta-Morris has been showing off his new hand on social media, with a single muscle so toned he’s bragged about having “the biggest thumb muscle on TikTok”.
Heta-Morris has been deliberately targeting that muscle in training regimes to give him an edge in his matches, says West. “That muscle is so thick …. it will make it difficult for his opponent to hook him,” he says. “It will make it easier for him to roll [his wrist over] that person … that’s his number one move.”
West has experienced that kind of pain for himself and he has the scars to prove it. A few years back, he tensed his right arm as tight as he could, and told Heta-Morris to try and break his hold. The much larger Heta-Morris did exactly that. “He tore my rotator cuff off,” he says. “That was a four-to-six month injury.”
It was one of those injuries when doctors told him he should probably consider a different sport. Instead, West jumped onto online arm wrestling forums where those with similar injuries encouraged him to use specific exercises to build up his rotator cuff. Now back to full fitness, West avoids battling The Beast whenever possible.
James Wells has been training for months in preparation for Iron Hand. He travels from his home in West Auckland to Browns Bay on the North Shore for training sessions with fellow arm wrestlers fanatics. He admits everyone else has their own specific training routines. They’re unlikely to swap tips. “Everyone is quite secretive in their training styles,” he says. “Something that works for me may not necessarily work for the next person.”
Wells has used trial and error to work out when to taper off his workouts, and a week out from the event, he’ll quit heavy training to allow his arm muscle to relax, repair and recover. He enjoys the sport because it’s more complex than weightlifting. “It’s the perfect balance of strength, speed, tactics and endurance – without punching each other in the face.”
He’s doing it to win, and admits he’s eating mostly chicken and broccoli, to help give him the advantage. But Wells also loves the vibe. He’s met some of his best friends through the sport. “The community is relatively tightknit,” he says. “We are all competitive with one another but also very supportive and have a great time when we see each other. The New Zealand Armwrestling Federation is one big family.”
He’s right. When he sends me a seven-minute compilation of his greatest arm-wrestling wins – a series of clips showing competitors losing to him, often shaking their heads and mouthing, “F*** that” – the thing that stands out are the smiles and hugs exchanged just seconds after two huge men appear to be trying to break each other’s arms.
At Iron Hand, winning against Australia and Uzbekistan is firmly on everyone’s minds. But both Wells and West say there’s another reason for getting good results at the competition. Arm wrestling was a sport on the up before Covid hit. Now, numbers are falling and they’re keen to get them back. The only way to do that is to build up the fanbase. “It’s a long way to travel [so] we have to put on a really good show,” says West. “The big thing is to have a really successful event,” says West. “If it’s not too successful I doubt we’ll have this opportunity again.”
He hopes the public shows up and supports New Zealand athletes who have a point to prove. Sometimes, arm wrestling matches go much longer than intended. Arms can swing one way, then the other, in a contest that can go over a minute. West hopes he doesn’t have to go through one himself. “If you’re in one of those, you’re wrecked … there’s nothing left, you’re gone.”
But he sure would like to see some of them on the day. He reckons it’s the best entertainment known to man. “It’s like watching a fire burning, those intense matches,” he says. “If there’s a war going on … you can’t look away.”
Iron Hand will be held at Zeal West on May 27. More details here.