Plenty of el­bow room as gen­tle gi­ants wres­tle with their demons on ‘Game of Arms’

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE -

Where on your CV do you boast about your up­per body strength? Does your “work ex­pe­ri­ence” in­clude “sub­ju­gat­ing men to my will” or “dom­i­nat­ing God’s cre­ation”?

Does the ac­com­pa­ny­ing photo fea­ture you throw­ing a tree-trunk in the snow, do­ing lunges on a cliff-top or pos­si­bly, if you’re re­ally cool, punch­ing a bear? Do you go to in­ter­views top­less like Putin or wear­ing a fig­ure-hug­ging vest like Vin Diesel? Is there any room for old school mas­culin­ity in this crazy mod­ern world? The pro­tag­o­nists of Game of

Arms cer­tainly think so. This weirdly en­dear­ing pro­gramme (Dave, Thurs­day) looks at the low-stakes, semi-pro­fes­sional world of com­pet­i­tive arm-wres- tling, and, along the way, the high-stakes world of sen­si­tive mod­ern mas­culin­ity. “Is [com­pet­i­tive arm wrestling] a real thing?” asks buff New York school­teacher Mike Se­learis, pre-empt­ing your first ques­tion in a grav­elly Bat­man voice.

“Damn right it is,” he growls, thus win­ning an ar­gu­ment you didn’t know you were hav­ing .


That’s just the kind of guy Se­learis is. When we meet him he’s start­ing the day in his base­ment do­ing one-arm pull-ups be­ing cheered on by a cir­cle of mus­cley men, from his team New York Arms Con­trol. Mean­while his wife Deb is get­ting the kids ready for school cheered on by no­body (poor Deb). Like most grown adults, Se­learis has a “long-time neme­sis,” Kenny Hughes, a farmer from Cal­i­for­nia who leads a club called the Sacra­mento Arm Ben­ders. Se­learis and his chums are very wor­ried about the Ben­ders (I’m not sure this name would work in an Ir­ish con­text).

Hughes, we’re told, is a for­mer arm-wrestling “child prodigy”. This makes me pic­ture a Lit­tle Lord Fauntleroy type with one mas­sive bi­cep, but Hughes turns out to be a bulky, sad-eyed man with a pony tail and a drink prob­lem.

While Se­learis de­claims and glares like a pro­fes­sional wrestler, Hughes mum­bles in a slightly heartbroken fash­ion. It’s like he never wanted to be an arm-wrestler at all and has been trapped by this great gift. I keep ex­pect­ing him to say: “Curse my mad-arm-wrestling skillz. I just wanna dance.”

Luck­ily, Hughes is sur­rounded by more as­sertive folk. Al­lan Fisher, a mous­ta­chioed church min­is­ter, who looks like some­one stuck he-man ac­tion-fig­ure arms to a pipe-cleaner, likes to run around a moun­tain, fling­ing tree-trunks about and roar­ing. It’s kind of his thing.

Dan For­tuna, Mike Se­learis’s right-hand man (pun in­tended), proves his worth by rolling up a steel fry­ing pan with his bare hands.

House­hold items

“Hah,” he seems to be say­ing, “While the pro­duc­tion of such house­hold items has moved to Asia, their de­struc­tion is all-Amer­i­can.”

Sealearis and For­tuna fre­quently yell “Yeah!” and “Hah!” in self-af­fir­ma­tion (as I do my­self). And Se­learis lis­tens to mo­ti­va­tional tapes as he does arm ex­er­cises in the car.

“To be the best, it’s not about hav­ing the strong­est arm, it’s all about the mind,” he says.

He also likes to trash talk. “I’m the flame and [Hughes is] go­ing to get thrown into the fire,” he mut­ters while teach­ing a class of

Hughes, we’re told, is a for­mer arm-wrestling ‘child prodigy’. This makes me pic­ture a Lit­tle Lord Fauntleroy type with one mas­sive bi­cep

glassy-eyed school chil­dren who look like they’ve heard far too much about semi-pro­fes­sional arm-wrestling. Yet de­spite all the ma­cho pos­tur­ing, there’s some­thing sweet about th­ese big, loud, lumpy men.

They wear spray tan and take sooth­ing bub­ble baths. One of them is a ve­gan. They cry and are care­ful of each other’s feel­ings. And, when you think about it, they’re go­ing to a lot of trou­ble for rel­a­tively lit­tle money (the prize for the whole team, the nar­ra­tor an­nounces proudly, is “a cool $1,000”). If they be­gan each bout of arm-wrestling by say­ing “hold me”, I wouldn’t be en­tirely sur­prised. A bit of pan­tomime ag­gro aside, it is clear those big arms were re­ally made for hug­ging.

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