Arms crisis – Frank McNally on a crash course in arm-wrestling

During the short bursts of arm-on-arm action, spectators can become highly animated

Stopping for food in Carlingford on Saturday night and noticing how busy the village was – every hotel room had been booked out – I was intrigued to learn that what a barman called the “world arm-wrestling championships” were happening in a local hall.

That turned out to be an exaggeration, although not as much as the actual title of the event: “Armgods Valhalla”, an international promotion touring from its base in the UK (at Manchester’s charmingly named Club Torture).

So before heading back to Dublin, I dropped by the venue just in time to see a “superheavyweight right-hand” bout between the New Zealand Maori, Maateiwarangi Heta-Morris, aka “the Beast”, and a kilted Scotsman named – what else? – James Stewart.

To the accompaniment of loud music, indoor fireworks, and the roars of a mostly male crowd, both men walked slowly to the stage through a fog of testosterone, glowering for the benefit of the hand-held video camera that reversed before them to the table.


Until this, my knowledge of competitive arm-wrestling had been (mis)informed mainly by literature. There was the epic contest described in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, for example, where the hero reminisces as a distraction from his also-protracted battle with the giant marlin:

“As the sun set he remembered, to give himself more confidence, the time in the tavern at Casablanca when he had played the hand game with the great negro from Cienfuegos who was the strongest man on the docks. They had gone one day and one night with their elbows on a chalk line on the table and their forearms straight up and their hands gripped tight. Each was trying to force the other’s hand down onto the table . . . They changed the referees every four hours after the first eight so that the referees could sleep. Blood came out from under the fingernails of both his and the negro’s hands and they looked each other in the eye and at their hands and forearms and the bettors went in and out of the room and sat on high-chairs against the wall and watched . . .”

Then, by complete contrast, there was the match in Mulligan’s Pub, Dublin, circa 1904, described by James Joyce in his grim short story Counterparts.

There, the alcoholic protagonist Farrington has a bad night made worse when he loses an arm-wrestling challenge to a visiting English acrobat, just off stage at the Tivoli theatre, after two bouts, one of which lasts “thirty seconds”.

With my newfound expertise in the sport, I now have to say that Hemingway’s romanticised marathon – the arm wrestlers eventually reach a decision on Monday morning just as the spectators are about to ask for the 24-hour match to be called a draw so they can go to work – was a product of bad technique.

The Carlingford superheavyweight bout lasted all of 10 minutes or so, and that was for a best-of-five, won 3-1 by the New Zealander.

Also, much of the time was taken up by the process of negotiating a fair hand-grip from which to start. This is at least as complicated as organising a rugby scrum, with regular resets and the referee sometimes called upon to interweave a strap between and around the two hands, meticulously, as if in some medieval marriage ceremony.

During the short bursts of arm-on-arm action, nevertheless, spectators can become highly animated. A small Scotsman near me bounced on his feet like a pogo dancer throughout while hurling invective at the Maori.

After the match, as the winner exited, the Scotsman looked he was about to fight him, which would have been a big mistake because Heta-Morris’s victorious bicep had a wider circumference than the Scotsman’s torso. But as they passed each other, the spectator’s apparent anger melted into a smile – a smart move – and they exchanged only fist-bumps.

This was in keeping with Heta Morris’s reputation, which belies his nickname. A 2019 profile by Radio New Zealand said he was a “sentimental gentle giant” at heart.

Mind you, it also noted he had “broken seven arms” since becoming a professional. But I gather none of those were deliberate – arm breaks are a common hazard of the game. Either way, Heta-Morris credits his career with preventing him from doing worse things.

After an impoverished youth, “arm-wrestling his mates for food on the top of rubbish bins”, and years of alcohol abuse, he thinks the sport probably saved him “from a life in prison”.

Speaking of medieval marriage ceremonies, by the way, the Armgods of Valhalla were not the only reason there were no rooms left in Carlingford on Saturday. As is more often the case there, the village was also full of marauding viqueens, with at least two hen parties in progress.