Straight to DVD: "Pulling John," arm wrestling's holy grail

Long after the failed promise of "Over the Top," this compelling portrait introduces us to the sport's Muhammad Ali

By Bob Calhoun

Published May 15, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

Arm-wrestling champ John Brzenk in "Pulling John"
Arm-wrestling champ John Brzenk in "Pulling John"

In the hierarchy of American athletics, professional arm wrestling lies somewhere above backyard wrestling and below pro bowling. Although arm wrestling made for a popular feature on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" during the show's heyday in the 1970s and '80s, the sport lacked either its Tonya Harding kneecapping scandal or the Barnum-like genius of a Vince McMahon to make its stars into, well, stars. Its one near-breakthrough moment came with a piece of Sylvester Stallone cheese called "Over the Top," a 1987 macho weepy where Sly the Guy arm wrestles for his estranged son's love and a massive Mack Truck. John Brzenk, a 20-year arm wrestling champ, won that truck in a tournament sponsored by the producers of "Over the Top" but traded it in for a Corvette.

"The movie brought so much worldwide attention to the sport that I thought that arm wrestling would finally be put on the map," Brzenk says in the documentary "Pulling John." We see clips of "Over the Top" and hear Stallone grunting, "but it didn't work out that way."

"Pulling John" introduces us to Brzenk as he enters the twilight of a storied career unfamiliar to most. An average-looking Utah man with freakishly large arms, he has spent the last two decades out-muscling some of the world's strongest men in venues no more impressive than hotel conference rooms. Brzenk won his first world title at just 20 years old and became a figure as dominating in his sport as Ali or Jordan were in theirs, but he still can't afford to quit his day job as an airline mechanic.

But working on jumbo jets has afforded Brzenk a solidly middle-class lifestyle compared to the men who seek to dethrone him. Travis Bagent, a West Virginia phenom with a mouth like Muhammad Ali, had no running water in his family home from kindergarten through the ninth grade. "We just had buckets," he explains. Alexey Voevoda, a Russian strongman with male-model looks, spends his time pumping iron in dilapidated Soviet-era gyms decorated with faded posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger when he's not vacationing with shirtless, hairy men who drink vodka out of horns and toss around the family dog (the dog seemed to love it). For Bagent and Voevoda, Brzenk is the "Holy Grail of arm wrestling," and Brzenk knows he can't breeze through these guys like he did when he was winning that big rig from Stallone and company.

At one point, Brzenk attempts to explain away his sport's working-class roots. "It's not blue collar, white collar -- everybody's in this sport," he says. But if there's a well-sired dandy burning through a trust fund as a puller, the directorial duo of Vassiliki Khonsari and Sevan Mattossian didn't feature him. Johnny Walker, the former champ that Brzenk won the title from, is interviewed in a concrete basement, and Bagent lives in near squalor even as a three-time U.S. belt-holder. But "Pulling John" isn't a movie about broken dreams; it's about dreams that are lived, no matter how modest. Whereas many of us have the luxury of planning foreign vacations, it's doubtful that guys like Brzenk and Bagent would ever see places like Japan or Poland without their particular competitive circuit.

"Pulling John" was shot with camcorders and produced on a shoestring budget, but the filmmakers have you caring more about arm wrestling and those who compete in it than Stallone could with his glitzy family drama (and I say that as someone who loves "Over the Top"). Since most of us know so little about arm wrestling, the movie also generates a fair amount of suspense as we wonder if Brzenk can withstand one final challenge, and, if not, which of the two up-and-comers will be the one to oust him. I'm going to forgo the SHITE meter for this one. It's a little too rough around the edges (albeit appropriately) for an S for "shoulda made it to the multiplex," but it deserves better than an H for "hey, it's really not that bad." You should just see this movie. It is the "When We Were Kings" of arm wrestling.

Bob Calhoun

Bob Calhoun is a longtime Salon contributor and the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor" (2013). Follow him on Twitter.

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