KRAGTHORPE: Sandy arm wrestler not the most famous, but is the best
SANDY -- It is only a pose, I keep telling myself. The greatest arm wrestler in the world is gripping my hand for the sake of a photo, and I can think only of Sylvester Stallone's cautionary words.
"Make no mistake about it, these are unbelievably powerful guys . . ."
I need no more convincing, once I feel John Brzenk's right arm throbbing all the way through mine.
He seemed so harmless only moments before, standing in the kitchen of the Sandy home he shares with his wife, Renee, and daughters Megan and Kelli. At 42, he's as self-conscious as any teenager about the braces on his teeth and he laughs easily to punctuate nearly every expression.
". . . especially the legendary John Brzenk . . ."
Legendary? Maybe not to you, or even to some of his neighbors. In the arm wrestling world, though, he's not merely a world champion, he's The Man.
"We say he's the Michael Jordan of arm wrestling," said Dave Devoto, a major promoter of the sport. "Only, if it were really true, John would be three Michael Jordans."
When he competes in Eastern Europe, it is not uncommon for fans to stand in line for an hour or two to meet him. "They think he's a god," Renee Brzenk said. "I just kind of stand back and giggle."
Brzenk (pronounced "Bur-ZINK") might be more famous in America, but for a couple of limiting factors. Except for occasional, odd-hours glimpses on ESPN, arm wrestling remains what Brzenk describes as "pretty much a closet sport."
And while his biggest rival, Travis Bagent, has marketed himself well, Brzenk is apparently too humble. Bagent, who lives in West Virginia, labels himself "the most recognized figure in the history of the sport," but not the best.
"He's so good, he really doesn't have any rivals; you go in knowing you have a slim chance," Bagent said of Brzenk. "He could have done a lot better job promoting himself, but that's not him. I'm probably half the arm wrestler, but financially and in notoriety, I've established probably three times what he's done."
Brzenk still benefits from his talent, being paid to compete in Professional Armwrestling League events in Europe every other month. Working as a mechanic for Delta Air Lines for 22 years has enabled him to fly free to tournaments in this country, where he can earn several thousand dollars, often competing in more than one weight class.
He also once took home a Volvo semi-truck - he later sold it and bought a Corvette - for winning the Over the Top Championship in Las Vegas, replicating the prize Stallone's character collected in "Over the Top," a movie about the sport. That was 20-plus years ago, and Stallone remembers it well, which explains how he referenced Brzenk in a recent online chat.
". . . who is so powerful he could literally rip your arm off and use it as a flyswatter . . ."
Not that I am worried about that happening at this moment, exactly, although I do ask Brzenk if he has ever hurt an opponent. Not really, he says, except for some who were "mentally destroyed."
I would imagine so. Most of his matches last roughly one second. The image you may have of a struggle lasting several minutes is not Brzenk's game; he wants every match to end as quickly as possible, to save his strength.
It's strength that comes mainly from - what else? - arm wrestling. Brzenk trains regularly with about a dozen guys in Riverton, although he lost his primary workout partner when his brother, Bill, moved to Phoenix. Brzenk has lifted some weights over the years, but finds that nothing develops his arms - both of them - like the act of "pulling," as participants call it.
"Genetically, if you could ever be born to arm wrestle, he has the attributes," Bagent said, citing Brzenk's big hands and forearms. "And he's extremely intelligent. He could be a doctor, a lawyer, a brain surgeon."
It's not all brawn, in other words. Size, strength and intimidation usually work for Bagent, who's 6-foot-3, 270 pounds. Yet Brzenk weighs only 210, and often less, for the sake of competing in multiple classes. For a challenge match in Ukraine in April, he must get down to 189.
"A little bit painful," he acknowledged. "I like to eat."
His knowledge of arm wrestling techniques allows him to respond to any challenger's tactics. It stems from experience, beginning when he was 13 and his father, John Brzenk Sr., directed an arm wrestling club in the Chicago area. Before long, John Jr. was traveling extensively to compete - his future wife knew him then, so she was well prepared for his worldwide pursuits - and when he started beating his father in matches a few years later, it was obvious he was going places in the sport.
His father remembers John Jr. making him wait long after a tournament had ended so he could keep pulling any challengers, just for the sake of the workout.
"As far as secrets," said Brzenk's father, who lives in Taylorsville, "he doesn't have any. He'll tell anything you want to know."
It's true. Devoto's armwrestling.com Web site features an archived Q&A with Brzenk, who responded at length to inquiries from all over the world, regarding technique, strategy, training and any other subject. Want to know how to execute the hook and drag? "Extend your right arm in front of you with your palm rotated up, wrist curled. Now pretend you're hanging onto a rope. Now pull that rope toward you."
". . . and there's not a thing you could do about it except savor the visual."
My arm remains intact, because Brzenk loosens his grip when the photographer is finished. There will be no pulling.
There will, however, be a "Pulling John." That's the title of a movie, based largely about him and nearly four years in development, now with a March production deadline. The producers have come to Sandy a few times and followed Brzenk to tournaments around the world, and he's looking forward to the finished project.
As for his career, there's no end in immediate sight. He nearly quit two years ago when tendinitis - "golfer's elbow" hardly sounds like an adequate description - bothered him, but therapy solved the problem.
He figures to keep competing "until someone starts beating me consistently," he said.
That's not likely to happen soon. Bagent, 30, beats him once in a while, but usually only after Brzenk has lost weight. So he will keep pulling, and the movie will likely make him more recognizable, whether he likes it or not.
"He's pretty boring, to tell you the truth," Bagent said. "It's amazing that someone could be so dominant and so humble."