In 1987 Cannon Films, the studio that became (in)famous for churning out low-budget genre fare like The Delta Force and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, couldn’t convince audiences that the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling epic Over the Top was the next Rocky. The film was thrashed at the box office, and arm wrestling remained a pastime whose international exposure was confined to ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
The 2009 documentary Pulling John, now available on DVD, provides an engrossing look at the sport, whose world championships are held in hotel conference rooms and whose most successful competitor, John Brzenk, earns his living as an airline mechanic so he can fly for free to tournaments, where he earns roughly $15,000 a year doing what he loves. Brzenk may be “the Michael Jordan of arm wrestling,” but there aren’t any multimillion-dollar Nike endorsements in his past, present, or future. Guys like him can’t even get face time on a Wheaties box.
The funny thing is, they don’t seem to mind. None of the film’s featured athletes complain about a lack of respect or attention from the outside world or that they have to work day jobs to support their families. If anything, their grounded lives keep their egos in check, with plenty of mutual admiration to go around. The ultimate goal for arm wrestlers is simply to “pull,” or defeat Brzenk, who won his first world title in 1983, at the age of 18, and never looked back.
In Pulling John, directed by Vassiliki Khonsari and Sevan Mattossian, the champ is pushing 40. He realizes he’s peaked, but he’s not ready to retire. In fact he almost hopes he’ll be beaten at the 2004 Nemiroff World Cup in Warsaw, Poland, just so he’ll have a goal to work toward at the next tournament.
His two biggest challengers in Warsaw are the hulking Russian Alexey Voevoda, a man of few words, and West Virginia’s Travis Bagent, a man of far too many, though what he has to say is often funny or surprising, like the fact that he grew up in a house without running water. Voevoda calls Brzenk his hero and speaks of him in hushed tones, and though Bagent is a trash talker who loves to tell anyone within earshot that he’s “pretty, fast, and strong,” he too is in awe of the two-decades-and-counting champion, a soft-spoken midwesterner with a childlike grin who’s smaller than both of his twentysomething competitors.
But as the viewer learns in Pulling John, size doesn’t matter in arm wrestling — a massive bicep is nice, but mental strategy, a strong defense, and techniques like “top rolling” and “hooking” are what ultimately win matches for athletes like Brzenk. The documentary itself is on the small side — 72 minutes, though there’s an additional 65 of deleted scenes and expanded trailers — but it comes out a winner by engaging the audience with a traditional sports-movie arc for which the outcome of “the big game” is never certain.
Pulling John is unrated and available through Netflix.