The traveling Willamette Valley High Rollers are out to prove their sport is real, and that it's not just for stereotypical strongmen, either.
In a crowded casino conference room in Lincoln City, Oregon, two figures step onto a brightly lit stage. On the left is Will Dinwiddie, a gym owner and trainer with a stocky build, peppered beard, and tattoos that sprinkle down his forearm like toile wallpaper. On the right is Isaac Saeidi, a brewery chef from Louisiana with shiny black hair and semi-rimless glasses. They approach a padded table displaying rectangular "NAPsport.com" stickers. With a nod to each other, the two men position their right elbows on the tabletop and clasp hands.
A referee repositions the ball of fists so that it stands evenly between them. "Don't move," he tells them. "Don't move!"
Cheers of encouragement erupt from the crowd of about a hundred, which includes the pair's teammates, the Willamette Valley High Rollers. They've seen the two battle countless times at practice. But this is a sanctioned tournament.
"Get ready," the ref calls. The opponents brace themselves. "Go!"
The sport of armwrestling is more than just a drunken test of strength between two guys in a bar. it's a sport that dates as far back as ancient Egypt - tomb paintings depicting a primitive form of the game have been unearthed. Modern rules were formalized in 1962 with the founding of the World's Wristwrestling Championship in Petaluma, California.
The sport is competitive and technical, at both an amateur and professional level, with weight classes, prizes, and titles. It's also gaining mainstream exposure with the reality TV show "Game of Arms" airing on the AMC network. There's been nationwide coverage of armwrestling through National Armwrestling Promotions (NAP) and a recent "100 Events in 100 Cities" ESPN broadcasting deal for the World Armwrestling League (WAL).
In places like Oregon's Willamette Valley, there's a tight-knit armwrestling community that both challenges and supports its members. Every Wednesday at six p.m. a small gym in East Springfield bursts with heckles, grunts, laughs, and hip-hop music. There's also the buzz of "armwrestle talk" - the kind of jargon that anyone who's been around a group of people united by a common passion would recognize. "Take me out," one competitor says to another after sharing a particular technique with them. "You wanna tighten those tendons up," another advises. Debating a strategy, one High Roller asks, "Are you talking about leaving space at the bottom a little bit, to kind of ride in?" Someone instructs later, "You always want space height."
It's in this gym, Epic Fitness Solutions, that Dinwiddie, Saeidi, and the rest of the High Rollers practice "pulling," which is what the pros call armwrestling. They're a motley crew of small business owners, a social worker, a brewery chef, a former BMX racer, and a retired grocery store manager, ranging in age from 26 to 56.
Dinwiddie, a 36-year-old father, acquired the 1,500-square-foot facility in 2014 to accommodate his growing personal training business. He first started armwrestling when he was 16 and broke his elbow in just his second match. "It takes a long time to develop [armwrestling] muscles, because tendons and ligaments are the focus of armwrestling, not just the muscles themselves," Dinwiddie says. "If the muscles take a week to heal, it may take the tendons and ligaments six weeks to heal."
After armwrestling, he got into powerlifting and "strongman" - a sport that combines rock lifting, train pulling, car flipping, and yoke carrying. Years later, having plateaued in his strength (particularly within his grip and core), he turned to armwrestling as a way to build up and train at a higher level. In 2015, he won the Amateur World Championship.
Dinwiddie is now an arm-wrestling and powerlifting professional. He's set his sights on going pro in strongman, mixed martial arts, and bodybuilding within the next 10 to 15 years.
"I may or may not be able to do it," he says, "but those are the goals I set for myself. They kind of go hand-in-hand, so when I'm done with one, I'm still really strong to start the next one."
In 2015, Dinwiddie held his first armwrestling tournament at Epic Fitness Solutions. About two-dozen people came to compete, and several future Willamette Valley High Rollers met for the first time.
* * *
On the casino stage, Will Dinwiddie and Isaac Saeidi lock into each other, knuckles turning white as their teammates cheer louder.
Armwrestling is a one-on-one sport; teams are formed primarily for practice purposes, and in tournaments everyone competes against everyone.
Saeidi, 26, leans left, shifting his bodyweight downward to work his hand up Dinwiddie's palm. He's using the top-roll technique, where the goal is to increase leverage by controlling the top part of an opponent's hand, forcing it away from them so they lose their grip.
Dinwiddie immediately responds with a turn of his wrist, keeping his palm firm against Saeidi's hand as he curls it into himself. This is the "hook" technique, and it's used to compel an opponent's hand backwards, exposing their wrist before bringing it toward your own opposite armpit.
"Keep him inside, Will, keep him inside!" someone calls from the crowd.
"Alright, Isaac, use your legs now!" yells another.
Five seconds tick by. Dinwiddie leans over the tabletop as Saeidi drops farther down, his face level with the pads. Hands tremble as two sets of teeth grit in red faces. It's an even match.
* * *
One of the first future High Rollers to attend Dinwiddie's tournament was Mike Limoges, who's tall and lean with rectangular glasses and an affinity for chewing gum at the rate a chain-smoker puffs cigarettes. A rock climber since the mid 1990s, he also works with people with disabilities, taking them to grocery shop, go to the movies, or drive to the coast. One client goes rock climbing with him twice a week.
Limoges saw a flyer for the tournament at his community pool and was intrigued. It'd been 25 years since he last competed - he was a national-level arm-wrestler after high school, but left to explore other interests. He thought it would be fun to get back into it.
"He was my first training partner," Limoges says of Dinwiddie. "I'd come over once, maybe twice a week and let him hammer on me for a couple hours."
It paid off. Limoges excelled and competed at a pro level for the first time at the 2017 US Armwrestling Open in Lincoln City, Oregon.
He's noticed great leaps in gamesmanship over the past quarter century. "It's a whole different ballgame," he says. "I've got to work a lot harder now, a lot smarter. It's more about technique and power."
Strategy and intuition play large roles in armwrestling. "Part of being a good armwrestler is setting up and reading the other person's handgrip and feeling what you think they're going to pull on you," Dinwiddie says. "It's kind of like a chess game."
This, Dinwiddie adds, levels the playing field for many different types of athletes, not only those with the bulging biceps of Sylvester Stallone in his late '80s armwrestling flick "Over the Top".
"The cool thing about armwrestling is you don't have to be huge to be good at it," Dinwiddie observes. "Somebody can be bigger than you, and you can still beat them because you know the technique better. You can be a giant-slayer, and it's fun to be one of those guys."
There are three main armwrestling techniques: "top-roll", "hook", and "press". Depending on factors such as body size, specific areas of strength, and intuition about an opponent's strategy, competitors develop their own variations, even switching between them during a match.
Mike Barrett, a retired grocery store manager and avid outdoorsman, has been perfecting his signature move - an inside variation of the hook.
"I've been playing around with different styles of high-hooking for the past six months, trying outside and inside," he says. "I'm going back to where I'm best and where I feel the most comfortable. Now, I'm coming straight in and staying all the way inside with my shoulder behind it."
Barrett first competed in the early '90s, at a street festival in his hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah. He'd just come back from playing football at Southern Oregon University and had no formal armwrestling training or technical knowledge.
"I was just a strong guy off the street," he says. "I thought it sounded like fun, so I signed up. And I did really good, finishing in the top three without ever coming to anything like this before."
He continued to dabble in the sport, competing now and again without ever getting serious. Then, in 2016, he saw a flyer for Dinwiddie's tournament, met the High Rollers, and began practicing with them. For him, armwrestling is just the right mix of personal competitiveness and club mentality. It's also a great way for him to stay healthy.
"I've got multiple sclerosis, and armwrestling just keeps me active," he says. "It forces me to go to the gym, to stay in shape. It keeps me moving and motivated to fight my disease."
* * *
The bright lights beam down on Dinwiddie and Saeidi, who are gripped in a tense stalemate as the clock ticks 15 seconds.
In the audience, High Roller Michelle Price shakes the nerves out of her hands as she waits for her own match. She's been training to go up against Nancy Hart, a personal rival. Restless, she shifts her weight from one foot to the other, keeping her eyes fixed on the stage. Her boyfriend Duane massages her shoulders and she closes her eyes, taking in a deep breath.
Price, a two-year High Roller with a laugh that bubbles out of her like a science fair volcano, favors the power-heavy press. Unlike the top-roll and the hook, which utilize leverage and grip, the press uses bicep and forearm strength to out-power an opponent with one explosive move.
Price runs a professional cleaning company and a business networking organization, oftentimes showing up to practice in work clothes - a nice dress, heels, and dangly earrings. Her work keeps her busy, but she finds time to not only armwrestle, but powerlift as well. Before that, she trained for strongman - another non-traditional sport that mirrors her fondness for "weird things". In her free time, she and Duane steal off to pan for gold.
Armwrestling, Price says, requires confidence and determination. "It's knowing that you can pretty much push your body to do anything that your mind wants to do if you work hard enough," she offers.
Sometimes, it also means knowing when to rest. After Lincoln City - where, following the match between Dinwiddie and Saeidi, Price pulled against Hart for a nail-bitingly close defeat. She suffered a lumbosacral sprain and inflamed much of her lower back's tissue, tendons, and muscles. She took a week off from the gym.
Despite the loss, she's proud of her improvement. "When I first armwrestled Nancy two years go, she just went through me like nothin'," Price says. "So, over the course of time, I've put up a fight, and I've gotten progressively better and better. [Lincoln City] was the best fight I've put up so far. I paid for it severely, physically, but it's just more experience."
* * *
The crowd grows louder as Saeidi suddenly shifts his position. He unbends his knees just enough to align his shoulder with the edge of the table before wrenching down again and leaning even farther to the left.
Dinwiddie's left foot lifts off the ground to combat the shift in pressure, bracing against a table leg as his upper body bends farther over the top.
Despite his gentle and unassuming demeanor, Isaac Saeidi is a force to be reckoned with. At 16, he started armwrestling, using his natural strength and love for one-on-one competition to beat out most of "those 350-pound bench-pressing football players" at his middle school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Saeidi moved to Eugene, Oregon, last August with his girlfriend, Rachel, and found the High Rollers on Craigslist. Now, he splits his time between work, family, and preparing for a new baby - all while practicing and competing with the team.
"I don't always have time to go to the gym," he says," and I'm always tired. Armwrestling is a way for me to get out a lot of stress and also get a good workout in."
He also discovered a kinship among the High Rollers - one that, according to him, wasn't prominent in many of the more emulous Louisiana teams.
"Pullers here are a lot friendlier," Saeidi says. "They're easier to get along with, and they're easier to armwrestle with. You don't feel like you're just being bullied. Everyone is super welcoming."
And while some have gained a figurative family in the arm-wrestling world, others have actual family ties. Brandon and Bert Carrillo, 34 and 31, respectively, are newcomers to the High Rollers, and second-generation competitors.
"Bert and I were pretty much raised in [armwrestling]," says Brandon Carrillo, who owns an auto repair shop in Springfield. "My dad was a state champion throughout the years. He's been gone 13 or 14 years now, so we pull to keep his memory."
Bert Carrillo, a former BMX rider working towards his commercial driver's license, remembers toting around father Robin's first-place prize from Oregon's 1988 statewide championship - a trophy that, at the time, stood taller than both him and his brother. Their uncle, Sean Carrillo, is also a professional armwrestler and began training the brothers when they were teenagers.
"After my dad passed away, I really wanted to get into armwrestling," Bert says. "When I was 17, 18, I was always looking around for tournaments that I could try, but I never had one to go to until 2009, there was a US Open in Florence, [Oregon]." He didn't place, but diligently trained until he won his weight class at the same tournament two years later. Last summer, he joined the High Rollers after a five-year break and quickly roped Brandon in.
When contemplating the future of armwrestling, Bert has to look no further than his eight-year-old son, Brody. The youngster already plans to follow in his father's footsteps, strategizing for his own first tournament and showing off his growing muscles to the family with pride.
The brothers watch Saeidi, with one final jerk, open Dinwiddie's palm and begins to slowly lower it to the pad. Three trembling seconds later, the back of Dinwiddie's hand falls to the table.
The High Rollers erupt, whistling and shouting words of support to both of their teammates as Dinwiddie rests his tired arms and head on the table. With an understanding grin, Saeidi reaches over and rubs Dinwiddie's shoulder, sweat gleaming from his forehead.
Looking back on the match, Saeidi contemplates the paradox of competing against your own teammates.
"I was happy to beat Will; he's someone I respect very much as an armwrestler," Saeidi says. "But at the same time, I don't particularly care for pulling my own teammates. I'll always prefer to pull other people."
On the other hand, he gets to experience the full force that his teammates bring to tournaments.
"People who are in this sport and stay in it are people who have developed a passion for it - that's what I can say about myself," Saeidi concludes. "It's not something that I see ever giving up."