For World Armwrestling League president and commissioner Steve Kaplan, a 2014 trip to Afghanistan was a source of inspiration. Kaplan, who’d been in advertising and entrepreneurship for most of his career, traveled to talk to soldiers about starting their own businesses once their military service was over.
“I saw so many of our troops arm wrestling in the 130 degree heat it was kind of crazy,” Kaplan told Uproxx Sports. “I came back and linked up with some guys who had actually just sold a TV show to AMC about this awesome world of arm wrestling and that where I was exposed to it.”
Kaplan came back to the United States with a drive to create an arm wrestling league to bring to the masses. With his background, he knew the biggest challenge for bringing the league to notoriety would be making sure the sport would translate to television cameras. The good news was that he knew who would be best suited to be the face of his league.
“The move, really, was how do you present that in a sport for today?” Kaplan says. “To combine that part of DNA of the sport with building sport entertainment company of today. We find the best, the biggest, not necessarily just the ability standpoint but in terms of heritage and know the climate and environment. Probably the person that is the most global for the sport is Devon Larratt.”
Larratt is quite possibly the most decorated arm wrestler on the planet. Larratt once arm wrestled Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson — who you know for playing The Mountain on Game Of Thrones — and not only beat him, but damn near humiliated one of the strongest men in the world.
Despite the fact that he’s, well, a mountain of a man, Lee’s approach to arm wrestling is zenlike. He sees the full picture, viewing the sport not as a simple test of strength, but something that requires a more broad approach.
“Arm wrestling is kind of a full battle,” Larratt says. “It’s not as simple as hands coming together, they say ‘ready, go,’ and the match starts. The match starts long before. There’s all sorts of psychological play.”
Larratt fell in love with arm wrestling as a child when when he’d compete against his grandmother. Larratt then took to the Canadian military, and during his service, fell hard into arm wrestling. He hasn’t looked back since, competing in tournaments all over the globe and despite having three different surgeries on his elbow.
“There’s something inside all of us, we need expression,” Larratt says. “Everybody needs expression in their life. You need to express all the parts of you that make you a human. One of the big things that we’re all programmed to do is to physically fight. It’s something we’ve been designed for probably our entire existence as humans — at some point you’re going to have to physically fight. We’re just bound do it and if we don’t do it, we become unhappy and unsettled.”
Larratt breaks a few myths about arm wrestling as well, mainly that the sport is about raw power rather than technique. If that were true, he wouldn’t have beaten Björnsson so easily, but according to Larratt, there are four techniques or drives to arm wrestling.
There’s cupping, which is bending your wrist closer to you body to generate power and also to protect the wrist during a match. There’s also rising, where a wrestler’s fingers are pointed skyward. The third and fourth techniques are called pronation and supination — the former is when a thumb is pointing downward as the rest of the fingers are pointing up, while the latter is the exact opposite.
All of these methods will be on display during the league’s new season, but with the new year comes changes for the WAL. For the first three years, the league’s broadcasts had a home on ESPN. Now, the league will call Bleacher Report’s BR Live platform home. It’s been a eight-month grind for Kaplan and his group, as they’ve been trying to figure out how best to use the digital platform to present the league in different and innovative ways.
“I haven’t been this excited about any of the partnerships that we’ve had in a long time,” Kaplan says. “We view this as a game changing move for us at a couple ways. Bleacher Report is true partner of ours which is wonderful. So we are both aligned in terms of building the sport are aligned in terms of getting it out to the viewers.”
An example Kaplan gave is something like deeper analysis for matches, things like heart rate monitors that show how difficult and stressful high-level arm wrestling truly is. Prior to the league’s debut on Thursday, it was been a struggle keeping the excitement contained in the Chicago-based offices. While they don’t get the attention of the league’s myriad of competitors, those behind the scenes are as excited as anyone for what lies ahead.
“It’s really such a wonderful thing,” Kaplan says. “They feel that same excitement that Devon does. They aren’t even arm wrestling. It’s infectious. They’ve been around these guys for three to four years now and you can’t help but fall in love with everything.”
Still, despite the excitement Kaplan felt to the lead up, he understands there’s still plenty of room for the league to grow. As he summed it up, “We always think there’s a lot more we could do to kill it.”