In the world of arm wrestling - and there is such a place - John Brzenk is, well, not quite what you'd expect. He's a medium-sized, flat-bellied, clean-cut, family man with two children and a tidy home in Sandy. All of which tends to obscure Brzenk among rival arm-wrestlers, who sport their share of tattoos, shaved heads, goatees, earrings, oversized muscles and girths the size of small countries.
"He doesn't look like an arm wrestler," a tattooed rival once snarled. "He looks like he plays tennis."Let's put it this way: when the Hollywood people went to cast a rival for Sly Stallone in the forgettable arm-wrestling movie, Over the Top, they didn't choose Brzenk, the champ; they chose Rick Zumwalt, a 350-pound pro arm wrestler with a shaved head. Brzenk, 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, won the real-life tournament after the movie, but Zumwalt won celebrity.
As Brzenk puts it, "You can't have a good guy versus a good guy."
And he is all of that. In short, there is nothing extraordinary about John Brzenk except his right bicep and this: he keeps winning. No one can understand it, either. The guy is on the small side and rarely even lifts weights.
What's the trick, they keep asking him? How's he doing it? Where are the mirrors?
Brzenk, a mechanic for Delta Airlines at Salt Lake International, has met and beaten all comers. He beat 6-foot-7, 450-pound Cleve Dean in last year's national championships, and he defeated 292-pound Rich Lupkes and his 18-inch forearms to win one of his world championships. In all, Brzenk has collected more than 40 world titles, as a middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight. Some experts have called him "the best arm wrestler on the face of the earth, bar none."
Brzenk, who grew up in Illinois, credits his prowess to an early start and years of experience. When his father, John Sr., took up arm wrestling in his mid-30s, young John tagged along with him to tournaments and then took up the sport himself at 14. It's the only sport he's ever pursued.
"I've been doing it for so long," says Brzenk by way of dominance. "I pulled with my dad every day for four or five years."
He believes his experience has given him an understanding of the nuances of the sport - finding and exploiting a weakness, of knowing if an opponent is better attacked with a shoulder roll or a top roll and so on - which counters disadvantages in size and sheer strength.
Brzenk's devotion to the sport led to his chosen profession. After graduating from high school he searched for a career. What could he do that would help defray expenses in his arm-wrestling career, he wondered. Since travel was his biggest expense, he chose the airline industry. He began as a cleanup man with Western Airlines and eight years ago became an airline mechanic - all of which allows him to travel free to competitions. He has competed in Russia, Japan (three times), Canada, France and Netherlands and throughout the United States.
Brzenk, who claims to have collected more career earnings than anyone in the sport by far, competes in about five tournaments a year and earns only about $8,000. He'll compete next on Aug. 26 in the Yukon Jack tournament in San Francisco in what is considered the national championships. The winner collects all of $2,500.
Brzenk has had one genuine big payday. After the filming of Over the Top was completed in Las Vegas, a real tournament was held on the set, offering the same prize that Stallone won in the movie - a $100,000 tractor-trailer rig. Brzenk won the tournament, beating Zumwalt, among others, then traded his prize for cash.
All this winning must drive Brzenk's rivals mad. How can this blond-haired, boyish-looking man beat all these behemoths? He whips men twice and even thrice his size and strength, men who have the further advantages of bigger hands and longer arms for added control and leverage.
"I'm sure these guys could kill me in the weight room," says Brzenk.
Whereas most of his rivals live in the weight room, Brzenk does his best to avoid it. He hates lifting weights. He lifts once a week, for 20 minutes, pumping about half the weight his rivals lift on a given exercise.
Brzenk believes in specificity of training. Rather than lift weights, he meets with two other arm wrestlers - younger brother Bill and friend Russ Thompson - and they pull for 11/2 to 2 hours twice a week on a basement table in his home. Instead of actually trying to take each other down, they provide resistance for each other as they pull through a variety of moves and angles, working the many muscles of the hand, wrist, forearm, bicep and shoulder until the muscles are numb and exhausted. Then they rest and begin again, working through another move - the top roll, the hook and drag, the shoulder roll. It is essentially resistance exercise.
"You just burn out the muscles by doing all the different moves that there are," he says.
Brzenk believes this type of training has helped him develop muscles specific to his sport. Brzenk's arms tell the tale of all those years of "pulling." The right bicep - his pulling arm - measures 16 inches in circumference; his left is 13 inches.
As arm wrestling continues to stretch beyond barrooms for legitimacy, there is hope among its aficionados that it can become an Olympic sport someday. Perhaps it will be Brzenk, part of what Sports Illustrated called a new breed of arm wrestlers (more athlete than colorful character),whowill take it there. Meanwhile, he's the champ. Even if he doesn't look like one.