The intimidating Tongan with bulging biceps and tired eyes considered the course of his life for a moment.

If not for his wife and others, the 36-year-old could be doing serious time in prison. He could have very well been the victim of gang brutality, beaten or dead with his body dumped in a back alley dumpster.

Instead, today he is the Mormon husband and father of seven who works graveyard shifts and spends much of his free time training and teaching young people how to arm wrestle.

If he can help teenagers avoid the same trouble he got into, then it's all worth it for Finn Maka.

"My past comes back to haunt me all the time. Whenever I see kids with colored bandanas and sagging pants, my past is there. The reason why I want to work on this sport is because I have nephews and nieces that are locked up for being in a gang," Maka said.

"I think it's my fault."

Gangland

At the age of 5, Maka moved from Tonga to Utah with his father and five siblings in 1979. His mother stayed. He didn't know his parents had separated.

His father was rarely home and Finn ran wild, often finding trouble. One day he stole a neighbor's bike and a policeman took him to jail. Before long he was running away from foster homes to where he felt most comfortable – among a local Polynesian gang.

He often ran away from foster homes and took up temporary residence at Salt Lake City's old Union Pacific depot until police found him.

"I envied a lot of kids who had parents. I didn't feel like I fit in," Maka said. "Gangs were the only place I felt I belonged. They were the brothers I never had."

Eventually he moved to Southern California and began running with the South Pacific Crips. "It was a bad mistake," Maka said. "I fell in with the wrong crowd."

They stole cars, fought rival gangs and caused all kinds of mischief, he said. One day he pummeled a guy to a bloody pulp and felt horrible to the point he knew he needed out. Without warning he and a friend bolted for Utah in the middle of the night.

Despite getting pulled over near Cedar City, Utah, and spending a week in jail, Maka knew he had made the right decision.

Love and conversion

One night in 1996, Finn Maka saw his future wife Matei at a dance and without ever having spoken with her, told his buddy she was his soul mate.

About a month later, on a Saturday night, he saw her again at a family gathering and got her number from her mother. Unable to erase her from his thoughts, he called her several hours later — around 6 a.m.

Though she was 16 and he was 22, the relationship developed rather quickly. By Sunday night he proposed marriage, Maka said with a Texas-size grin.

"I know we had only known each other for a day and a half, but I felt like I had known her forever," said the man with 23-inch biceps and black, slicked back hair. Matei said Finn told her he was looking for a wife.

"We invited him over to kick it. He stayed over and never left," she said. "Everyone was asking, 'Who is this guy?'"

Despite her young age, Matei's mother encouraged the couple to get married after she saw how well Finn treated her daughter. "If you don't love him, you better learn to love him. If you don't think he is cute, you better imagine he is cute because he is going to take care of you," Matei said recalling her mother's words.

Her acceptance had a clause. Her family came from an LDS background, and she wanted to marry a Mormon. No problem. Finn was baptized by a foster parent at age 13.

Finn came from a predominately Methodist family. He recalled attending the LDS Church at age 8 and remembers feeling impressed by the family-friendly atmosphere.

"I knew that was a church I should be going to. Then I went home and my uncle beat me for going," Maka said.

Five years later Maka and six other foster children were living in the home of Thomas Walker in Murray, Utah. Walker baptized Maka.

Officially three days after meeting, the couple was married in a civil ceremony. In the process they felt compelled to change many aspects of their lives. Nasty old habits were forsaken. In 1997 the couple was sealed in the Salt Lake City LDS temple. Over the years they have made mistakes and bad choices, but they remain faithful to each other and committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Arm wrestling mania

More than a year ago, Matei discovered an arm wrestling website and signed Finn up without his knowledge. The next day he received an e-mail inviting him to come and compete. That was all it took to get him hooked on the sport.

A short time later he was locking grips with some of the best arm wrestlers in the world, including John Brzenk, the top arm wrestler in the world and who battled with Slyvester Stallone in the movie "Over The Top."

Maka amazed many as he defeated many strong arms with nothing but brute strength and hardly any technique.

Bob Brown, who has won several world arm wrestling titles, said Maka is naturally strong and will only get better with time and training.

"He is all right. He came in freaky strong, but you need more than natural strength. You need technique and strength," Brown said.

While most people sleep, Maka works through the night as an assistant district manager in the circulation department for Media One where he oversees newspaper carriers and handles customer complaints. Somehow he survives on a few hours of sleep each day, choosing to take care of his family and train for future arm wrestling competitions. The Tongan who looks like he could wrestle a grizzly bear will compete at the Utah State Arm Wrestling Championships at the Olympic Oval in Kearns on Oct. 23.

While he is fascinated with the sport and has a goal to be the best in the world, Maka has also seen arm wrestling as an opportunity to help young people. He has helped to establish organizations like the Utah Arm Sports Association and the Utah Pullers Club in order to reach out to youth not playing other sports and provide a low cost, worthwhile activity. The Utah Pullers Club campaigns against gang activity. Maka is working with local law enforcement agencies to target youths in the Polynesian community.

"He was destined for this," Matei said.

Brown admires Finn's efforts and declared that arm wrestling needs 100 more guys like him.

"He is unbelievable. Arm wrestling needs guys like him more than you could ever know," Brown said.

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