On Saturday afternoon inside Trinity Bar and Grill, television screens featuring college football and professional soccer games went largely unnoticed as visitors had all eyes focused on a different, lesser-known sport instead.
Thirty competitors — two women and 28 men — competed across four different weight classes in the World Armwrestling League Connecticut state championship, one of 50 inaugural state championships happening this season. The eight first-place winners have advanced to the regional championship of the WAL, which will be held in Las Vegas next summer.
In addition to drawing a crowd at Trinity, WAL — now in its third year — reached over nine million viewers during ESPN’s coverage of its final championships last year. Despite WAL’s short history, participants spoke of its tight-knit community and the longer trend of arm wrestling as a professional sport in the United States.
“I got started in the lunchroom table in middle school just like every other kid,” event organizer and arm wrestler Mike Selearis said. “Some people think it is what people do when they are messing around with a couple drinks, but we have got international competitions with just three years in the making.”
Some competitors wore athletic shorts and muscle shirts, but others donned t-shirts and jeans. Footwear varied, from boots to tennis shoes. Though most sports involve a thorough warm-up routine before a contest, some competitors instead prepared for their matches with fries and beer from the bar.
Represented among the competitors were several students from Wilbur Cross High School, where Selearis teaches chemistry. These students were each sponsored by a local organization, including City Climb Rock Climbing Gym and CrossFit New Haven.
Wilbur Cross senior Gabe Styles, who took home first place for right arm in the novice heavyweight weight class, said he began the sport after seeing Selearis arm wrestle. Selearis hosts arm-wrestling practices for Wilbur Cross students Thursday afternoons at the City Climb gym. Styles, who has attended these practices since his freshman year, said his workouts consist of weightlifting and actual arm wrestling.
Other competitors said training for these matches requires both hand and wrist training, but actual arm wrestling is required to practice the technique for the sport.
“It’s kind of like pitching [in baseball],” men’s competitor Chris Sciarappa, a Naugatuck resident, said. “Just because you bench 500 pounds doesn’t mean you can throw 100 miles an hour.”
Sciarappa said that social media has helped the arm-wrestling community cohere, and allows for individual members to find training partners.
Like any other sport, arm wrestling has its own sets of techniques and rules followed by competitors. During any match, a competitor is allowed two fouls before losing on the third foul. Fouls can be called, for example, when athletes lift their arms from the elbow pad or do not have at least one foot in contact with the floor.
Competitors also must maintain hand contact throughout the match. If their hands separate completely at any point, a “split,” the referee calls for a strap, thus tying their hands together before restarting the match.
Most matches lasted only a handful of seconds, before referee Ron Klemba, a two-time world champion, declared a victor. Klemba himself advanced to the next round with a first-place win for both right and left arms in the 175-pound weight class.
Both of the two female competitors — Kelly Sciarappa and Deborah Selearis — had husbands who also competed. Selearis won the sole women’s event, the left-handed open, with a victory over Sciarappa.
Sciarappa said her goals for the event were to enjoy herself, given the few women who arm wrestle on a professional level.
“It’s just been trying to build the sport for women for the last three years,” Sciarappa said. “So as long as I have fun and other women show up, it’s a win for me.”
Kelly Sciarappa, who began arm wrestling professionally two years ago after attending a tournament with her husband, said these events tend to be family-oriented, as competitors bring spouses and children to cheer them on.
A handful of sponsors, including Trinity and Crossfit New Haven, provided gift certificates for winners of certain rounds. But the winners were not the only beneficiaries of the competition — the championship also pulled in an additional $1,500 in revenue for Trinity on Saturday afternoon, according to Deborah Selearis.
Trinity Bar and Grill is located at 157 Orange St. in New Haven.