March 14, 2019

LINGUA FRANCA:

ARMS AND THE MAN (TOM JUNOD, 6/14/93, Sports Illustrated)

There are many ways to measure a man. There are as many ways, in fact, as there are men, and the manlier the man, the more specific, the more exacting, the more outlandish the measure. A librarian, for example, might measure his manhood by the simple fact that he lifts weights, while a weightlifter has to measure his by how much weight he lifts. A strong man may have to prove that he is tireless, a tireless man that he can endure pain, a man who can endure pain that he can administer it, and so on, until we arrive at the most rarefied stratum of masculinity, reserved for men who have distanced themselves from the merely strong and merely tireless and can lay claim to that antique and enduring title: he-men.

Dave Patton is a he-man, but he is only the product of all the he-men who came before him.

Moe Baker of Bristol, Conn., was one. How do we know? Because Baker, according to his partisans, not only had 18-inch forearms but could also jump straight out of a 55-gallon drum without ever touching the sides. Cleve Dean, a 600-pound hog farmer from Georgia, was a he-man, too, because he could pick up a full-grown sow under each arm and walk around. Ed Jubinville of Chicopee, Mass., was a he-man because he had mastered the art of muscle control and could make, say, his left pectoral muscle flop around like a fish pulled fresh from the sea. And the legendary Mac Batchlor, from Los Angeles, was a he-man because he could fold four bottle caps in half simply by placing them on his fingers and closing his fist. Like all the great exemplars of their breed, these men grew impatient with the standard measures of manhood and chose to define themselves by feats so specific, demanding and utterly useless that no one ever thought to follow.

The he-man, however, faces a problem precisely because he is one of a kind. What, after all, is the measure of a man among men who have developed their own measures? Would Baker be expected to hoist hogs, or would anyone try to jam Dean into a 55-gallon drum and demand that he jump out of it? No, clearly they had to develop a basis of comparison, a means of communication beyond the babel of their own stunts, and so it was that Baker, Davis, Jubinville and Batchlor, along with a host of others, one as manly as the next, became pioneers in the sport that Dave Patton has mastered: arm wrestling.

Arm wrestling! The lingua franca of he-men! What boy has not measured his impending manhood by pitting his arm against the arms of his fellows? What barroom, what truck stop, what union hall, what locker room cannot sing of the sweat and tears that flow from an epic "pull," as the arm wrestlers sometimes term their matches? Arm wrestling calls to the man who is strong from lifting weights and the man who is strong from digging ditches; it calls to the man whose arm is as thick as a python and the man whose arm is as thin as a cable; to pretty boys and to boys whose prettiest features will always be their tattoos; to big men, to little men and to women of almost feral intensity; to the drunk and the sober, to the screamers and the shy...and, on this morning, on a Manhattan street corner occupied by one of the greatest arm wrestlers in recorded history, it calls to a cross-section of the residents of New York City, which means every kind of person in the world.

But who in the world would arm wrestle Dave Patton? He hasn't lost in something like 12 years. He may weigh only 160, yet his shoulders and neck are so developed that he sometimes looks hunchbacked. He has been known to knock an opponent off his feet with the force of his pull. He works out incessantly, with true he-man specificity, doing 756 biceps curls per session, jacking himself into a state of Pure Pain, concentrating not on his arms--anybody can have big arms!--but on his tendons. The tendons, the hand: these are the weakest parts of the body, and these are what Patton attacks when he arm wrestles, stealing his opponent's strength, short-circuiting the shoulder, bypassing the biceps, reducing the biggest man to his smallest muscles and then humiliating him.

Patton loves that, taking down the big men. He used to go by the nickname Giant Killer, until the spectacle of his beating men twice his size stopped being a surprise, and aficionados simply recognized him as Dave Patton, the master--the master of technique, the master of mind games, "the master of all things," in the words of one opponent. And yet...as the New Yorkers pass him by in their grand, grotesque parade, what they see is not an athlete, a champion, a master; what they see is a fellow manning a sort of lemonade stand of machismo, a fellow who could not weigh much more than...well, 160 pounds...and so they line up to take their free shot at him and collect their thousand bucks.

Posted by at March 14, 2019 3:27 AM

  

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