They call it the hit.
It’s the first muscle twitch of an arm wrestling match. Maybe a tenth of a second. Pull. Torque. Grimace. All in the time it takes a popcorn kernel to burst or a boxer to land the knockout shot.
“You miss the start, it’s over,” arm wrestling champion Clayton Faulconer explains. You need to be 100 per cent focused on the hit, he stresses.
It’s during the hit that the time-honoured question: “Ya think yer tougher’n me?” gets answered.
Everything else – as a famous high-wire walker once said – is waiting.
It’s been a long wait for Faulconer.
The North Van resident figures he’s had 60,000 arm wrestling matches since the early 1990s. “With each arm,” he adds.
Now, coming off a first place finish at the Canadian championships in the 176-pound masters division, (he won the left- and right-arm subdivisions) Faulconer is ready for the world championships in Turkey this October.
“I think that this is my best shot of being on the podium,” he says. “For me, this would be the equivalent of winning the Olympic Games.”
Being on any podium seemed unimaginable a decade ago. While in his 30s, Faulconer was the passenger in a car wreck that left him with severe injuries to his back and hip.
“It broke the ball joint right off my hip,” he says.
He spent weeks in traction. After years of building himself up, his muscles shriveled.
“They call it wasting,” he says.
Faulconer talks about the car crash objectively, the way you might read a grocery list. He knew a traumatic injury could drop him in a bad place. He knew it happened to some people. But he also knew his way forward.
“You stop making excuses,” he says.
What you do, he explains, is get your life back.
He worked. He recuperated. He kept working. And eventually, he found himself back in the arms race.
Watching Faulconer polish a table with an opponent’s arm, you’d never guess he’s had a sick day in his life, much less spent a couple months immobilized. When the match starts, his whole body twists like a judo master tossing an opponent over his shoulder. He channels every bit of strength from his legs, hips and back into a foot-and-a-half of forearm.
Faulconer says he leaned on what he learned after the car crash while preparing for the Canadian championships tournament.
Faulconer wanted to compete in the 176-pound division. The only problem with that idea was that, about two months before the tournament started, he weighed 215 pounds.
“I didn’t know if I could do it at 44 years old,” he says.
He expelled carbs from his kitchen. “You don’t even look at the chicken with the skin on it,” he says. Then he started running.
Every day before working as a boom supervisor job at Mainland Sawmill he would head to a trail.
“I couldn’t go more than 500 feet without my shins and ankles and knees getting sore,” he says.
But he kept jogging and hitting the weights.
Eventually, his 500-feet of pain and regret turned into an almost daily 10-kilometre pre-breakfast jog.
When he arrived for the championships in Laval, Que., he weighed in at a lean 176 pounds.
The highlight of the tournament for Faulconer – besides the steak and potatoes after the weigh-in – was locking up with Alain Goyer in the masters division finals.
“He’s only 176 pounds but he’s got a physique like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Faulconer says of Goyer.
What made the difference, however, was the hit.
“I had him over into a defensive position before he even had a chance,” Faulconer says.
The win got him entry to world championships, where he expects to use all the strongarm tactics he’s honed in a quarter century at the tables.
For two days a week Faulconer trades techniques with fellow Vancouver Arm Wrestling Club member and national 187-pound champ Anthony Dall’Antonia.
Those table sessions, which sometimes also involve Dave and Marlon Hicks, can be crucial in working on the fine points of the craft; the top roll or the hook and drag.
While not too many guys guzzle 15W-40 Valvoline or gobble a lit cigar before a match, there’s a tremendous amount of gamesmanship before the contest starts, Faulconer says.
“Sometimes I’ll actually do an early start – which is a warning . . . just to throw the person off a little bit,” he says.
When his opponent reacts Faulconer sees their strategy laid bare in front of him like he’s looking at another poker player’s cards.
“The referees may catch it, they may not,” he laughs. “It’s worth the warning.”
Getting to the top of the sport has been a dream since he saw Sylvester Stallone win a truck (and his estranged son’s respect) in 1987’s Over the Top.
“I still watch it. I know every word,” he admits.
Faulconer, who got a place near Lower Lonsdale (“Just before everything went crazy.”) is getting set to try his luck at the tables this October.
“I know I’m in the mix,” he says.
He’ll bring his training and technique into Turkey, along with the best bit of advice he ever got about arm wrestling: “Don’t miss the start.”