Every Thursday night at a single-family house in Bellerose, Queens, they file in the side door and down the stairs, men with ham-hock forearms, and a few sturdy women, too. They duck into a cramped basement room and gather around padded platforms equipped with handles for waging hand-to-hand combat.
They greet by clapping together chalked-up palms, sending up little white clouds, and then face off across the tables. Often the hands are bound together in tight straps to avoid slipping. They joust for a powerful hand-clasp — gripping, re-gripping — and then position their elbows and shoulders for maximum power-pulling leverage.
These are the weekly arm-wrestling practices held for more than two decades at the home of Jason Vale, 42, a legend in New York City arm-wrestling.
“We get borough champs, citywide champs, state champs, national and even world champs here,” Mr. Vale said. “We also have total beginners. There’s no fancy facility for us to use, because there’s no money in the sport.”
Arm-wrestlers learn about the sport by word of mouth. Newcomers are invited by participants whom they often meet at tournaments. Anyone, at any level, is welcome, Mr. Vale said.
The practices, which usually draw a couple dozen a week, are rigorous and not for the weak of arm or will. Many participants are regulars, who belong to the New York Arm Wrestling Association or take part in its events. And some are first-timers who never return because of the soreness afterward. Arms have been fractured here, a reality in this sport, said a longtime regular and top arm-wrestler, Bobby Buttafuoco.
“But some other guys — I guess guys who are missing a certain gene — come back,” said Mr. Buttafuoco, brother of Joey Buttafuoco.
They talk technique: how to wrestle “from the hook,” by wrenching the opponent’s wrist into a weakened crook, or simply going “over the top,” by forcing back the opponent’s hand and fingers.
Practice match-ups are made, placing beginners with seasoned competitors and setting up left-handed matches, a common tournament category. Soon the place is a montage of bulging biceps, grimaces, groans, cheers and laughter. Some practicing pairs heat up into fierce standoffs, with everyone crowding around, hooting and cheering.
Many of the participants have hands-on jobs that keep their arms in shape. Vin Basile, 24, a pizza maker from Manhattan, developed his thick hands and arms by kneading dough. Bobby Buttafuoco, 56, has hands like vises, from his job as an auto body worker on Long Island. Daniel DeSoto, 21, of Fresh Meadows, Queens, works as a deli man, constantly handling heavy cheeses and meats. Then there is Roy Ramsland, whose power comes from making his living raking for clams on Long Island. He won national titles in August and is competing in the World Armwrestling Championships near Las Vegas in December.
One of the best female arm-wrestlers in the city, Joyce Boone, 43, a home health care aide from Brooklyn, trains daily against her longtime boyfriend, Harry Wilson, 48, who does 1,000 chin-ups and 1,000 push-ups a day.
On a recent evening, the veterans became impressed with Mr. Basile, the pizza maker. He had recently won the first tournament he ever entered. Mr. Vale struggled against him and came away rubbing his shoulder and saying, “That’s a dangerous arm.”
Frank Malis, 58, a marine welder with powerful hands and forearms, shook his head in admiration and said, “It’s always the pizza guys.”
On the floor and shelves were dozens of trophies, medals and plaques won by Mr. Vale, who captured city, state, national and world titles throughout the 1980s and ’90s. In 1999, he became the smallest arm-wrestler to win the world title as a super heavyweight.
He paced around the session munching on apricot seeds. He considers the seeds an alternative treatment for cancer; they contain laetrile, which some people consider a cancer-fighting agent. He has a tumor in his kidney and is refusing standard medical treatment. He has long called the seeds “the answer to cancer,” despite warnings from the Food and Drug Administration that they are not an effective treatment.
As a young man, Mr. Vale survived two critical cancerous tumors and began selling the seeds online as a cure despite a federal injunction. He was arrested and, in 2003, convicted of criminal contempt for ignoring the injunction, for which he served five years in federal prison. While in solitary confinement, he kept in arm-wrestling shape with a regimen of push-ups and pull-ups.
Because of a puncture in his lung, he has an open hole in his left torso through which he can exhale. Never morose, Mr. Vale calls himself “the only human with a blowhole.”
The hole began wheezing during a recent practice, while Mr. Vale struggled against a strong opponent.
“You’re whistling, Jason,” said one of the wrestlers and they all cracked up laughing.