Armwrestling Gets A Grip In Penang

By Liani MK

February 2024 FEATURE
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Armwrestler, Seth Naidu referees a game between his peers.

Photos by Arieff Zafir

WALKING PAST DINGY ROOMS of workout gears, training pads and dumbbells on a dark rainy November morning, tensions might appear to be running high. But the laughter that follows indicates an air of playfulness and camaraderie.

On weekends like this, budding armwrestlers from the Penang Armwrestling Association can be found training and locked in nail-biting matches at the community hall tucked away in Air Itam.

Despite the contrast in their physique—the slender and sinewy Seth Naidu, and a gutsy junior Geraint Gan Zen Xi, with bulky arms—their armwrestling match reaches an impasse before Geraintʼs twist of the wrist swiftly ends the deadlock.

Seth breaks into laughs with obvious pride for his juniorʼs growth. “When this guy first joined us, I obliterated him every round we played. He got better and I’m nothing now!”

Everybody knows what armwrestling is—even if we are unfamiliar with the proper techniques it entails. In between recess and in the corners of our classrooms, armwrestling is played as a casual game and often viewed as a test of brawn and bravado among friends. But this form of wrestling can be competed at worldwide championships. In Penang, a group of eager youths are aiming to make a mark in this sport.

Tussles Through the Ages

The early beginnings of armwrestling remain obscure, with varying claims tracing its origins to ancient Egypt as well as ancient Greece. The modern incarnation of this sport emerged in the latter half of the 20th century, evolving from smoky bar-room pastimes to a structured sport with organised competitions. In the 1970s, the sport surged in popularity, supplemented by televised showdowns that electrified audiences and sparked a global fascination with this arm-to-arm combat.

There are also derivations of the sport, Seth shares with us, such as the Japanese udezumo, or “arm sumo”, which uses a table bigger in dimension than that for conventional armwrestling. This allows the elbows to move freely.

Today, armwrestling attracts enthusiasts from all corners of the globe. Malaysia boasts its own line-up of national champions, such as Navinder Kaur Thandal, Safuan Asif, Joffey Jolly and Calveen Petrus. The sport began to become popular with the country hosting competitions such as the Vendetta Top 8 Championship, a competition for the top eight armwrestlers in the world.

More recently, the Malaysia Armwrestling Federation (MYARM) organised the 2023 IFA World Armwrestling Championship, an event graced by Youth and Sports Minister, Hannah Yeoh. It attracted nearly 30 countries with over 500 athletes to Pavilion Bukit Jalil last September, and 56 of the athletes were from Malaysia. MYARM hopes armwrestling will eventually be included in the Malaysia Games (SUKMA).

Training equipment at the Penang Armwrestling Association.

Penang’s Armwrestling Potential

Penang has already carved out a name for itself in regional armwrestling championships with players like Nick Choy Yun Tatt, who clinched a gold at the 2022 Asia Armwrestling Championship. Co-founded by Elvis Mooi and the current president, Goh Thian Weai, Penang Armwrestling Association was registered in 2021, and provides a platform for enthusiasts to practice and improve each otherʼs techniques.

“Some of my friends are getting interested too and ask all kinds of questions,” says 16-year-old Geraint, who joined in 2022. “I am happy to demonstrate what I have learnt and I teach them techniques like pulling.”

Another member, Bryan Tew Kean Loon, a 23-year-old working in customer relations, had joined the training since he was 17, in 2018. He cannot express why he was drawn to the sport, but like Sean and Geraint, he feels joy in sharing techniques with others. “During my school time, friends asked about techniques, and I would teach them the proper way so that they won’t injure their arms.”

One of the most popular myths surrounding armwrestling is the notion that smaller arms equate to weakness—and defeat.

Seth dispels this myth by highlighting that armwrestling styles are as diverse as the competitors themselves. Initially doubtful about his own slim arms making the grade when he first began, Seth, now 23, has won challenging matches and currently holds the vice-presidency of the Penang Armwrestling Association.

“Armwrestling is for everyone,” says Seth, extending his hands onto the padded surface. He emphasises that while physical strength is the main draw, armwrestling is also about the mental fortitude, technique and strategy behind the game. “Irrespective of arm size or body type, itʼs inclusive.”

Addressing safety concerns, Seth emphasises proper technique and training as fundamental safeguards against injury. He points to their makeshift gym filled with tools specific for armwrestling, and pull-bars to train their thumb strength and pronator muscles in the forearm.

“I think a lot of people have seen online videos of arms snapping, and they get scared,” says Seth. But these are because of the lack of technique.

“When I first played for fun in school, I didn’t know what I was doing.” He says that the popular layman rule to not use the body and keep the arms straight is actually dangerous and can cause injury to the humerus, a bone in the upper arm. “You’re not in a proper position then.”

Instead, Seth says, you have to use the entire body in armwrestling. “With proper training and proper safety, you’ll be fine,” he asserts. “The more knowledge you have about something, the safer and less fearful you are.”

“My advice to anyone taking up armwrestling is simple,” he says. “Always look at your hands. Because when you look at your hand, you stay connected.”

Power of the Wrist

As Seth and Geraint walk us through their rigorous warm-up routines—with quick-moving wrists and muscles—the intensity of their sparring underscores the subtle yet necessary foundations and techniques behind the sport.

Seth explains that there are two main techniques in armwrestling. One of them is the “top roll”, sometimes referred to as the “outside” technique as players use the outside of their arm to bend opponentʼs wrist. Another technique is the “hook”, or the “inside” technique, which involves using the inner part of the forearm to drag the opponentʼs arm in. According to Seth, this inside technique involves “raw power and strength”.

“There are different styles,” he explains, adding that armwrestlers, sometimes called pullers, often mix a combination of techniques. “Whichever you use depends on how you want to use them and also how your body is built. Itʼs similar to combat sport in a sense where there are many ways to [gaining] victory.”

Players often find the different techniques exhilarating, Seth divulges. “Itʼs an outlet. You gain more muscle development, you train more, itʼs more of a personal growth,” he says. “Itʼs a war of endurance and strength,” Seth asserts. “Itʼs not about winning or losing.”

For Grip, Growth and Glory

For enthusiasts, growth within the armwrestling community is important for a variety of reasons—to share knowledge, support fellow members and encourage collaboration across Malaysia.

The Penang Armwrestling Association aspires to demystify the sportʼs niche status and promote a safer, more informed approach to armwrestling within the community, which they hope to do through their social media @penangpullers, as well as with live events and competitions across the island.

“The initial novel effect of wanting to beat your friends from when we started is gone for us,” says Seth. “Itʼs more like the urge of learning something, or teaching the next generation.”

“The drive to see others get better— thatʼs there,” he says. “That motivates me; to see the armwrestling community grow.”

Liani MK

is an independent writer, journalist and artist whose works span areas of language, film, culture, indigeneity and migration in Southeast Asia.