Battle of the biceps, wits and lunatics

Mike Rowbottom gets to grips with an event where the hype rose to hilarious heights at London's Sports Cafe
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If you want to make an impact as a sport, it does no harm to encourage nicknames.

Sunday night's London Amateur Arm Wrestling Championships at the Sports Cafe, witnessed by approximately 100 competitors and camp followers and the cameras of cable television, abounded in them.

In some cases, the derivation was obvious. Tony "The Lunatic" Dure, for instance, did indeed appear deranged in the moments before he stepped to the spotlit table, staring fixedly into the middle distance with an expression of pent-up fury.

For Uno Biceppo - aka Chris Andrews of Lancashire - the requirements were relatively simple. After winning his contests, his role was to flex the bicep in question in response to a football-style chant of "Uno, Uno".

But how Wayne Blake came to have the nickname of "The Joker" was a mystery. He may have rolled his eyes occasionally, but there was none of the zany behaviour one expected from someone carrying such a monicker.

The real joker on the night was the streetwise master of ceremonies, Frank Pittal. The actual jokes purveyed by this chubby market trader did nothing for the occasion - "Do you like my jacket? Do you know why I'm wearing it tonight? I lost a bet" - but his hype soared to hilarious heights.

"If you thought you saw lightning, get ready because you are going to listen to thunder. It's `The Lunatic'. Look at his eyes. Look at his face. History in the making. World War Three is about to explode in the Sports Cafe...''

The subsequent explosion was a controlled one, as Uno Biceppo forced The Lunatic's knuckles down on to the contact pad within a couple of seconds.

Most of the night's matches were over very quickly. Very few turned into the extended, vein-bulging, sweat-beading encounters that the sport suggests to the outsider.

More than brute force is involved in a sport that dreams of the Demonstration Olympics - as all involved will tell you.

Like most leading competitors, Curtis Annelle, a trainee with the London Fire Brigade who won a silver medal at last year's World Championships, trains five days a week. But he maintains the mental challenge of the event is the main thing for him. "It's a battle of wits," he said. "An arm wrestling match can be over in a heartbeat.''

There are two main approaches in competition - outside arm wrestling, where you try to roll the opponent's arm over, and inside wrestling, where you hook their hand in and try to force it down towards you. But forget the idea that one hand has to be kept behind the back - competitors grab hold of a wooden grip with their spare hands, and can gain purchase on the inside of the table with one leg.

Psychology is also a factor, particularly beforehand. Before getting to grips with his opponent, Annelle - 6ft 4in and 100 kilos - likes to emit a low growl.

Elaine Pickup, the 25-year-old British and European champion at 60kg, estimates that her sport is 80 per cent about mental ability.

What criticism she receives about doing arm wrestling comes from the opposite sex. "Some men think it's gross," she says. Usually, as it happens, men whom she could beat at arm wrestling.

Pickup, a senior manager at an Accrington chemical works, is nevertheless concerned not to overstep the mark of what she considers feminine. Her arm, as she flexes it, looks far more normal than those of female bodybuilders. "If I had to look like that, I wouldn't do it," she said. "I work very hard on my image.''

That image involves long hennaed hair, a leather bomber jacket and a black leotard. And, naturally, a nickname. "I call myself Lady Natural," she said. "Because I want to be thought of as glamourous in everything I do.''

As she went on to demonstrate, the glamour is matched by aggression. Just the thing to keep the cameras rolling and the sport's profile rising...