Nano Cruz's hands are thick and meaty. They feel like they're twice as big as mine - and they might very well be. When shaking hands with Cruz, a hulk of a man with a warm smile and a soft voice, my palm is lost in his. His fingers feel like sausages.
Cruz's large, powerful hands are one of his most potent weapons because Cruz is a competitive arm wrestler. He and his three Bend teammates travel the country attending arm wrestling tournaments - competitions that aren't on the radar of most sports fans. They're good, too.
More often than not, all four members of Cruz's team, the Twisted Wrists, walk away from tournaments with multiple trophies. Just last month, Cruz was named the Overall Champion at the 17th Annual Oregon State Arm Wrestling Championships in Klamath Falls after winning matches with both his right and left arm. Currently, Cruz is ranked 8th in the country. At the state champs in March, his team captured second place overall. Most recently, the competitive Bend team traveled to Florence, Oregon to compete in the annual U.S. Open Arm Wrestling Championships.
Though it's not exactly mainstream, Cruz sees arm wrestling as a sport that's on the rise. Last year, more than 500 people competed at the national championships, almost 100 more than in years past. Cruz and his teammates are hoping that if they do well at nationals this year, held in Reno in mid-May, they'll be chosen to the U.S. team. The United States Armwrestling Federation, the sport's governing body, determines who will get to travel to Almaty, Kazakhstan to compete in the world championships this winter.
Accessibility might be the biggest thing going for arm wrestling. You don't need lots of expensive equipment or a special training facility. You need only a table and partner. Darren Wartena, Cruz's mentor and teammate, was drawn in after spending years hustling drunk meatheads in barroom matches. Once Wartena learned that competitive arm wrestling was actually a 'thing,' he was hooked.
"There's practice? This is awesome!" Wartena remembers thinking.
At 45, Wartena, a fit, lean, and impressively enthusiastic construction worker, is the elder statesman of the team. The arm wrestling veteran has been in and out of competitions for 20 years and has tried to teach his three friends all that he's learned.
"It's so addictive," Wartena says of the sport. Teammates Jody Williams and Ryan Lantz agree.
I met the four men in Cruz's upstairs apartment for one last practice before they hit the road for the 2012 U.S. Open. The eastside Bend unit appears to be a fairly typical one-bedroom living space. In the main room there's a TV, a couch, and a couple of chairs resting on beige carpet. A tall, industrial-looking rectangular table with pads, two pegs and a red velcro strap laying in the middle stands at the far end of the living room. Its simple steel frame is painted black but has become worn in a few spots after years of supporting arm wrestling practices and tournaments.
All four team members claim that they want to take it easy this Wednesday night, but once they start "pulling" it looks like tonight's going be full on. After dissecting videos of themselves and their competitors from past tournaments, the members of the Twisted Wrists begin to warm up.
Williams and Lantz square off on either side of the table, their elbows resting on a small square of padded vinyl. After clasping hands in the proper fashion, each man lets the other pull his arm to the table. They go back and forth like this for about a minute in order to warm up their tendons.
A proper warm up is important as the force involved in arm wrestling often results in pain. Dislocated wrists, shoulders and even broken bones are common injuries.
"I've seen 23 arms break," Wartena says.
According to Cruz, the noise of someone's humerus fracturing "sounds like a tree branch breaking."
"Yeah, or a carrot snapping," Williams adds. "It's like you hear in movies - no big deal - but when you hear it in person it makes you queasy."
Arm wrestling, aside from the potential dangers, is also astoundingly nuanced.
Technique trumps sheer muscle mass. This is a little hard to believe given that everyone in the room is at least 40 pounds larger than me and has arms that seem like they were carved out of wood. When not pulling in practice, these guys spend the bulk of their time in the gym working on their grip and forearm strength. Pull-ups are a favorite exercise. And twice a week they gather to practice their technique.
Hooking, top rolling and shoulder pressing are all distinct styles employed by competitors regularly or as a counter to another's move. Some matches are minutes long as the competitors struggle back and forth. Some matches last less than a second.
Cruz, with his massive hands and even larger forearms, picked up the techniques quickly and has rocketed up the national rankings. Though he's only been competing as a professional for one year, the 198-pounder has his sights set on making the U.S squad.
"I think I'm a natural," says Cruz, whose day job includes serving at Five Fusion & Sushi Bar. He explains that training for competition is tough and often painful.
I, however, am not a natural. Though I like to fancy myself a reasonably fit individual, my puny forearms, attached to my 145-pound frame, failed to budge Cruz's thick wrist as he humored me on the competition table. This then led to a 15-minute long instructional session from all four men.
"You got to build up that bone density," Cruz says. And the only way to do that is by arm wrestling.
When asked about the sport's impact on their arms, they all agree it's severe.
"Oh, they're always hurting," Warenta says of his arms. Williams, who's wearing a black wrist brace on his right hand, nods in agreement.
Wednesday's practice left the boys tired and sore, Cruz told me days later. While at Saturday's U.S. Open, none of the men did as well at they had hoped (which means Warenta and Cruz finished second - not too shabby). Cruz did manage, however, to beat the country's third-ranked left-hander, a feat that will likely cause Cruz's ranking to rise. Lantz was the team's only champion. The 28-year old handyman captured the novice division and must now compete as a pro.
The weekend's mild disappointment isn't likely to dampen Wartena's bursting enthusiasm.
"In 18 months you're looking at four world champions right here," says Wartena, nodding in the direction of his teammates.