TIFTON — Greg Hilton couldn’t resist when an employee from a contracting firm challenged him to an arm wrestling match.
It was during a lunch break on a Georgia Department of Transportation construction project, and Hilton wasn’t backing down.
“The biggest guy on the crew wanted to arm wrestle Greg,” said TJ Norman, a project manager with the Georgia DOT. “Greg beat him. Word of mouth spread and that’s how it all started.”
Hilton once arm wrestled on the hood of a truck.
While he played some recreation sports and lifted weights, he never seriously considered arm wrestling until four years ago.
“We just wanted to have fun on lunch breaks,” Hilton said. “But there’s something about losing to another opponent in arm wrestling that makes me that much more competitive than at a power-lifting meet. There’s something about the adrenaline.”
After a half-decade of tutelage under one of the nation’s top coaches in Bob Watson, Hilton is one of the country’s best. The Tifton native competed in the World Armwrestling League Championships in Las Vegas last month. He can’t disclose his finish since the championships is currently scheduled to be televised this week on ESPN.
But what may have been more of a bar-room exhibition for men to prove their masculinity has grown into a million-dollar sport. It gained notoriety in the 1986 movie “Over the Top,” which starred Sylvester Stallone. Interest had declined since then, but Hilton said it appears to be gaining in popularity again.
Arm wrestling, also known as pulling, is still one of the world’s most popular methods of settling a score and a universal test of strength. Hilton said the sport isn’t just about having big biceps. There is just as much technique and small things involved in a victory as there is in pure strength.
MEETING A LEGEND
After being the undisputed champion on local DOT job sites, Hilton said it was Norman who first got him interested in taking the sport farther.
Norman said the two were working together on a project near Pavo and legendary arm wrestler Cleve Dean, known internationally as the “Arm Breaker,” used to eat lunch regularly at a local burger joint. He introduced Hilton to Dean, who won more than 60 world titles in the 1970s and ’80s and could grapple with both his right hand and his left hand.
The two met and developed a friendship. When Hilton first learned of a tournament in Albany in 2011, he signed up and Dean was going to meet him there.
“We were all excited, but then Cleve died about two weeks before the tournament,” Norman said.
Hilton showed up as a novice and won top honors in his weight class. He also caught the attention of longtime coach Bob Watson, who had trained under legendary champion David Patton when the two lived in Virginia. Watson liked what he saw in the youngster and sought to develop his talent.
“Greg is the type of individual every guy wants, no matter what sport,” said Watson, who regularly trains around 20 to 25 arm wrestlers every other Thursday at his home near Valdosta and leads the Down South Arm Wrestling Team.
“He’s striving to do everything he can and gives it 150 percent.”
Hilton, about 195 pounds at the time, was told by Watson that, with the proper technique, he could beat guys much bigger. His drive to be successful took him to Watson’s home about three times per week to tune up his technical ability.
“You can have all the power in the world but if don’t have technique, you’re going to get smoked,” Hilton said.
RULES OF THE SPORT
Watson compared arm wrestling to boxing. Participants are weighed before a meet and they compete in their respective classes. Most championships are a double-elimination format, and matches can last anywhere from a second to about four minutes, Hilton said.
One foot must remain on the floor at all times, the elbows can’t come off the pad of the table and the pulling hand must remain on the pad at all times during the match.
But Hilton said even more important is the setup.
“If the arm wrestlers argue over the setup, the referees step in and decide who gets what,” he said. “If the wrestlers argue for more than 30 seconds, the match goes to what they call a Refs Grip where the hands must remain in the position the ref puts them in. If you move out of that position, it is an automatic foul and the match is over.”
Hilton added that wrestlers’ arms can intentionally and unintentionally slip during competition. If that happens, a strap is used.
“It takes years to develop technique and tendon development,” he said. “Hand, wrist and forearm are critical.”
In a small building in Watson’s backyard, a group of men gather in a clubhouse to practice on Thursday nights twice a month. Watson had his share of success, but the banker said he liked coaching better. Two men drive almost five hours every other week from Tampa, Fla., for Watson’s tutelage.
Practices usually start around 6:30 p.m. and last about three hours. Arm wrestlers listen to Watson’s instructions on proper technique. Weight classes are ignored, as participants work on improving. The smallest guys often wrestle the biggest guys in the room.
Hilton said the instruction he has received from Watson during the past three seasons has helped him steadily improve. This year, he won the qualifier in Oviedo, Fla., then placed in the top 3 at the Southern Regionals in Dallas. That helped him earn a spot in the World Armwrestling League Championships.
Watson’s lists of prized pupils is lengthy. Two athletes — Rodger Felkel and Tracy Norman — competed in the 2003 World Arm Wrestling Championships in Suzdal, Russia.
“Everywhere we went (to compete), somebody always came over to pick Tom’s brain a little,” Felkel said. “He’s an outstanding coach.”
Hilton credits Watson for all of his success and aims to continue until he’s the best in his class. He said Watson pays such heavy attention to detail.
“I’ve been blessed to have Bob,” he said. “He’s a strategist and a good game-planner.”
Watson said he has coached many and he hasn’t had one progress as fast as Hilton. At 5-foot-6 and 190 pounds, Hilton has no plans to stop anytime soon.
“I don’t like to lose,” he said. “I want to keep going until I’m the best in my weight class.”
Norman said there aren’t many contractor employees who want to tackle Hilton during lunch breaks anymore.
“Everybody he used to arm wrestle was about 6 foot or taller and at least 230 pounds or more,” he said. “Greg, he’s a short guy anyway, and he was heavily disadvantaged.
“But he always beat them anyway.”