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XX World ArmSport Federation World Championship - Tokyo, Japan

December 1999

by Denise Wattles

       Before I left for Japan I had an image of what I thought Japan, and the XX WAF World Championships would be like........exciting, foreign, exotic and enlightening. It was all of this and much more. I only wish I had more time to truly experience Japan for all it has to offer. As it was, I arrived a day later than most the others due to Billings, Montana being fogged in. I had the options of driving 140 miles west to catch a plane east to Minneapolis then fly “direct” to Tokyo or to wait 2 more days to leave. It really wasn’t a choice so I left immediately for the nearest airport, 140 miles west. The 17-hour plane ride did not feel all that “direct” to me but that is the time it took to fly to Tokyo. Kind of the long way around. Oh well.... The wait was well worth it as there were 55 anxious Americans waiting at the Marriott for the beginning of a very wonderful experience.  Mitsuo Endo, President of the Japan Armwrestling Association, spared no expense insuring that the Americans, and  the many other countries in attendance, were comfortable and had everything they needed. Mrs. Endo even took valuable time out of her schedule to transport some of the athletes the 1-1/2 hours (one way) to & from the airport. The many months of preparation, by the Japanese, showed in every aspect of the Championships, from the weigh-ins to the reception “fit for a king” after the competition.

     The tournament was held within walking distance from both hotels where the competitors were staying. The weather was beautiful which made it very comfortable for the walk to the event each day and also for all the sightseeing that the USA Team was able to do. The subway system in Japan is extremely convenient with directions and signs in both Japanese and English. There are so many things to see in Japan each person could decide what they wanted to see and could ask others to go with or they could go by themselves. The city of Tokyo is the safest city (20 million people) in the World so we could do whatever we wanted to do without any worry for our safety. Shopping, of course, was 1st on the list followed by checking out the numerous temples and the Imperial Palace where the emperor of Japan lives.  Many also visited Tokyo Disneyland and the Hard Rock Cafe too.  What an experience!

     Before the start of the tournament the WAF Congress meeting was held to ratify a revised WAF constitution. Necessary changes were made, by the vote of all members present, to reflect the desires of all countries involved in the WAF. Interim President, Fred Roy, and Interim General Secretary, Willie Deneumostier, went to great lengths during the discussions of every issue to be positive that the language barrier was not a problem and that each country representative understood exactly what it was that they were agreeing, or disagreeing with. It did add to the length of the meeting but it was well worth the effort to see the satisfaction among all of us at the positive strides that were made and the way democracy was working for everyone involved. Effective at the XXI WAF Championships being held in Finland in 2000, the WAF will be know as it originally was, the World Armwrestling Federation. Also, the year of the founding of the WAF was changed back to the actual year of 1977 from 1967, which is not a true date. These were just a couple of the issues that were voted on and revised with the majority vote of the attending countries. The WAF also welcomed China and their athletes who were in attendance at their 1st WAF World Championships.

Also before the start of competition there was a referee clinic supervised by the WAF Head Referee, David Shead from England. Second in charge was Leonard Harkless from the U.S.A. This clinic was held to insure that all the referees understood the WAF rules and could execute them at the table. Other WAF referees in attendance as staff were Harri Naskali (Finland), Dave Hicks (Canada) and Keith Michel (USA). The Japan Armwrestling Association also supplied many referees that officiate at the tournaments held in Japan. The refereeing again, as in Canada, was outstanding.

      Weigh-ins went like clockwork for the Americans, not one person having to Sauna or run off any weight. A few of the other countries had athletes that had to make an extra effort to shed some pounds but when the time came all were in the classes in which they had come to compete. Ibragim Ibragimov from Russia was in the 198 lb. class, down from the 220 in which he took 2nd to Ron Bath in 1998, and Yoshinobu Kanai, from Japan, who had won the 198 lb. right hand class in 1998 had dieted down into the 176 lb. class. These 2 men were going to make these classes even more difficult for the other competitors.

     The opening ceremony for the tournament was such a thrill, the USA Team had the honor of being the first team in the parade, as the defending Team Champions from 1998, followed by Canada-2nd, and Russia-3rd.  Ahead of our team was a Japanese marching band which had the many spectators on their feet cheering for the hundreds of athletes that would follow. I was so proud to be the Team Manager of such an impressive group of Armwrestlers. These athletes deserved all the respect they were receiving from their teammates and the rest of the World. I knew that my friends and team members were the “ones to defeat” if any of the other competitors stood a chance to take home one of the expensive custom medals made especially for the XX WAF World Armwrestling Championships.

    The US Team was comprised of members from 14 states and a minimum of 3 different armwrestling associations.  Our competitors ranged in age from a 17 year old girl (Jessie French, Ca.) to 59 (John Brzenk, Sr., Ut.). Many of the armwrestlers had also brought their “cheerleaders”, wives, friends and relatives, to experience the thrill of visiting a foreign country and to learn, first hand, why that person loves the sport of armwrestling.

Each & every one of those in Japan from the U.S. had spent countless hours in training, if competing, and securing the money to make the venture to represent the United States. The support of friends and family is vital for an athlete to excel in their goals. James Gonzalez, the vascular surgeon who performed a miracle in the recovery of Ryan Hutchings (he was shot in September 1999) also came to Japan to support Ryan.  The camaraderie of the group was so enjoyable. I genuinely feel that our Team performed better because of this support. 

      The first day of competition was Friday December 3rd for the Men’s & Women’s left hand weight classes and the Masters, Grand Masters and Disabled Classes. As in 1998, this was a very strong day for the Americans. Our Masters, both the men & women are the top athletes in the World. Cynthia Yerby (Ok.) successfully retained her Masters World Title. Cynthia started armwrestling when she turned 40 and has been a dominate force in the  ladies Masters classes. Kathy Hughes defeated Tokuko Saito from Japan to take home second place. In his 1st International tournament Don Spraggs (Ca.) placed 3rd in the Masters Right 154# class behind a still tough Dave Hicks from Canada who placed 1st and Mamori Maejima from Japan who took 2nd. The American Masters repeated their performance of the WAF World’s in Canada by taking home first place in both the Right & Left 176#, 198# and 220+# weight classes by Gregg Bednarz (Ma.), Jim Fitzsimmons (Ma.),  and Steve Phipps (Wa.), respectively. Mike Shadduck (Ma.) wrapped up the Masters Right & Left Open classes by taking 2 second place finishes behind Steve Phipps. Not to be outdone, John Brzenk Sr. (Ut.) proved to all of us that age is irrelevant in the sport of Armwrestling. At 59 years of age he won both the right & left Grand Masters Open Weight classes. Impressive !!!!! 

The left hand classes are no less difficult that the right and the Americans had great representation in the likes of Greg Gray (Ca.), Calvin Uyehara (Hi.), Tim Sears (Ma.), Don Spraggs, David Bieler (Or.), John Brzenk (Ut.), Ron Bath (Ga.), Alan Tresser (Ca.), Bruiser Neal (Ca.), Eric Woelfel (Ca.), and Steve Phipps. All these athletes had the ability to take first but it can be difficult to adjust to the differences in a foreign country. All the Americans placed in the top 6 which is a fantastic accomplishment.

      John Brzenk & Ron Bath were both in the left hand 220# class with Ron as the defending champion. When these 2 armwrestling giants met for the first time Ron underestimated how John’s left had improved since they last met and John hit him off the “go” and took him to the pad for a win. This wasn’t to happen a 2nd time. Ron took a different grip on the setup and after a long match came out the victor. This left both men with 1 win and 1 loss so they met again in the finals where John came back and beat Ron for the 2nd time and the title.

Lorrie Schoner (Co.), Carolyn Fisher (Ca.), Jessie French (Ca.) Kathy Hughes (Ca.) and Monica Wozniak (D.C.) were our only ladies to compete left handed but they were a great addition to the U.S. team. The classes were fairly small but the points just as important. Lorrie placed 4th, Carolyn 3rd, Jessie French 4th, Kathy 5th, and Monica Wozniak 2nd place behind Vika Gabakova from Russia.

     Eric Woelfel was favored to win the left hand heavyweight class as he has been ranked as the best left-hand Heavy in the World. Eric met Mike Gould from Canada early on in the weight class and beat him to put him on the “B” side of the bracket with one loss. Little did Eric know that this same man would meet him again in the finals for a match he would remember the rest of his life. Mike was unstoppable on the loser’s side of the bracket and came back to Eric, who was undefeated, with the intent of taking home the title. After a very long match Mike did beat Eric, after Eric “got away from his arm”, for the first win toward 1st place. After a short rest both these powerful men were again gripped up for what would be the final match in this weight class. Again they were locked in fierce battle when Eric suffered a devastating injury, a torn bicep. A man who has been unstoppable for a fairly long period of time would now be out with an injury that would possibly take a long time to heal after surgery. Mike placed 1st, Eric 2nd in a very memorable match for everyone. Eric was now unable to represent the U.S. the next day in the right hand super-heavyweight class, a class in which he was predicted to place. Steve Phipps placed third behind these two men in one of the most powerful weight classes I have ever seen.

      The Americans left the competition on Friday 1 point ahead of all the other countries in team points. Saturday was going to be a long day for all of us....

       Saturday, the last day of competition also would include the Super Match at the end of regular competition. Each country had the opportunity to select 2 Team Members, from any weight division, to represent their country in the Super Match which would award a total of  $10,000 to the top 3 finishers. 1st-$5000,2nd- $3000, 3rd -$2,000. The U.S. representatives were Ron Bath and John Brzenk. John and Ron both weighed 220 lbs. and most expected that they might finish one and two in the competition.   
Competition on Saturday started at 10:30 am and everyone was more than ready to get started. As on Friday there were 3 tables, which made the tournament move fairly quickly.  The refereeing each day went very smoothly and even if there was a protest it did not slow down the matches. The few protests were handled promptly and efficiently.

     The U.S. had superior athletes, both men & women, in the right-handed classes. Karen Cooley (Mi.) had been dieting to wrestle in the ladies 110# class and was so glad when weigh-ins were over and she could eat and drink again. I had heard of Karen from Ruth Michel (Mt.), who was also in attendance at this event, so I was aware that Karen was a top athlete. (Karen was chosen to represent the U.S. as there were no ladies in the 110# class that came to Reno to qualify for the spot.) Karen, and her husband Jerry, are the nicest people and I was amazed at how strong and competitive this small woman is. She had some very long matches but was determined to come home a World Champion, and she did. It was Karen that made me realize how important a World Title is to the armwrestlers. She was overwhelmed at her accomplishment, this showed in her smile and her tears. She made us all feel that we had won too. I know the titles are very important to the men too, but I have yet to see one cry. Cynthia Yerby, in addition to her Ladies Masters win placed 2nd and Monica Wozniak 3rd in the Ladies right hand open class behind Vika Gabakova who successfully defended her title from 1998.  The United States only had 1 representative in the smaller Men’s Class of 121 lb., Calvin Uyehara, (Hi.) and no one in the 110 lb. class.  In the top 4 places of the men right 132# class there were 3 Japanese and 1 Russian winner.

It was a tough day for Greg Gray (Ca.) He is a top competitor in the U.S. but it wasn’t to be his day. Tim Sears (Ma.) and Wayne Fredrickson (Wa.) had their work cut out for them in the 154# class. The Japanese again placed 1st and 3rd with Andy Barker (Eng.) placing 2nd. Both men wrestled well but just couldn’t defeat these stronger athletes. The Americans placed the strongest in the men’s 165# class. Greg Wilson (Il.) and Rick Soliwoda (Pa.) made a big impression on these athletes with taking home 4th and 2nd respectively in this very tough class. The 176# class was the largest class in this very large tournament. Andreas Rundstrom, from Sweden, who had won the Yukon Jack 165# division in 1996 was in the 176 lb. class and only placed 3rd behind Yoshinobu in 1st and Bill Frank, from Germany 2nd. Aaron Berry from Washington took a very impressive 6th place among the other tough competitors which also included Neil Pickup from Great Britain and Oleg Matskevich from Belarus. Eduard Khramtsov (Russia) placed 1st in the 187# class ahead of the Americans, Robert Petley (Mt.) and Ryan Hutchings (Ca.). Robert had placed 3rd in the International Championships in Belgium in 1998 and we felt he had a strong chance to do well here. “Luck of the Draw” can make or break how you do in a tournament and he drew the hard side of the bracket this time. Ryan Hutchings, wrestling in his 2nd tournament since he was shot in Sept. 1999, performed much better than his friends had expected. He is much stronger than we thought and his technique was great. We were all so proud that he had placed 4th in this monster of a class! What a comeback! After a spot came open at the last moment David Bieler (Or.) was selected to represent the U.S. in the 198# class (both right & left). David had just come from a left hand win at the World’s Wristwrestling Championship in Petaluma in the 198# class so he was fresh in our minds as a good candidate for this spot. David had become a very good Amateur competitor but we knew he had the ability to place well in the WAF Championships, and he did. Dave placed 4th, both right and left. Great Job!

             Ron Bath (Ga.) and Tony Picchioldi (Il.) were the U.S. representatives in the 220# Class. Ron was the defending champion from 1998 after defeating Ibragim Ibragimov from Russia. (I think that is why Ibragim competed in the 198# class in 1999.) Ron was favored to successfully defeat his title in Japan. What happened in Ron’s first match left all of us shaking our heads and trying to make sense of what had happened for a second time in 2 days to two of the best armwrestlers in the World. Ron was wrestling Gadji Tagiro, who ended up taking 1st place, when he also tore his bicep. How distressing! We all felt so sad for Ron and Eric. Armwrestling means so much to both these men and they would both have to return home for surgery to repair the damage done in the pursuit of titles in the sport they love. It was even more defeating for Ron, as he was looking forward to the Super Match competition with his teammate, John Brzenk.

      With crippling injuries to the U.S. Representative in the Super Match, Ron Bath, and a possible backup, Eric Woelfel, we were scrambling to find a suitable substitute for Ron. First to come to mind was Steve Phipps as he has been making unbelievable progress in his strength right handed, after breaking the arm twice, but he had only competed 2 or 3 times right handed in Masters Classes and I was concerned about him being injured again. (especially after 2 severe injuries already in this competition). After a lot of thought Jim Fitzsimmons (Ma.) was chosen to represent our team. He had won the Masters Right & Left 198#  classes the day before and looked extremely promising. He was thrilled with the opportunity and we felt he was not “out classed” as he is still a top contender in the Pro ranks. Mike Gould represented Canada, Yoshinobu Kania and Shigeki Kanai represented Japan, Ibragim Ibragimov represented Russia, and Krister Johnson represented Sweden. There were also other representatives in the competition from the other countries. John Brzenk had wrestled in the left hand 220# class at the Championships and was now wrestling right handed against these many Champions. Weight didn’t seem to be an issue in the Super Match as Neil Pickup and Andreas Rundstrom (both 176#) did extremely well defeating some of the larger wrestlers. Ibragim Ibragimov wrestled superbly and seemed to be unstoppable after defeating his teammate Gadgi Tagiro to give Gadgi a 4th place finish. Both the Russians looked extremely tough and this loss by Gadgi turned the tides for Krister Johnson from Sweden who placed 3rd after losing to Ibragim. John Brzenk was stronger and more impermeable than I have ever seen him in the last 15 years. He wrestled like a machine, letting his opponents “hit him” only to have John slowly bring their grip to the pad for a loss. When the smoke cleared John took home 1st place and $5000, Ibragim - 2nd, Krister - 3rd and Gadgi - 4th. It was one of the most exciting series of battles most had ever witnessed!

     Even with 2of our strongest competitors injured and unable to wrestle in their classes the US Team finished 3rd place in the Team Standings. The host team, Japan, took home 1st place and Russia - 2nd, only 5 points ahead of the U.S. What a tight battle! The U.S. did a superb job and left Japan highly respected as a team and as individuals.    

      After 7 days in Japan we had all become good friends and looked at our departure with some sadness. This sadness was short-lived, as we all knew we would meet again in 2000 at another competition and share pictures and stories once again. The XXl WAF World Championships are being held in Finland in November 2000 hosted by Harri Noskali and his wife. We are all looking forward to our visit and the competition just a year from now.



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