Historic Coney Island Boardwalk Becomes Muscle Beach


By: James Retarides

With the heat brimming from the bricks of Brooklyn, a battle of the biceps boiled over from the beach to the boardwalk as the area’s best and most seasoned amateur pullers clashed with some of the brightest up and coming arm wrestlers from throughout the region.

For the second tournament in a row, Greg Gavin of West Islip, NY stole the show and MVP honors by going up a weight class and going unchallenged. With all three finalists of the super-heavyweight class, Dan Sorrese and Edwin Safarian, and Gavin known regionally for pulling in the open class at 198lbs, they would demonstrate that New York’s toughest competitors could lie within the heavyweight class.

From the outset, Gavin asserted his dominance keeping Safarian out of his powerful hook. Safarian was forced to rely on a tricep, and slipped underneath Gavin’s hard full-hand top-roll. Referee Frank Malis put both competitors in the strap, and with Gavin’s strap spotted low and tight around his wrist he was able to open Safarian up and roll him to the pad.

Sorrese looked to be the man to beat early after a convincing victory against, a much larger, Russell Kiss. In the winners bracket, Sorrese would have to meet up with his training partner Gavin in the early rounds. With a fast, hard hit up top, Gavin gained control early in the match. Sorrese held on and tried to maneuver however Gavin kept constant pressure driving Sorrese to the pad.

Gavin would then face Kevin Nelson, another of his training partners, before the finals beating him up top to insure his spot in the top three. Nelson would then fall to Sorrese’s top-roll, putting Sorrese into what promised to be a war of a match with Safarian. Oddly enough, it was Safarian that blasted across the table with a top-roll beating Sorrese. Following the match, Safarian said he felt he had no choice but to go up top with Sorrese because he felt as though he could not bang him inside. Sorrese took a hard earned third place.

The rematch between Gavin and Safarian went much like their first meeting. Safarian was not quick enough hitting into a hook and once again the two competitors ended up in the straps. As in the first match, Gavin would roll Safarian to the pad in the straps and claim the super-heavyweight class. Following a long layoff from arm wrestling, Safarian said he felt a little rusty, but was anxious to get back into the sport. “I haven’t been training really but I’m going to start competing more,” said Safarian who placed third behind Mike Selearis and Ray Darling at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum earlier this year. “I am going to start competing more,” he added.

The win further solidified Gavin’s status as a reputable pro puller, putting him among the better new professionals in the 198lb class. “Since the Bronx tournament we have done some intense training,” said Malis, a pro in the 176lb class who trains Gavin and refereed the tournament Saturday. “We have been working mainly in the straps and it has worked out. As you can see today, it is a big advantage knowing how to pull in the straps. In the straps, whoever has the most power, wins? If he (Gavin) keeps doing this he might be better than coach soon and coach is going to have to start working harder.”

Though he fell to Gavin right handed, Safarian would, however, outshine all other competitors with his left arm as per the usual. With training partner Anthony Conigliaro from Flushing proving his mettle in the 200lb class right handed, many felt the Baysider would have stiff competition in the 176lb+ left handed class. Young phantom Arjun Nagpal, under the tutelage of Selearis as both a high school wrestler and arm wrestler, fought through the class with his textbook half hook to make it to the finals with Safarian and Conigliaro.

In the finals, Safarian would reassert himself as possibly the most promising young arm wrestler in the nation at his weight. After sending Conigliaro into the loser’s bracket with a decisive and convincing win in a hook, Safarian would rest until the outcome of the match between Conigliaro and Nagpal. Off the go, Nagpal tried to roll Conigliaro to the pad. Conigliaro stopped the roll but could not hold on as Nagpal stood tall on the table and pressed him to the pad. Conigliaro would have to settle for third place.

The final match pitted Nagpal with Safarian, and Safarian did not disappoint. On the go, Safarian hit with a burst of side pressure flashing Nagpal to the pad to claim the left handed open weight class and the 'Kingsboro' title.

Conigliaro did prove to be the best of the 200lb weight class though the class boasted only four competitors. With a win over Craig Young, newcomer Javier Vasquez of the Bronx positioned himself in the finals, giving him a shot at the 'Kingsboro' championship. But Vasquez would run smack into the fresh right arm of Nagpal who pounded him to the pad with a half-hook off the go. Vasquez placed third.

In the finals, Nagpal and Conigliaro would exhibit three of the best matches on the beach that day. After slipping up top in the first match, Conigliaro would gain a one-match advantage over Nagpal driving him to the pad with a tricep in the straps. Nagpal would even the score, however, getting a good hit off of the go and, with a hard wrist curl straight down, drove Conigliaro to the pad for a win in round two.

Both competitors left their hearts out on the table with one match remaining. Firing up top, they slipped grips and were set up in the straps. Nagpal looked to have the advantage, loading up perfectly, but after a dogfight of a strap match, both competitors elbow fouled simultaneously. Malis set the two competitors back up in the center of the table in a hook and Canigliaro would finally claim the title, driving Nagpal to the pad for the victory.

The women’s open weight class featured just three competitors, however L.I. City resident Erin Stellmon proved to be head and shoulders above all female competitors at the ' Kingsboro' Championships. With Stellmon disposing of Kim Emhoff with a hard post and roll, Emhoff knew what would await her in the finals following her pull with Vanessa Rosario of Brooklyn. Though Emhoff flashed Rosario, the Brooklyn native once again fell in convincing fashion to Stellmon who waited patiently for he next opponent in the women’s overall.

With seven competitors in the women’s lightweight class, Brooklyn natives Kathy Wilson and Eugenia Vagman would have to contend with Linda Sottle, a strong puller from East Meadow, NY. Using her superior wrist strength, Sottle employed a hard wrist curl on Vagman and punched straight to the pad for the win. In the finals, Sottle’s could not manage to control Wilson’s hand, and Wilson’s full-hand top-roll earned her the 'Kingsboro' title and a shot at Stellmon.

Stellmon won the overall with ease swallowing up Wilson’s hand and claiming women’s MVP honors. Stellmon said she first got involved in arm wrestling after talking with Selearis at the World Trade Center tournament in March of 2001. “I came out for the tournament last year and Mike asked me to give it a try,” said Stellmon, who adds her latest accolades to her second place showing at the Intrepid earlier this year. “Up until then I had only arm wrestled in bars an thought it would be a fun thing to do.”

The lightest class in weight was also the lightest class in competitors with only three pullers in the men’s competition. Drawing a bye in the first round, Brooklyn’s own Benni Thomas would await the winner of Justin Clifford of Edison, NJ and Dave Winters of Brooklyn. Clifford, 13, flashed Winters to the pad off the go but knew he would have to muster up all his strength to combat the more experienced Thomas. Thomas, sighting Clifford’s wrist as his weakness, half-hooked him to the pad twice to claim the featherweight class.

Perhaps the heaviest action came out of the lightweight class. Twelve competitors entered the 150lb class, which provided some of the most exciting pulling of the day. With up-and-comers such as Connecticut’s ambidextrous Ralph Petrazzuoli and Queens native George Lynch facing off with the likes of 59-year-old Bob Spieler of Brooklyn and Manhattan restaurateur Steve Zannikos.

The experience of Spieler and the strength of Zannikos proved to be the difference over the long haul. Endurance and focus being the key components of winning weight classes overloaded with competitors, some of the younger pullers would tire out as the day went on.

Petrazzuoli and Zannikos met in the winners bracket early on, with Zannikos earning the win after forcing Petrazzuoli into a hook. Spieler also seemed to rely on his drag hook winning battle after battle inside and earning a spot in the finals. George Lynch, of Elmhurst, Queens proved to be the most versatile of the young guns securing his place in the finals winning matches using a variety of styles.

Trying to use his youth and speed to combat the experience and endurance of Spieler, Lynch jumped into a shoulder roll off the go. Spieler, using his lat-muscles to pull Lynch out of his tuck, forced Lynch into a drag hook and secured the pin. Lynch took third.

The final match pitting Spieler against Zannikos looked to be a grudge match and the two competitors did not disappoint. With the crowd rooting them on, both men drove inside and fought long and hard in a drag hook. After opening Spieler up, Zannikos eventually wore him down and drove him to the pad for the title. “I am just a newcomer but I really want to get into this,” said Zannikos, whose only experience with arm wrestling has been pulling the cooks at his restaurant. “This is an exciting sport and I would love to learn more about it.”

The lightweight class in the left handed competition bore 11 competitors but it was the return of one puller that had most of the competitors abuzz. Angel Cosme of Manhattan came back to arm wrestling after a long layoff to dominate the class even though it was rich with competition.

Cosme and his nephew Anthony Gutierrez proved to be the cream of the crop going unchallenged into the finals, and Eric Safarian (younger brother of Edwin) would have to battle the hard hook of Petrazzuoli for the third spot.

With the young Safarian getting a hard hit off the go, Petrazzuoli could not manage to fight him into a drag, and Safarian would have to fight Gutierrez for a chance to meet Cosme.

Though Safarian once again got a quick hit to start the match, Gutierrez stopped him and drove him all the way back across the table in a hook for the win pitting teacher versus pupil in the final match. But the size, strength and experience of Cosme proved to be too much for Gutierrez as Cosme slowly dragged Gutierrez to the pad for the victory.

Following the tournament, Cosme spoke about his return to the table. “It felt good to be back,” Cosme said. “I came in confident today.”

Cosme said he looks forward to some hard fought matches in the future with Gutierrez. “He is getting very strong and is good left handed,” said Cosme of his nephew. “He just needs a little more time.”

Though Cosme would have likely been the winner of the middleweight competition right handed, he chose not to pull it because he has been experiencing chronic pain in his right shoulder. Grizzled veteran and hometown puller Harry Wilson, who has engaged in a number of wars with Cosme right handed looked to be the favorite going in, though he was pulling in a weight class with competitors who outweighed him by more than 20lbs.

With two hard fought victories over Julio Rosario, Wilson, a Brooklyn native, found himself in the finals with the younger Safarian and newcomer Eddy Criaris. Safarian, who had lost to Criaris earlier in the tournament, had a daunting task ahead of him having to peer across the table at Wilson.

With a quick burst of energy, Safarian flew into a shoulder roll, which Wilson barely stopped. Wilson hung on, however Safarian persevered fighting Wilson’s hook to the pad for the win. “He beat me fair and square,” said Wilson, 40, of Safarian. “I felt a little burnt out, practicing before the tournament, but that kid is good.”

Wilson, who took third, feels he still has a very good chance at the Empire State Finals, which incidentally will be held on October 10th at the Empire State Building Observatory. “I think I can win it, but it depends on who is there and who is pulling good that day.” Wilson, who has won the Empire State Championship in each of the past two years, was Arm wrestler of the Year in the NYAWA last year.

The final match showed that one of the favorites for the upcoming Empire State Finals has to be Criaris. With a fast shoulder-roll, Criaris flash pinned the younger Safarian and claimed the 'Kingsboro' Championship at 175lbs. Since Criaris, of Elmwood Park, NJ, can no longer pull the qualifiers at his weight, he says he would be confident pulling in a bigger weight class. “I feel like I can go up in weight and still win,” Criaris said.

Criaris would have to pull one more match however, challenging Gavin for MVP honors in the men’s overall. With a fast hit, Gavin top-rolled Criaris to the pad leaving the armwrestling world with only a chance to ponder what he will have in store for 198’s at the national level next year.