And then there was one…
Borough champs 'strike back' at the Empire States

At a glance: In 2002, armwrestling in New York reached its crescendo Oct. 10, atop the city's tallest building.

By JAMES RETARIDES

From each corner of the city and the surrounding region the best amateur armwrestlers convened at the pinnacle of the Empire State Building for a showdown that would pit borough champs against one another until there was one remaining survivor.
Throughout the year, pullers such as Greg Gavin, Dan Sorrese, Edwin Safarian, Richard Calero, Dan White and Eric Russell left it all out on the table, with one common goal: to be crowned the champion of their respective weight classes at the Empire State Finals.
Fitting on a rainy afternoon that a man nicknamed "Blue Thunder" would emerge atop the Manhattan skyline.
Dan "Blue Thunder" White, the Staten Island resident who has overcome a hearing impediment to solidify his spot among the best 150lb pullers in the city, came out thundering in the early rounds. White ran into veteran puller James Rought of Laceyville, PA as the last two competitors to survive in the winners' bracket. Both competitors decided to go inside in efforts to establish who had the more powerful hook. With White gaining an early advantage, Rought could only hold on for the ride as White dragged him to the pad for the win.
Meanwhile, Manhattan restaurateur Steve Zannikos was employing his drag-hook fighting off the young and powerful Shaun Velazquez as well as Blagomir Uramov of Astoria, NY.
In the finals, it was evident that Zannikos and Rought would hit into a hook off of the go, what was not apparent was which of the pullers had more inside power. At least not right away.
But after pounding away inside in the middle of the table, Rought began to wear Zannikos down and eventually pumped him to the pad for the win. But awaiting Rought at the top was 'Blue Thunder,' and it went boom!
Though Rought looked to get a fairly explosive hit off the go, White caught the lightweight, stopping him in his tracks, and then came across with the wrecking ball, earning him the 150lb title.
Following the tournament, White spoke briefly about his disability and how he is determined to look past it continuing to compete at a high level in the sport of armwrestling.
"I think I am the first deaf person to armwrestle competitively," White said. "I grew up loving armwrestling and I still love it; I just hope my arm will still be good ahead. I just want to thank Dan Fortuna and the team from Bayside for having patience with me and helping me."
With a classy demeanor and a tireless work ethic, White will undoubtedly become a force in the lightweight pro class in near the future.
The featherweight class had no decisive favorites as it looked like a toss-up between Gabriel Yak of Flushing, NY and Team Connecticut pullers Chris Sciarappa and Floyd Ryder.
The promising 14-year-old New York puller, Justin Clifford rounded out the class, which boasted only four competitors.
In round one, Floyd Ryder controlled Clifford's hand from the start and rolled him to the pad for the win. Following Ryder's victory, Sciarappa and Yak squared off for the first time.
With a slip underneath by Sciarappa, the two pullers locked up in the straps. Sciarappa gave hard post pressure, however Yak was able to force Sciarappa into a hook. After a brief battle, Yak drove Sciarappa to the pad.
Sciarappa would find himself in the finals though, hitting Clifford straight across to earn a shot at the title.
In the winners' bracket match, Ryder ended up forcing Yak up top, but lost his hand and injured himself in the process as Yak drove him to the pad for the win.
Ryder had to pull out of contention due to the injury and took third place by default. Sciarrappa went on to face Yak again, this time for the featherweight title.
In the rematch, both competitors hit inside. Sciarappa fought long and hard but was unable to keep his tuck and get his shoulder behind the pull. Gradually Yak worked into a resting spot and fell on it for the pin and 132lb title.
A heavily favored Tony Kaiser of Plainville, CT went into the 175-pound-weight class seemingly head and shoulders above the rest. But someone must have neglected to inform Patrick Baffa of that.
Baffa, the 150lb native of Whitestone, NY jumped up a weight class to prove his mettle, putting his devastating hook upon the table to rival the lightning fast top-roll of Kaiser.
Round two saw both Baffa and Kaiser on the table for what would be the first clash of unstoppable force (Kaiser's roll) and immovable object (Baffa's hook). Off the go, Kaiser hit Baffa nearly to the pad, lifting Baffa's elbow off the table in the process. Though Baffa managed to suck Kaiser into a hook and drive him across the table for the pin, the match was restarted due to the earlier elbow foul.
Once again Kaiser hit up top, but his failure to indicate to the referee that he wanted their hands brought around prior to the go, allowed Baffa to crank Kaiser inside and get his shoulder behind it. Kaiser could barely manage to slow Baffa down in a hook and Baffa went forth in the winners bracket.
Baffa would go on to face Richard Calero of the Bronx in his next match. Calero, who placed second behind Kristian Gelenscer at the finals last year, looked to be the only formidable hook-puller that could give Baffa a run for his money inside. But outside was a different matter altogether. Off the go, Baffa posted hard and Calero lost his wrist trying to drive in. Baffa kept the pull outside and hit Calero straight across to the pad for the win. The win undoubtedly established Baffa as the man to beat in the finals.
To reunite with Baffa in the finals, Kaiser would have to face Calero in a rematch of their meeting earlier in the year at the Bronxboro Championship. The rematch went much like their first meeting at Orchard Beach. Kaiser smoked Calero up top for the win, eliminating him from contention in the middleweight class.
Surviving his way into the finals with Baffa and Kaiser was Harry Wilson, the Brooklyn resident and veteran 150lb puller, who was forced into the 175lb-middleweight-class after winning the lightweight class last year.
Wilson's hand and wrist proved to be no match for Kaiser. Kaiser, a native of Louisiana is nicknamed 'Louisiana Lightning' and the 'Ragin Cajun' for his speed and intensity on the armwrestling table. Before Wilson could drive inside he was already at the pin pad, but he escaped with a hard earned third place.
The championship match between Kaiser and Baffa was a carbon copy of their meeting earlier in the tournament. Once again, Baffa corralled Kaiser's hit and, with his superior wrist strength, pulled Kaiser into a hook and drove him across for the win and the Empire State Championship.
When asked how he managed to get Kaiser inside, Baffa himself seemed, well, baffled.
"I just did it," said Baffa with a slightly mystified tone. "Sometimes I don't know how I do things, I guess I just have certain strengths that come out at times."
Kaiser moved forward undaunted as he looked to be the man to beat early on in the left handed lightweight class. In his way, once again would be Wilson and Calero, last year's third place finisher.
Calero got a gift early on from referees Frank Malis and Bobby Buttafuco as he was awarded a victory over Baffa by parallel pin. Both competitors were at a stalemate in the center of a table in a hook when the two competitors' hands suddenly moved downward below the pin pads. Buttafuco awarded the match to Calero though Baffa's hand looked from one angle to be on top of the pull. Nonetheless, Calero was given the victory and was propelled into the winners' bracket. That match would later prove to be a turning point in the left-handed-175lb class.
Baffa was eliminated after he ran into White in the loser's bracket and lost a war of a hook match.
Calero ventured on in the winner's bracket to face Kaiser in what would be the first of three meetings between the two pullers in the left-handed class. Calero drove Kaiser into a hook and shoulder-rolled him to the pad to solidify his spot in the finals.
To determine who would have the last remaining spot in the winner's bracket, Calero ran back into his friend and training partner Wilson. It was fitting that these two pullers who have been beating each other in wars of attrition all year would once again lock up into a long hook match. Calero managed to gradually open Wilson up dragging him closer and closer to the pad, but Wilson kept hanging on. Finally, one last thrust brought Wilson below the pad and gave Calero the victory.
Kaiser rolled his way back into the finals and Wilson managed to stave off a late charge by White, as he fell into a post, stood up tall and pushed behind the pull in a tricep for the win and a shot at Kaiser left handed.
Unlike their right handed match, Wilson caught Kaiser's hit left handed but could not manage to hold on as Kaiser drove him to the pad for the win.
The rematch between Kaiser and Calero played out in strange fashion. Kaiser, who typically wins with his speed, got a terrible hit off of the 'go,' but posted hard enough to flop Calero's wrist. Kaiser drove outside, and pulled Calero all the way across the table for the win.
Kaiser admitted he was too slow during the match he managed to beat Calero, but said the pull was flawless otherwise.
"I pulled it (the match) right," said Kaiser, who will likely be moving down to Georgia later this fall. "I got a weird jump but after that it was the perfect pull."
Match three saw Calero net an early foul, when he turned into a hook prior to the go. On the restart, Calero was able to force Kaiser inside and drove into a shoulder roll for the pin and the Empire State Championship.
"Coming in I was really nervous and had butterflies in my stomach," said Calero, who works as a personal trainer. "I didn't know if I should throw up or pray. After that first loss left handed, I knew I had to get in there fast, which is why I drew that false start. I am just glad I was able to get inside on the restart," Calero added.
Kaiser, who going in was considered a favorite in the two weight classes he pulled, congratulated Calero after the match. Kaiser ended up going home with second place honors both right and left handed.
But where Kaiser seemed to be going Sean Ringgold had already been, as Ringgold staved off Edwin Safarian to win the open left and right-handed weight classes at the Queensboro Championship in July.
To win another coveted Arm Star Award would mean Ringgold's reputation as the 'Rockaway Flash' would have to stand in face of the biggest and best amateur armwrestlers in the area.
In the super-heavyweight class, Ringgold had perhaps his toughest draw in the first round. Despite a nagging shoulder injury, Dan Fortuna of Wading River, NY was the most veteran puller of the whole bunch. Rising in the professional ranks in the 242lb weight class, Fortuna also serves as a referee for the New York Arm-Wrestling Association.
Prior to the go, Ringgold told Buttafuco, a 14-time King of Arms in New York, that he did not feel comfortable. With a low grip on Fortuna, apparently in efforts to hem in Fortuna's top-roll, Ringgold looked to be vulnerable in a post.
Fortuna's high grip and strong back load looked to be too imposing for Ringgold, but just prior to the 'go,' Ringgold re-gripped and got way above Fortuna's thumb knuckle. Fortuna caught Ringgold's hit and fell back into a post with his elbow at the rear of the pad. With Ringgold having total hand control, Fortuna had no choice but to slip.
In the straps, after Fortuna managed to keep Ringgold at bay with his backpressure for a moment, Ringgold cranked with his wrist until he finally was able to turn Fortuna inside and drive him to the pad for the win.
Meanwhile, strongman Eric Russell of Wappinger Falls, NY drew Shawn Freeman, last year's second place finisher, in the first round.
Russell, a dedicated puller, who drives nearly two hours to Connecticut to train each Sunday looked to be one of the favorites. Another Arm Star Award winner, Russell's side pressure and hook have gotten increasingly powerful since he dominated at the Bronxboro Championship in June.
But it was Freeman who would get the better hit in this match-up. Russell was opened up right from the start, but managed to catch Freeman in a hook. After holding on for some time, Russell looked to be tiring. Freeman finally stood up and pushed Russell's hand to the pad in a tricep to secure the victory and send Russell into the loser's bracket early on.
Meanwhile, Krysztof Perka of Ridgewood, NY drew the budding Kevin Nelson in round one.
Nelson's superior top pressure looked to be too much for Perka as he hit hard peeling open Perka's hand and wrist. But Perka managed to slip underneath in a tricep and both competitors were put in the strap.
After a peg foul on Nelson, the restart saw Perka driving into a hook and dragging Nelson to the pad for the upset, and a chance to move on in the winners' bracket.
Russell managed to climb his way all the way up the losers' bracket to face Perka, who had been the surprise of the day after eliminating Dan Fortuna in the straps in the round before the finals.
Perka's hook would garner him victory after victory prior to his match in the finals with Russell. But Russell's inside pressure proved too daunting as he drove into Perka's wrist and then rolled him to the pad for the win.
With one loss, and an undefeated Ringgold at the table for the final match, Russell knew a a very tall task lay ahead.
Russell grabbed Ringgold high and drove with his superior side pressure, but Ringgold managed to suck Russell in, re-grip and get hand control, and drive Russell straight across the table for the victory and a shot at winning his second Arm Star Award of the year.
To complete the task, Ringgold would have to go through the phenomenal Baysider Edwin Safarian in the left-handed supers.
In the first round of the left-handed super-heavyweight class Ringgold drew Russell and took advantage of Russell's extremely low grip driving him hard to the pad in convincing fashion.
Safarian had Nelson in his path to round two. The two competitors slipped grips up top going into the strap. With one of the best left-handed hooks in the country, Safarian earned an easy victory sucking Nelson inside and securing the pin.
The crowd assembled at the front of the stage to see Ringgold and Safarian tangle in what looked like it would be a runaway win for Safarian. Safarian's hit up top drove, not only Ringgold's hand, but his entire arm to the pad and Ringgold was called for an elbow foul. But on the restart Ringgold was able to get hand control and took Safarians wrist. Safarian's arm would follow.
Though Ringgold and Safarian looked like they had a walk to the finals in the left-handed super-heavyweight class, Fortuna had other plans. As Safarian eliminated Arjun Nagpal and Perka, Fortuna and Ringgold locked up for what would be a second back-and-forth battle that went much like their pull right-handed.
Again, it looked as though Fortuna had too much backpressure for Ringgold. Off the go, both pullers exploded up top slipping grips and forcing them to go into the straps. Fortuna could not counteract Ringgold's superior side-pressure in the straps and Ringgold slowly drove him to the pad, putting himself in the finals without a loss.
Safarian and Nelson hooked up one last time to determine which puller would join Fortuna and Ringgold in the finals. This time, Nelson flopped Safarian's wrist, and Safarian looked to slip in a losing position. The referees, however, called for the strap and decided to let the two pullers fight to earn their spot on the medal stand.
In the strap, Safarian once again emerged victorious, turning Nelson into a hook and falling to the pad inside for the win, setting up what would be the match of the day in the finals.
Safarian and Fortuna exchanged grins and handshakes prior to locking up, knowing as friendly competitors they would be giving it their all in a few moments.
"Ready…. go!" Both men hit simultaneously up top trying to gain finger control and slipping in the process. In the straps, Fortuna gained and early advantage, hitting Safarian nearly to the pad and pealing his wrist like a sardine can. But Safarian showed poise on the table, breathing and holding on, supporting the pull with his bicep while turned toward the pin pad. Gradually, Fortuna just ran out of gas, and Safarian was able to curl Fortuna's wrist in. Fortuna wore out, but also wore a third place medal following the tournament.
Afterwards, Fortuna seemed more concerned with his right arm than his left however, incurring a possible rotator cuff injury.
"I am going to get it checked out tomorrow; this has been going on too long," Fortuna said. "I am 99 percent sure that it is something serious." Fortuna indicated that he had had trouble sleeping because of the injury.
Meanwhile Safarian and Ringgold had some unfinished business. Wanting to take the left-handed class, Safarian once again saw the overwhelming task of defeating Ringgold twice ahead of him. From the start, however, Ringgold proved to be much too strong, taking Safarian's hand and taking the title as well as the Arm Star Award.
Having to climb up the losers' bracket turned out to be the death nail in Safarian's title hopes.
"I didn't have anything left," said Safarian of his final match with Ringgold. "I had a tremendous amount of power in my first few matches but eventually I just wear down."
When asked how he would have approached the match with Ringgold if he had another shot, Safarian said he would have tried to hook him.
Safarian looked to be a favorite in the right-handed heavyweight class as well. The 200lb weight class looked to be the toughest of all with 2002 Armwrestler of the Year Greg Gavin and his training partner Dan Sorrese as well as veteran pullers Steve Mousseri and Jeff Geremia.
Geremia, who had taken a hiatus for several months prior to the tournament, drew Safarian in the first round in a rematch of the war these two pullers had in Queens back in July of 2001.
Geremia's layoff and Safarian's hard work were evident in the match, as Safarian chopped him straight to the pad.
In the following round, Safarian drew Gavin of West Islip, NY. Gavin made more progress this year than any other puller in the area perhaps, and his work earned him the distinction of NYAWA Armwrestler of the Year.
Gavin exploited Safarian's wrist from the start, however Safarian managed to slip underneath forcing the two competitors into the straps. Unlike a previous meeting between the two where Gavin flopped Safarian's wrist in the strap, this time Safarian was able to get his wrist cocked and hit hard, straight across for the pin.
But where Gavin came up short, his training partner picked up the slack. Safarian and Sorrese slipped up top and once again Safarian found himself in a strap match. This time, Sorrese gained hand control, taking advantage of the loose strap and rolled Safarian over for the win.
Sorrese earned himself some much needed rest as he watched Gavin and Safarian fight for the right to challenge him for the heavyweight title. Again, Gavin hit Safarian nearly to the pad, however Safarian fought into a tricep and slipped. In the strap, Safarian was able to force Gavin into a hook and dragged him to the pad for the win. Gavin took third.
Safarian's series of strap matches was not quite over as he and Sorrese slipped again in the championship match. Sorrese's superior strap pulling technique would prove to be the difference as he popped Safarian over again and held on for the pin and the title.
But Sorrese's work was not over. One man still stood in his way in the overall match, Ringgold. And though Sorrese flopped Ringgold over off the go, Ringgold's persistent side pressure enabled him to regain his wrist and drive Sorrese to the pad for the overall championship.
In response to his heavyweight championship, Sorrese says next year he will be trying his hand in the pro class at the Big Apple Grapple.
"Hopefully you'll see me this March in the 200lb pro class; I am going to give that a try," Sorrese said. "I have to give a shout out to my coach Frank (Malis)," Sorrese added in thanks to the efforts of his trainer.
"Sorrese was unbelievable, fantastic today," said Malis of the up and comer. "He was very powerful and aggressive today. I thought he would take the MVP, but Ringgold was just too strong."
With Amanda Fortuna and her mother Dina Fortuna competing in the women's classes, it was evident early on that one of the two pullers would have a hand in how the women's MVP would be decided.
Amanda fought off Melanie Oualles of the Bronx in the strap to earn a title shot at Christine Scheurich.
Fortuna got a good hit off on Scheurich, but Scheurich managed to turn Fortuna inside and drive her to the pad for the lightweight women's title.
Dina Fortuna who fought off Carrie Wilson for the women's open title sought revenge in the women's overall. With superior post pressure, Wilson rolled Scheurich hard to the pad for the win and the overall title.
"(Christine) gained hand position on me," said Amanda Fortuna following the tournament. "But my mom, she's awesome, she avenged my loss."
"That's what moms are for," added Safarian who just happened to be listening in.

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