Women's Arm Wrestling League Comes To Boston

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We all know Boston is a sports town. Now the Hub has a new league on its roster: women’s arm wrestling. It takes cues from professional wrestling and roller derby, but also drag shows and burlesque.

The league's name is saucy: the Boston Arm Wrestling Dames, or BAWD. I went to a recent competition — the second since the league formed a few months ago — to find out more.

A group of strong, first-time arm wrestlers filtered into Radio, a bar in Somerville. Maggie Moore, one of BAWD's founders, checked names off a list and told the newbies what they were in for.

"You're going to enter, your theme song is going to play, you're going to dance your way up to the stage. You can weave in and out. We want this to take a little while because this is your moment. This is the prep, the preview, you're getting riled up," Moore explained.

Each wrestler has a theme song, a costume, an entourage and a fleshed out persona. They've come up with clever names like Girtha Kitten, Clara Bow-Flex, Arm-meanie Ann (she's of Armenian decent) and Small But Mighty.

"My character is supposed to resemble Mighty Mouse, my favorite childhood superhero," Small But Mighty explains. The theme song from Mighty Mouse's classic cartoon show is now hers.

"I’m Small But Mighty because I was on the crew team at Simmons College. My coach gave me this nickname, because I was the smallest girl on the team but I refused to be the coxswain."

The Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers is a national nonprofit with 18 leagues all raising money for local organizations that help women.

The 28-year-old graduate student’s real name is Jeannine Foley. Her adorable costume is inspired by her tiny hero’s.

"From the bottom up, black boots, yellow spandex, red briefs over my spandex," Foley describes. "I’m also wearing a yellow tank top and a red cape. And maybe I’ll get my hair done with ears, so I look like Mighty Mouse!"

While Small But Mighty's demeanor is clearly playful, I detect an undercurrent of seriousness, too. There's a lot of wink-wink, tongue-and-cheek style humor in the room.

"Somebody did ask me if it’s a real competition," Maggie Moore says. "And it is. It is more 'sporty' than sport, but they are up there wrestling — and you can’t help but feel competitive when you’re pitted against somebody, because who doesn’t want to win, you know?"

Moore's name for the night is the Wrestler Wrangler. She designed the eight-person bracket, and says she put a lot of thought into the lineup.

"It's a question of who do I think would make a good match — and I could be completely off base — so it'll be fun for me to see," Moore says.

Small But Mighty admits to having a serious competitive streak. She’s proud of the pushups and bicep curls she’s done to prepare for this night.

"I'm going against Daisy Dukes first," Small But Mighty tells me as she's getting her makeup on in the dressing room.

Almost on cue, Daisy Dukes sits down right next to Small But Mighty. Of course she's wearing super short shorts, like the bombshell on the "Dukes of Hazard."

The rivals size each other up as volunteer stylists primp their hair. Small But Mighty asks Daisy Dukes about her training.

"I do a program called CrossFit," Daisy Dukes says, laughing.

"Oh crap! You do CrossFit? I’m gonna lose," Small But Mighty replies, slumping in her chair.

Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell, a.k.a. CVille Knievel created CLAW, the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell, a.k.a. CVille Knievel created CLAW, the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Beneath the dryer, Small But Mighty looks worried. "Ugh, my stomach hurts now. I don’t want to lose."

But losing or winning isn’t really the point here because the arm wrestling competition is a fundraiser.

"Some people come to the event expecting it to be like a pillow fight," says Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell, a.k.a. C-vil Kineval. She created CLAW, the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers. "They’re like the Hugh Hefners of the world, they’re like, 'Oh, let’s see what this is!' "

CLAW has grown into a national nonprofit with 18 women's arm wrestling leagues in cities like Washington D.C., Los Angeles and now Boston. They all raise money for local organizations that help women. On this night, Web of Benefit, a group that supports survivors of abuse, gets the boost.

Tidwell travelled here from Charlottesville. That's where this silly, naughty fundraising concept was born. It started as a joke, Tidwell says, between her and a friend. It was an "I'll arm wrestle you for it" moment that eventually evolved into theatrical competitions with a purpose.

Tidwell travels around the country to help new leagues form. She's here acting as a "celebrity judge" and safety coach. Before the evening's festivities begin, she climbs on stage with the new wrestlers for a demonstration.

“This is a bad position," she says. "Can you see the torque on the upper arm here."

Tidwell says at first a lot of the arm wrestlers approach the event like it's Halloween.

"But what I’ve seen happen is that if they really had a good time they deepen it, and continue doing it, and realize that that character usually is an expression of something either small in themselves that they want to expand on," Tidwell says, "Or something that pisses them off about the way women are perceived."

The anticipation in the room grows as the wrestlers and audience wait for the show to begin. Entourages walk around the room with buckets. Their job is to take bets and essentially coax as much money as possible from the spectators. The Bawdy Dames, a group wearing white hard hats, sells tickets. There's also a bake sale.

Small But Mighty took this round against Daisy Dukes but lost her next against Airy Skate Olsen. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Small But Mighty took this round against Daisy Dukes but lost her next against Airy Skate Olsen. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Then it’s show time, and Small But Mighty emerges from the shadows. Her theme song blares.

Daisy Dukes joins her on stage. The opponents sit down at a specially designed table that has elbow pads and handles. A referee hovers inches away. Their eyes and hands lock, teeth clench, biceps pop. The crowd goes ballistic.

Judge Tidwell lords over the wrestlers' every move. If things get too serious she interrupts and forces them to compete in something bizarre and entertaining, like a dance or yodeling contest. This silliness continues through the night.

In the end Small But Mighty took the first round against Daisy Dukes, but lost her next to Airy Skate Olsen. The ultimate winner — Girtha Kitten — went home with a paper crown and BAWD raised $2,400 for charity.

The first national women’s arm wrestling championship is on June 16 in Charlottesville, Va.

This program aired on June 7, 2012.

Headshot of Andrea Shea

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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