As a sports fan I tend to be drawn to new, obscure and emerging sports like a rather gray-haired moth to the glow of the TV.
So it wasn’t a surprise for me that one day channel surfing brought me to the World Armwrestling League. It took one show to be hooked, and the hook set ever more deeply as I learned a number of Canadians excel at the sport; Devon Larratt leading the Canuck contingent that also includes the likes of Nancy Locke, Ian Carnegie, Matt Mask, and hailing from Manitoba Ryan Espey.
Thanks to some social media searching I was able to catch up to Espey who was good enough to spend some time on the phone talking armwrestling and WAL.
Most days Espey is a mild-mannered realtor, and 10-year Councillor in Portage la Prairie.
But, many weekends find him traveling to armwrestling events around the world.
“Way back in 1997 there was a local bar all of a sudden holding armwrestling tournaments,” recalled Espey, events being shown on Access Cable locally.
“Week three buddies talking me into competing and I won right-hand,” said Espey, adding that meant taking home some bar swag as winner.
In week five he was back for the finals winning both right and left hand. He was hooked. A friend “showed me a few things” and he was on his way to the National Championships in Kelowna.
“I was super confident,” he recalled, adding that did not translate into success. “Both arms, I didn’t win a single match.”
But, Espey stuck with it, finally winning his first sanctioned tournament in 1998, in Yorkton.
“It (Yorkton) used to be a regular stop,” he recalled.
That win was the first of many.
Espey’s first world title came in 2003. In 2018 he won his third, a gold medal in the masters division with his left arm, also taking bronze with his right.
Now Espey also competes with WAL, and organization still in its infancy, emerging around 2013.
“It emerged as a tournament style of event,” he said, adding it has evolved toward ‘supermatch’ events where they can pit the best names against one another and know they will be at the bench for the fans, where in straight tournaments upsets can leave name stars in the dressing room and unknowns in big matches.
“They’ve taken it and made it spectator friendly ... They’re promoting the stars of the sport,” said Espey.
Of course they want the stars to be stars, with many of the top competitors seeming larger than life, Larratt being an example.
“They encourage you to be the biggest you can be,” said, adding in Larratt you have a guy that “has kind of played that villain role of late and he seems to like it.”
Espey said he can be a guy that yells and pounds the table, but it happens out of the action on a given day, rather than a routine for the cameras.
But, Espey appreciates big personalities, one that stirs the pot, get the YouTube followers and become the draws that build interest in matches and by association the sport as a whole.
Espey said he believes the sport, and WAL can carve out a bigger niche in North America, adding in Europe it is already held in higher esteem. He added the Professional Armwrestling League Top-8 event had a top prize of $50,000.
“I think the sky in the limit,” said Espey, adding it was not long ago television ignored the sport, now there is interest in the national championship in Canada.
“It’s a possibility,” he said.
As for Espey and his career, he said the world titles are of course memorable, especially the one in 2003 when he was a huge underdog to win, but he added he feels the best may still be ahead. “I always think maybe I haven’t had it (my biggest moment) yet.”
** This is part of a series of columns featuring interviews with athletes from favoured sports, leagues and teams of the author.
Earlier columns are: