Arm-to-arm combat


The Mirror

Long days on the family farm in the Tri-Cities area digging ditches and bucking hay bails taught Steve Phipps that hard work pays off. It also developed the 48-year-old Brown’s Point resident into one of the best arm wrestlers in the world.

“I started when I was 13,” Phipps said. “It was kind of self preservation.”

Phipps’ long and storied 30-plus-year arm wrestling career can basically be tracked back to a 110-degree Eastern Washington summer day in 1969.

“My dad had me out digging ditches and I got heat stroke and had to come into the house,” he said. “I was talking to my dad and I told him that this wasn’t very fair. He had hired men doing work in an air-conditioned tractor cab and he had his own son digging ditches.”

That’s when the elder Phipps gave his son one of those nice little life lessons.

“He said if I wanted a new job, I had to beat him at arm wrestling,” Phipps said. “That’s when I started training to be an arm wrestler to get out of work.”

After three years of training, which included buying a weight set that yielded countless hours of biceps curls, Phipps was finally able to beat his father at the age of 16.

“Then he tells me that as long as I was eating at his table, I still had to do what he said. So he told me to get back out there and keep digging ditches,” Phipps said. “But it taught me a lot about goal setting.”

Since then, Phipps has put together one of the most impressive arm wrestling resumés in the world. The 275-pounder has won 40 national championships and 17 world titles during his career. The first coming in 1982.

“It’s been a pretty good sport for me,” he said.

Phipps left this morning for South Africa where he will be competing in the 26th World Arm Wrestling Championship in Durban. Phipps will be the lone representative from Washington and qualified by winning the United States national championship both left- and right-handed in the heavyweight master’s division (40-50 years old) in June. In South Africa, Phipps will be competing in the left- and right-handed master’s division and the left-handed open division (all ages).

“I would like to win another one,” Phipps said, who is taking his wife and three daughters. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. We are going to do a safari and everything. It’s something we’ll remember forever.”

Following his graduation from college, Phipps has travelled around the world to about eight or nine tournaments a year. Being a former athlete — football, track and wrestling — Phipps started to miss the competition they provided.

“I had a job and a little bit of disposable income,” he said. “So I started going to tournaments and beating guys.”

During the early part of his competitive arm wrestling career, the sport was known as more of a bar room, tough-guy thing. Most of the better wrestlers worked in the construction trades, which require physical strength.

Things changed in the mid-1980s.

That’s when the sport got one of its biggest boons with the 1987 release of the Sylvester Stallone movie “Over the Top.” In the movie, Stallone, a big-rig trucker, uses arm wrestling to rebuild his shattered life. Phipps even had a few cameo shots during the arm-wrestling tournament scenes.

“It was a pretty entertaining movie,” Phipps said. “It was kind of a shot in the arm for the sport and gave us some great exposure. But Hollywood tries to accentuate certain aspects. The movie made arm wrestling look like WWF wrestling.”

But the movie did got a whole new genre of men interested in the sport. New athletes that treated arm wrestling more like a sport than proving who’s the strongest guy around.

“We are kind of out of the bar room now,” Phipps said. “There are some great athletes out there. I weigh about 275 pounds and am a pretty small heavyweight. There are guys who are 6-foot-5, 350 pounds with 3 or 4 percent body fat.”

Phipps spends four days a week in the weight room working on his upper body strength and squeezes a spring-loaded gripper when he’s driving around in his car as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company.

“It’s a pretty rigorous schedule,” he said. “You have to be consistent and dedicated.”

Phipps’ dedication to arm wrestling was tested in 1996 when a broken right arm sidetracked his career for three years.

“It was a freak kind of thing,” Phipps said. “They had to basically put my arm back together. It sounded like a 2-by-4 snapping when it broke. I told my wife after it happened that I was never going to arm wrestle again.”

But he couldn’t stay away. After countless hours of rehab, and a pair of surgeries, the arm is now almost as strong as it was before the break, he said.

One benefit to breaking his right arm was the development of Phipps’ left-arm strength. He is a little different from most competitive arm wrestlers, who tend to focus on one arm. Both his arms are basically equally strong.

“I’m pretty much ambidextrous,” he said. “There are not too many guys who pull double-duty.

“I think that comes from all the work I did on the farm.”

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565,

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