On a mid-April night in 2009 at the tiny, now-defunct Black Swan Pub in Tivoli, things started out status quo: Bard College students tossing darts, sipping beers and stiff drinks, laughing and hula-hooping in the early spring warmth on the back patio.
But soon, a brawl broke out. But it’s not what you may think. That April night marked the debut of the Hudson Valley Broads Regional Arm Wrestling League (BRAWL), a group of women who duke it out to raise money for charitable organizations that benefit women and girls. It’s part athletic competition and part theater; the hijinks and trash talking are hilarious, the wrestling is very much real, and the results are highly tangible, with thousands of dollars raised for local charities.
I came to BRAWL that night on the recommendation of my colleague, Julie, who was hosting the event under the moniker Lady Thumb Prince, a loquacious, spiky-haired pro thumb wrestler banned from the World Thumb Wrestling Federation for inappropriate conduct. A panel of “celebrity judges” with names like Magenta Delecta were on hand to make sure the rules were being followed – that elbows remained on the table, “break-arm” positions were being avoided, and butts stay planted in chairs at all times. There was even a referee in a black-and-white striped shirt, dramatically counting to three and blowing his whistle to commence each round, calling fouls throughout the night.
After Lady Thumb Prince started introducing the wrestlers – who each came in full costume, complete with detailed back stories and zanily dressed entourages to work the crowd and collect “bets” (which were not actually “bets” at all, but donations for Family of Woodstock) – I was immediately spellbound. Characters like Queen Victorious, Nurse Hatchett, and my personal favorite, Jackie O’Nasty (dressed in her stately Jackie Onassis-inspired pink pillbox hat and matching dress) exchanged insults and dirty looks before sitting at the professional-grade arm wrestling table to square off. Some matches ended quickly, dominated by one wrestler’s wicked power. Others went on longer, with the ladies locked in intense battles of strength for several minutes. Brows were furrowed and beaded with sweat, teeth were clenched, and wails of both triumph and failure rang out across the bar.
The crowd went wild, cheering the wrestlers, chanting in support of their favorites, and tossing dollar bills for a great cause.
More than $600 was raised for Family of Woodstock that night. Two more Black Swan BRAWLs followed in the ensuing months, before the organization graduated to larger venues and even larger dollar amounts raised for charity. Two “Super BRAWL” championships have even been held since then. And I’ve remained hooked since that first event. Finally, women were being celebrated for their strength and personalities, not for their looks, I thought. These women aren’t professional wrestlers — they’re moms, wives, regular women, just like you and me. BRAWL isn’t about winning — it’s about empowerment, having fun, and putting on a show for a good cause.
And that’s part of what inspired me to become an arm wrestler myself. What kind of character would I be? I didn’t look the part. I was petite, but I had a mouth on me, and lot of heart, sort of like a female version of Rocky Balboa. And thus, Roxy Balboa was born.
My husband was happy to join my entourage, playing the role of Paulie, and I even enlisted my very own Adrian, which made for some pretty funny stage antics. The BRAWLers who inspired me six years ago not only showed me a fun new way to spend an evening in the Valley, they also helped me discover another side of myself; Roxy was somewhere deep inside me all along. And I have BRAWL to thank for bringing her out of me.