The arm regarded by many as the strongest in New York measures 39 inches from neck to wrist, with biceps the circumference of a football and skin spray-tanned to a similar leathery brown. Even in repose, its snaky veins swell to the surface, masked only by a tangle of tattoos. Six days a week, the arm spends two hours in the gym, sculpting itself to perfection. It can curl 100-pound dumbbells with ease. It requires specialized tailoring. It has saved lives.So the man attached to the arm, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound behemoth named Mike Ayello, was more than a little surprised one Saturday afternoon in August to see his prized limb pinned against the table of a Long Island sports bar in a matter of milliseconds.
Mr. Ayello works as a New York City firefighter for Ladder Company 135 in Glendale, Queens, but for seven years, he has moonlighted as a professional arm wrestler. The pursuit is no mere hobby: Arm wrestling has become big business. Capitalizing on AMC’s 2014 reality television show “Game of Arms,” the World Armwrestling League signed a broadcasting deal with ESPN. The popularity of the sport has been growing ever since, attracting a burst of fans and corporate sponsors. Many of the game’s top “pullers,” as arm wrestlers are called, now train with the urgency of Olympic athletes for tournaments that can net them tens of thousands of dollars in a single day. Still, for a great many competitors, the money is hardly the point.“There’s no feeling like taking a guy down with my arm,” Mr. Ayello, 39, said. “It rips their soul away. It emasculates them. I like doing that to people.” Even as arm wrestling’s financial stakes have risen, the sport’s central appeal remains the same: the chance to capture a moment of personal glory, no matter how fleeting.