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A HE-MAN'S SPORT TURNED NICOLE CISCO'S LIFE AROUND. NOW SHE WANTS OTHER WOMEN TO STEP UP TO THE TABLE

Here she comes. Blond bangs, bleached and teased, just so. Nails and lips lacquered candy-apple red. Bright pink T-shirt. One of the most fearsome talents in professional arm wrestling, and she's always dressed like a lady. Oh, and don't forget her silver hoop earrings. She never does.

"I never pull without my hoops," she says with a playful Southern drawl.

These embellishments are not by accident. Nicole Cisco, an inexhaustible 32-year-old single mother of two living in a modest ranch home outside Augusta, is a reigning world champ (World Armsport Federation, 147 to 183 pounds). She has a statement to make, with her pink clothes and big hoops and bright lipstick: "I want to show the girls that you don't need to be some butch-ass biker chick to arm wrestle. You can be a lady, on or off the table."

If Cisco sounds like she's on a mission, believe it. She wants to make women's arm wrestling popular (again) because, when you get down to it, the sport saved her from herself.

IT'S A Friday morning in mid-June, and Cisco is in Las Vegas for Ultimate Arms, maybe the summer's most competitive tournament. She's standing outside a chilly conference room in a downtown casino, a few floors above the ringing pulls of penny slots and ads for $5.95 prime rib specials. On a stage near the front of the room, six waist-high tables stand in a row. Each is equipped with two arm pegs and a video camera, so the TV folks can capture every grunt, wince, squeeze, grimace, eyebrow twitch, vein bulge and nostril-flared howl in the seconds after the wrestlers take their positions and the referee, decked in black-and-white jail stripes, yells, "Ready, go!"

The tournament will go all day, from noon to 9, double elimination, with 300 wrestlers (13 of them women) tugging arms for $22,000 in total prize money ($600 for first place; $300 for second; $100 for third). The men will wrestle with left and

right hands in four weight classes, from under 165 pounds to above 243; women will wrestle right-handed only in two divisions, above and below 144 pounds.

Admission is $15, and the small crowd is made up mostly of families, daddies in cut-off jean shorts nursing cups of cheap beer and mommies in jean jackets feeding hot dogs to kids. Cisco watches, nervously. This is her first time in Vegas, and she's been chain-smoking menthol cigarettes since she arrived. She paces with her head down, as if she's looking into the industrial carpet's fibers for loose change or inspiration. "If you ain't nervous you ain't ready," she says, pacing and puffing. "Right?"

Cisco's most dangerous foes are here: former champions such as Cynthia Yerby from Wolf, Okla., and Joyce King from New Brunswick, Canada, women she's never wrestled before. Cisco won two divisions at August's nationals to qualify for one of arm wrestling's world championships, which will be held Oct. 29-30 in Reno. But if she wants to win another world title- and if she can line up a babysitter and borrow enough vacation days and money to get there-a decent showing at Ultimate Arms is important. Cisco needs the confidence; the experience, too.

The matches today make for easy storylines: Cisco, the new kid on the block with attitude and thigh-hugging black spandex, against rugged veterans with rooms full of trophies and hockey socks pulled over their arms to warm their biceps. Despite broad swimmer's shoulders, the 5'4'', 166-pound Cisco hides a lot of natural horsepower behind soft skin and a quick laugh. Still, her biceps are solid but not ripped, and she'll give away as much as 100 pounds to some of the ladies.

If all goes well, Cisco is likely to meet King, the gruffest of them all, in the finals. An eight-year vet with arms like legs and hair like a helmet, the 38-year-old King is referred to (behind her back) as King of Canada. She and her husband run a lumber business in British Columbia, and her resume includes numerous appearances in the World's Strongest Woman competition, where she tugs semis and lifts boulders. King is the reigning right- and left-handed champ at 80 kilos (176 pounds) in the World Armwrestling Federation. (More on arm wrestling's politics later.)

Cisco vs. King will also be a test of philosophies, because when they stand across from each other (only recreational wrestlers sit) two different strategies tend to be at play. Most of the time it's impossible to tell which style is which, because matches typically last less than three seconds. Grip, pull, pin. Grip, pull, pin. That's it. But break a match down on videotape and the game becomes an intricate tug between hooking, where wrestlers cut under an opponent's grip to apply pressure at the wrist, and top rolling, a more complex move (see Do It Yourself, page 130). Will Cisco's top roll be enough to counter King's raw country strength?

Cisco won't say. She lights another cigarette, plugs a set of headphones into her ears and cues a track. Fittingly enough, her song is Limp Bizkit's hit Rollin'. Cisco rolls up the volume.

"Keep rollin', rollin' rollin'."

THE STORY of arm wrestling is a story seldom told. "If it isn't the oldest sport in the world, then it's certainly the cheapest," says Dave Devoto, 72, a former radio station owner and current president of United States ArmSports, one of two national governing bodies and sponsor of the Vegas tournament.

The sport dates back to ancient Egypt: images of dueling bronze arms were etched into the burial chambers of dead kings. But arm wrestling's modern origins are less epic. The year: 1952. The location: a table at Gilardi's, a no-frills bar in Petaluma, Calif. Bill Soberanes-failed prizefighter, pipe-smoking gossip columnist and self-proclaimed "peopleologist" (before he died last year, he claimed to have had his picture taken with more than 45,000 people)-was drinking at Gilardi's when two patrons agreed to settle an argument by arm wrestling.

On the spot, the story goes, Soberanes decided to host a tournament at the bar. A year later, wrestlers from around the country piled into the saloon to compete. For 16 years, beginning in 1968 when ABC bought the rights from Soberanes and Devoto, the tourney was televised annually on ABC's Wide World of Sports. Since ABC cut bait in 1984, the number of tournaments and prize money has actually increased, although few outside the tugging world know it. This growth has come despite the sport's 1996 split into two factions: the American Armsport Association, with 2,000 members (500 women), and U.S. ArmSports, an umbrella group for 40 organizations across the country that has 10,000 members (500 women). Naturally, each group disputes the other's membership claims, and each is allied with a different world federation, producing rival world champs such as Cisco (World Armsport Federation) and King (World Armwrestling Federation).

Cisco, though, shrugs off the politics-"I'm here to pull," she says-and this year she won her division at both groups' national championships and will compete against King at the World Armwrestling worlds. And in a sport that needs some help promoting itself, it doesn't hurt that Cisco's image is a delicate counter to the arm wrestling stereotype of blockheaded truck drivers in oil-stained T-shirts. And that's the ladies. "Some of these girls," Cisco says, "can look a lot like the men." But Cisco isn't interested in importing style into arm wrestling; she wants to export arm wrestling's attitude. She thinks that when you drill another woman's hand into the table, the raw jolt of control can be more pure and satisfying than any yoga class or self-help manual. "I can't even describe the exhilaration," she says. "It's just like, whoa!"

"C'MON, NIC. Give it a try."

Those are the only words she recalls from that day, which her arm wrestling dad, Malcolm, yelled to her at Ohio's Pike County fair. Cisco was 17, the pudgy high school cheerleader who dropped her pom-poms to hoist skinnier girls into the air, when she walked from the cattle barn where she was showing a red-and-white heifer and approached an arm wrestling table for the first time.

Her opponent was a prison guard in her 30s who dug her nails so deep into Nicole's hand that it began to bleed. But Cisco carried the victory plaque home to the farm where she lived with her divorced father in Waverly, Ohio. Soon, daughter was driving with dad to weekend tournaments throughout the Midwest, and winning them.

A year later, Nicole left home for college, first Morehead State and later Virginia Highlands CC. At both schools she majored in Partying 101 and stopped wrestling. The weight started to come after she gave birth to Cassandra, now 9, a daughter for whom she wasn't quite ready. Cisco shuffled between odd jobs before moving to Augusta in 1999 with her boyfriend, Cassandra's father. Their on-again, off-again relationship produced another daughter, Madison, in 2000, and the pregnancies left Nicole 160 pounds overweight. The breaking point came two years later.

Cisco remembers it this way: "I was sitting on the couch doing nothing. Cassie comes home from school, and I get up to hug her and she puts her arms around my waist.

" 'Mommy,' she said, 'how come when I put my arms around you, my hands don't touch?'"

That night in bed, 309-pound Nicole stared at the ceiling and fell asleep in tears. When she woke up, she was committed. Five days a week at a gym, swinging free weights and climbing a treadmill after the day shift as a temp for her current employer, a chemical manufacturer. Then came the Atkins diet. The weight came off so fast that Cisco couldn't wear new clothes a second time. She lost 143 pounds, and shrank from size 24 to 8 in 16 months. "From tent to potato sack to normal," she says.

She started dating-her relationship with her girls' dad was off again-and going to Coyote's, a local dance club. And she began to think about a return to competitive arm wrestling. "Just to keep my mind on something," she says.

In May 2003, Nicole came into the nationals an unknown and left with titles in the 147-to-183 pound division, right and left hand. Those wins earned her a trip to the worlds in Russia. To pay for the trip, Cisco went to the mat. She asked her company's customers for donations, sold raffle tickets and peddled $10 bottles of her boss' homemade barbecue sauce (best-sellers included Tongue Torch and Bunker Buster). In all she raised $1,200, enough for airfare, hotel and a winter coat. And she won, beating a Russian in the finals. In less than two years, a depressed, overweight mother of two had morphed into a confident and sunny world champion. "No one believes how much I've changed when I tell them," Cisco says. "I have to

show pictures. It's a cliche, but I changed from a big, fat, frumpy worm into a butterfly."

Now she's hoping to repeat in Reno. On her desk at work, where she's now a facilities administrator, are a dozen fresh red roses from a special admirer, a "cowboy" she met at Coyote's. They came with a note: "Bring the Thunder." The words, tattooed on Cisco's back above her panty line, represent her nonpink side. Thunder is what they call her in the barn where she trains, a sweaty shack of men with comically sized upper bodies and chicken legs. Cisco practices every Wednesday, driving from Augusta to Spartanburg, S.C., three hours each way in a charcoal Pontiac Grand Am. (Cassie and Madison stay with a friend of Nicole's who has a young daughter.) The barn belongs to the parents of her coach, Chad Silvers, a 32-year-old former world champ. Inside, among 100 or so trucker hats and heavy metal music, Nicole and the other members of Team South Carolina chalk their hands and call each other sissies. On this Wednesday, Nicole's the only one in workout gear; the others sport jean shorts, muscle shirts and gel that holds up short-cropped hair.

Cisco trains with all seven male wrestlers on the team. Here she doesn't lift free weights or do squat thrusts. She only wrestles. Grip, pull, pin. Grip, pull, pin. The best practice, Silvers says, is experience, to build arm tendons, to feel different hands. So Nicole pulls with as many hulking men she can find.

And it's not hard to find them here on a gray summer evening. Many arm wrestlers, including most of those in the barn tonight, sport inflated muscles that don't look quite right, those wrestlers with the stretched plastic sheen, sharp creased

veins and biceps implanted with bocce balls (arm wrestling does not test for performance enhancers of any kind). "Imagine stepping to the table, and you've been working with all these guys, and the other girl hasn't," says Silvers. "Nicole has a man's hand." He means that the months of gripping tougher, meatier paws has actually transformed her anatomy. "Vice grips," says Cisco, who insists she's never used steroids. "Like power tools."

The barn empties two hours later and Cisco is the last one standing. She keeps Silvers late practicing hand positions, a tricky dance of thumbs and fingers. She adjusts her feet several times and tests her elbows in different positions, all to learn the complicated art of "reading fingers."

When Cisco pulls into her driveway, it will be 1 a.m., four hours before her alarm will go off for work. She doesn't complain because she needs to win more than she needs sleep. ("Losing is my fear. If I lose, I analyze myself to death.") And she doesn't worry about time away from her daughters because she believes her accomplishments make her a better role model and mother. ("My kids have seen what I've done, and it makes them believe that they're strong and that they can do anything they want to do.")

BACK IN Vegas, day has turned to night, and the Ultimate Arms conference room has taken on a cranky, nagging, been-here-too-long kind of feeling. The beer is flat, arms are sore and Nicole is once again pacing with her headphones on.

She's already lost once. She pulled King in her second match and lost in two seconds. "Blew me away," Cisco says. "I had no mental preparatory time. No time to put my face on." But Cisco rebounds, winning three straight matches to reach the final against King. The crowd has grown more raucous, energized by Cisco's comeback and King's fearsomeness, with 300 fans sitting semicircle around one table. Nicole, in fresh makeup, cues her track one last time.

"Are you ready?" the referee asks.

They stand across the table, Cisco in her hoops and King in her helmet hair, opposing forces and images. The ref holds the women's grip in place. Cisco knows what to expect. She's felt King's hand, knows her grip, her stroke. But almost as soon as they start wrestling, it's obvious that Nicole's training and skill and underdog story don't matter a lick. Easy, like a saw buzzing through a piece of timber, King crushes Cisco's hand and leisurely, gracefully, ushers it to the pads. Grip, pull, pin.

"Another day's work," King says later to a reporter.

After the match, Cisco stomps out of the room without a word, wanting another cigarette, wanting to call Silvers, wanting to hide because the best she had wasn't good enough. She returns home two days later, and watches a videotape of that match 30, maybe 40 times, in slow motion, in real time, scrutinizing each second of action for weakness. She will continue to make the six-hour round trip to South Carolina every Wednesday, to avoid carbs, to call her daddy back in Ohio for advice.

Oh, she'll keep her pink outfits and the silver hoop earings and Limp Bizkit in her CD player. But Cisco is more serious about arm wrestling than ever, determined to overcome that one last obstacle in her transformation from fat, frumpy worm to butterfly. She figures to face King again at the worlds, so like a boxer in training, she's hired a strength coach to push her five days a week. Her mission: add power to every muscle in her body.

"I don't think Joyce is too keenly worried about me right now," Cisco says. "But she should be."

WRIST RULES

ARM WRESTLING LOOKS SIMPLE, BUT COMPETITIVE PULLING IS RULED BY STRICT STANDARDS

CLASS Arm wrestlers pull with left and right hands and are divided by weight. U.S. ArmSports separates men into 11 classes for each hand, from under-121 pounds to over-243. Women wrestlers compete in seven divisions for each hand, from under-110 pounds to over-177.

STANCE Wrestlers stand on opposite sides of a sturdy table that must be at least 40 inches high. They grip hands using the thumb-lock. Wrestlers may wrap one finger over their thumb, but the knuckle of each wrestler's thumb must be visible to the ref. With their nonpulling hand, wrestlers hold a peg set to the side, 18 inches from the center of the table. Shoulders must be square, and wrestlers must have at least one foot on the floor.

PULL The referee holds the hands of both wrestlers and centers them over the table. The match starts when the ref yells, "Ready, go!" and releases the hands.

FOUL A foul is called-and the match restarted-when a competitor touches his wrestling hand with his body or lifts his elbow off the pad to gain position. Two fouls equal a disqualification. A match is won when a wrestler drives his foe's hand to the touch pad-but only if the winner is holding his peg when the pin is made.

DO IT YOURSELF

Strength is important in arm wrestling, but know-how can win as many bar battles as muscle. For tips, we took a pull with John Brzenk, the world's most successful arm wrestler, according to Guinness.

BE CONFIDENT "It's your most lethal weapon," says Brzenk.

STAND TALL Wrestle on a surface higher than waist level, such as a bar table or two stacked hay bales. You need to stand to activate muscles in your back, lats and triceps.

GET A RIP Insist on a thumb-lock grip rather than the palm-to-palm hold used by most amateurs. Place the heel of your hand against your opponent's and wrap your fingers and thumb around the base of his hand. Grip tightly.

READ HANDS The size of your foe's fingers, knuckles and wrist will determine the best plan of attack. Go with the "top roll" if your opponent has normal-size hands. As soon as the ref says go, pull your hand toward your chest, neutralizing your opponent's strength. Next, drop your butt to anchor your weight. Finally, drive your hand over your opponent's fingers, rolling high onto the tips, forcing his hand to the deck.

If, on the other hand, your opponent shares DNA with a bear, you might try the "hook." When the ref says go, twist your wrist sideways and apply knifing pressure into your opponent's wrist. Put your shoulder behind it and press. Hard. "Saw that man's wrist off the bone," says Brzenk.

DO IT AGAIN. AND AGAIN "There are no secrets in arm wrestling," says Brzenk. "Go home, get stronger, try again."