The biceps were bulging as muscular men locked arms in fierce combat in Baton Rouge on Saturday, vying to make their mark in the competitive world of arm wrestling.
They were guided by one of the sport’s best in matches held at Buffalo Wild Wings on Bluebonnet Boulevard, a guy who got his start as a 16-year-old student at Central High School in the late 1980s.
Craig Tullier, who was calling the matches over the microphone Saturday, often took on his classmates at Central in arm wrestling, the ultimate schoolyard test of pride and strength.
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He stumbled on a local tournament and after a few months of training soon became one of the most highly ranked “pullers” — the term used by those involved in the sport. He ranked as one of the top three arm wrestlers in the world after a competition in Geneva.
“I was pretty much hooked from there,” he said.
Tullier began driving 13 hours one way to South Carolina every other week to train with a five-time world champion. Now, Tullier himself is a 25-time champion in various arm wrestling leagues, and led the “Baton Rouge Roughnecks” team to the AMC show “Game of Arms” in 2014.
Tullier, 43, stayed on the sideline on Saturday, calling matches as a few dozen pros and amateurs vied for a spot in the Southern regional championship in Dallas next month for the World Armwrestling League.
For those who win the regionals, the pinnacle of the sport awaits in Las Vegas a month later, with a $500,000 prize for the best in the world.
Tullier, who had already qualified for the regional competition, spent the day teaching novices the basics. He also advised members of his team, the Southern Slammers, as they competed for pride, money or a spot on the national stage.
Tullier’s best friend of nearly 30 years, Mike Fontenot, was the referee and organizer for the event. Now 37, Fontenot had a similar introduction to the sport.
“I used to arm wrestle for my lunch money,” he said.
The two were neighbors in high school, and both ascended the national ranks when they were young. At 18, Fontenot took second to Tullier in a state-wide competition.
“He was always someone I could never beat, but we were like brothers growing up,” Fontenot said. “He’s just on another level.”
Tullier’s friends say they’ve seen him take down guys twice his size, and they believe he has a real shot at winning the half-a-million dollar prize in July.
For now, Tullier works at Cajun Construction as a site manager. Fontenot, who owns Lenco Finance, said most of the pullers have blue-collar jobs like pipe-fitting or working construction.
Fontenot is part of group of around 30 men, some of whom travel from all over the state, including Lake Charles, Hammond and New Orleans, to come to Baton Rouge each weekend to train.
Christian Moore, a 19-year-old powerlifter from Walker who participated in some of the matches Saturday, said Tullier recruited him to the Southern Slammers team a year ago after seeing him lift.
He said Tullier’s experience rubs off on all the guys he coaches.
Even though Moore is in a much heavier weight class than Tullier, he said he’s never come close to beating him the times when he has tried pulling with Tullier.
“There have been plenty of times where I’ve hooked up with him and given him everything I have, and I don’t even budge him.”
John Toups, who heads the other major Louisiana team — Savage Arms — spent the day giving pointers to his squad. Toups drove nearly two hours from the Houma area to see the marquee matchup of the day — his teammate Sean Hardman vs. Dusty Coleman, of Tullier’s team.
The two linked their chalk-covered hands and, on Fontenot’s “go,” battled it out. Fontenot said a three to five second match is average, but Hardman and Coleman, two of the best in the country, dragged matches out to minutes-long.
After a couple of pulls, Coleman screeched a battle-cry, heaving and contorting his body as his feet climbed up the table’s leg for leverage.
“They’re doing it for pride, respect and ultimately, rankings,” Toups said.
Tullier spent the day riling up the crowd, taking time to explain the rules to the novices and hug each competitor in between matches.
He’ll spend the next few weeks training until competing in Dallas on May 14, where he’s expected to do well. The championships in Las Vegas, on June 24, will be televised on ESPN.
“I’m the one so far that they’re coming after to beat,” Tullier said.