It’s the morning of the day I’m supposed to arm wrestle Michael Selearis, and instead of cramming for my exam with a torrent of pushups, I’m watching a promotional video on YouTube in which he glares at the camera with a sweat towel draped over his neck, the scene interspersed with about 40 short clips of some very quick takedowns. Was that a chill I just felt? Maybe challenging the three-time world champion over the phone was a bad idea.
A sliver of hope emerges from some of the video’s comments. One contributor’s “lmaoooo thatsz my chemistry teacher! ahaha” sounds promising for me. Another viewer claims to have defeated the 33-year-old from Queens, only to be rebuked with a “Devin, don’t lie, you know you didn’t” from someone else. As long as my arm comes out of this venture in one piece, I’m going to have to consider it a success.
Selearis lives in Connecticut now and teaches high school chemistry, but his childhood home in Elmhurst is the meeting place. His father answers the door of the narrow two-story house, and taking me through a modest kitchen with tangrams on the refrigerator, he proudly shows me Selearis’ room, where every flat space is covered with ceiling-reaching trophies and dozens of medals dangle from the top of a bookshelf. Achilles Selearis speaks with a Cypriot accent and is athletic too, but when his son enters with wife Deb, a recent convert to the sport herself, he is finally outclassed.
Michael Selearis is strong. Withhold the Mickey Rourke imagery for a moment, though, because Selearis manages to be one of his sport’s greatest champions while not straying too far from his affable and intellectual streaks. It makes sense that he’s a high school chemistry teacher, and it makes sense that he’s an ambassador to the sport, starting arm wrestling clubs wherever he has taught and recently drawing a surprising crowd of teenagers at an outdoor clinic in Elmhurst that prompted a friendly check-in from police. Mirline Berrouet, a member of Selearis’ club when he taught at Queens Gateway to Health Sciences, is a national champion; she won the 31st annual White Castle Empire State Golden Arm Tournament of Champions just a few weeks ago.
Selearis was on the wrestling team at Newtown High School, and as he shows me some of the hardware in his room - much of it already given away as prizes at school tournaments - he is reminded of his college wrestling room in Buffalo.
“There was a picture of a guy with a real serious face, loaded with medals. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, it would be so cool to be that guy,’” he says. “Now I’ve got more medals than he’s got.”
He shows me around the one-car garage at the front of the house, now a gym featuring an arm wrestling table, a small wall chart of friends’ workout “Power Stats” (“Selearis Sr.” has his own row), and a set of wrist-powered weights I’m asked to refer to as “Mike’s Secret Contraption.” Because it mimics the motions of arm wrestling, using the contraption is Selearis’ favorite way to train. He works out in his garage twice a week.
“You’ve got to give yourself enough time to repair,” he says. “When I first started, I’d arm wrestle to the point where I couldn’t drive home.”
When he first started, he was 15 years old and following his friend to a local tournament on Bell Boulevard. While he could not enter the competition, he thought that what he saw was the “coolest thing,” and he thought himself capable of beating most of its entrants. He was probably right. A string of old-fashioned victories at regional tournaments took Selearis to the U.S. nationals, where he won his first of 21 titles in 1996, at age 21.
“I just went and won the whole thing,” he remembers.
To Selearis, who regularly arm wrestles out of his weight class and can’t help but laugh as he calls himself “the Michael Jordan of arm wrestling,” the victories have always been expected, at least once he arrives at the table and achieves the appropriate mentality. Only in beating Jason Vale, his longtime mentor and practice partner, was he moved by his accomplishments. He believes cockiness is a virtue.
“I see that kid now that comes up to the table and says, ‘I could beat those guys,’” he says, remembering his attitude toward that first tournament in 1990.
I can see why he feels that way. When my moment of truth finally arrives, and Selearis suddenly pulls out the table with the elbow pads and a narrow pipe on each end for the opposite hand to grab, I am greeted by a head tilted upward and a chilling downward glare that I recognize from the YouTube video. Achilles Selearis says, “Go!” and I push my entire body leftward. Michael Selearis’ giant arm gives a little, but by the time he’s done telling me that my angle of approach is wrong (just a form of trash talk, I later find out), he has already beaten me, and I’ve barely even noticed. At least it didn’t hurt.
The distracting mind game, Selearis says, is one of his most important strategies. “I probably win 90 percent of my matches on the mental game, on the setting-up,” he tells me. “A couple of subliminal messages can just really control that aspect of it. … You have to communicate to the guy that ‘I’m going to beat you.’ ”
After the match comes the lesson, in which Selearis shows me that keeping contact with the highest part of your opponent’s hand offers the best leverage, and that moving your opponent laterally in your direction can make it much easier to finish the job. The other tips: Tighten your back, remember to use your whole body, and do not let anybody tell you that you are breaking the rules. When it comes to arm wrestling, there are blessedly few.