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Pulling John

Pulling John

Directed by Vassiliki Khonsari

If the name John Brzenk doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry: he’s just an airline mechanic for Delta. But since 1983, he has also developed and cemented his legendary status as the greatest professional arm wrestler of all-time (as certified by the Guinness Book of Records). His utter dominance of professional arm wrestling surpasses all other similar supremacies in pro sports; to his peers he represents a hybrid of Gretzky, Jordan and Pele. No wonder he’s dubbed “the legend” everywhere he goes.

While Sylvester Stallone’s 1987 flick Over the Top failed to popularize professional arm wrestling in America, the sport is alive and well in over 120 countries worldwide. Countless tournaments and competitions are organized on a yearly basis, and rankings are attributed based on weight classes. Filmed over the span of 4 years, Pulling John directors Vassiliki Khonsari & Sevan Matossian set out not only to film the definitive documentary on pro arm wrestling, but also to cast the spotlight on 3 of its biggest stars: Brzenk, Travis Bagent and Alexy Voevoda.

Strangely reminiscent of King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Pulling John is a fascinating look at the reputation Brzenk has built across the world, bending thousands of wrists along the way. Every single person interviewed speaks very highly of the soft-spoken, somewhat reserved individual who is reminiscent of Steve Wiebe. Brzenk’s accomplishments are so astounding they border on questionable: he’s won 95% of his matches in the past 25 years and he’s often beaten wrestlers much bigger than him. He’s won in 5 different weight classes during the same tournament more than once and he even beat a 600-pound pig farmer from Georgia.

Travis Bagent, meanwhile, embodies Billy Mitchell’s attitude as the arrogant Southerner whose main goal is to dethrone Brzenk atop the world rankings. Voevoda is a similarly captivating character, the spiritual giant from Socia, Russia who idolizes Brzenk and who promotes the importance of being in touch with nature and the environment. All three individuals converge towards the end of the film and until the final match, the ‘legend vs talented youngsters’ feel kept me glued to my seat while I rooted for Brzenk to keep winning.

With absolutely zero knowledge that such a highly organized and competitive circuit existed, I was completely enthralled by the film and how it managed to focus on the athletes’ lives both on and off the stage. The archival footage is impressive and effective at conveying how devoted these athletes are to their sport, which will actually be a spectator sport at the next Olympic Games.

In true cinema verite style, Pulling John is a simple and compelling documentary in which the characters on the screen tell their own story. It truly deserved its official selection at the 2009 SXSW and along with King of Kong, it is very successful at telling a tale that would not likely have been heard otherwise.

– Myles Dolphin