“Tiny Tina Turn-You-Over is really on her game tonight,” says a young woman who approaches us bearing an arm’s length of orange paper tickets. “She’s the smallest, the strongest and the gayest. And she’s been watching Over the Top non-stop.”
The New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling (NOLAW) brawl won’t start for another 20 minutes, but some very important campaigning — and in many cases, trash-talking — has already begun. Representatives, or “entourages,” for each arm wrestler work the crowd, hoping to sell “bets” for their fighter that cost $1 each (the “bets” are really just raffle tickets and don’t yield any returns). But despite the half-joking rivalry among the wrestlers and their fans, everyone wins in the end: NOLAW donates all “bets” to organizations that benefit New Orleans women. In the past, brawls have raised money for Hagar’s House, Liberty House, Louisiana Books2Prisoners and the St. Bernard Project’s fund for families affected by the BP oil disaster. Saturday night’s proceeds will create a screen printing workshop for residents of the 7th and 9th Ward neighborhoods. “You are not betrothed to one wrestler,” one of the brawl’s emcees says, encouraging spectators to bet on several competitors. “We are a polyamorous organization.”
The fighters assume names and personas that could be described as roller derby-meets-professional wrestling, and each costumed competitor gets an entrance and theme song before her bout. Justin Beaver is the teen idol’s doppelganger, with the addition of jutting front teeth and a flat, brown tail. The Vagatarian wears a chef’s jacket with an anatomically accurate back design, and her entourage members dressed as various “labial fruits” pepper the audience to solicit bets. There’s also a stripping suffragette, a cop named Armed and Dangerous and “celebrity judges” Andy Warhol and Queen singer Freddie Mercury who offer occasional commentary.
NOLAW ostensibly takes the sport of arm wrestling very seriously. The table where wrestlers face off for their bouts has two squares painted on it, and elbows are to remain strictly confined to the squares. There are two referees: the “arm ref” watches for any wayward elbows, and the “butt ref” checks for “cheek violations,” or when a wrestler’s behind becomes unglued from her chair. But most of the time, the rules are thrown out the window. Referees will turn a blind eye to the rules when handed money bribes, often resulting in arm wrestling matches that devolve into actual wrestling matches on top of the table. When necessary, disputed results are settled by dance-offs. At one point, an audience member paid $10 to booty-dance with Justin Beaver.
This is NOLAW’s fifth brawl since Nina Feldman, who was involved in a women's arm wrestling league in New York’s Hudson Valley, shared the idea with her friends in New Orleans. The brawls raise anywhere between $700 and $1300, and with every event more organizations and volunteers help out with publicity, by making T-shirts and donating raffle prizes.
Maggie Calmes, one of NOLAW’s original founders and an “arm ref” at the brawl, says the group hopes to continue hosting brawls on a bi-monthly basis (though the next brawl might not be for three months because of the holidays). Since volunteers and supporters keep the group running, she says NOLAW is always looking for people wanting to help out — by wrestling or through other ways.
“It started as a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants, grassroots, figuring-it-out-as-we-go thing, to something more organized,” Calmes says. “We’ve gathered a large group of auxiliary supporters … people use their skills to help and it’s really awesome.”
For more information about NOLAW, email firstname.lastname@example.org.