Armwrestling Matches in the Cradle of Strongmen
A History of Armwrestling in Early 20th Century Quebec
During the golden age of strongmen around the turn of the twentieth century, one place seemed to produce more than its share of formidable strength competitors than anywhere else on earth: the Canadian province of Quebec. Why was this? It is believed that Quebec was a “cradle of strongmen” due to the lifestyle of the ancestry of the French-speaking population. Life during the early days of Quebec was hard. Many men worked seven days a week during the summer plowing the land and during the frigid winters they worked in the forest as lumberjacks. Physical strength was an integral part of life; great strength became revered. It is no wonder that this environment, combined with the availability of abundant natural, healthy foods, produced several impressive specimens of strength.
The man who best represented the strength of French-Canadians was Louis Cyr. Recognized by most for close to 20 years as the world’s strongest man, he was a hero among Quebeckers. Not only was he the greatest strength competitor of the era, he was also an incredible armwrestler. And though he did not often perform armwrestling displays in his strength shows, he always enjoyed partaking in the activity in social situations. He never lost.
One strongman who did occasionally take part in official armwrestling challenges was a young man named Hector Décarie. His first recorded major win was in a match in 1901 or 1902 against a man by the name of Ovila Chapleau, who was considered by many to be unbeatable. Hector proved everyone wrong, as he handed Chapleau his first-ever loss.
It is not clear if this match was for any particular title, but by the time Hector faced Louis Cyr in a strongman contest in 1906 (Louis’ final one), Mr. Décarie was being billed as the undisputed Armwrestling Champion of Canada. Whether he earned the armwrestling title by winning a particular match, or whether it was simply assigned to him to build publicity for the strongman contest is unclear.
It is unknown how many times (if any) Hector armwrestled in official matches in the years immediately following his strongman contest with Louis. However, it appears a match was held in 1909 to officially award the title of Armwrestling Champion of Canada. Montreal native Théophile Massé won the match against an unknown, yet likely well-established opponent.
Théophile Massé would be involved in many matches over the next 11 years and he successfully defended his title throughout this span of time. Little is known about the opponents he faced during these years, but one of his biggest matches was against a Quebec strongman by the name of Arthur Giroux on February 15th, 1916. Mr. Giroux had unusually strong hands and was much bigger than Mr. Massé, and so many thought he would win the match. They were wrong.
In those days, armwrestling matches in Quebec were contested a bit differently than they are contested today. While competing hands were clasped at the thumb (like now), the non-competing hands were typically laid flat on the table. Matches were contested sitting down. The elbows of the competing arms were set straight across from each other (some tables had grooves for the elbows). A straight line was drawn on the table between the two elbows and the objective was usually to pull the opponent’s arm over a certain distance from the line, rather than to pin the opponent’s arm all the way down to the table top.
Most matches were not contested through single falls, but usually 2 out of 3, and sometimes 3 out of 5. Individual pulls were timed, and if a fall was not recorded within the specified amount of time (usually 15 or 30 seconds), the pull was declared a draw and restarted. The process would repeat until a competitor successfully reached the number of pins required to secure a victory.
The way in which big armwrestling matches were organized is fascinating. While matches occurred in counties across the province, the majority of the headline matches occurred in Montreal, and the city’s newspapers were used to help arrange and publicize them. Oftentimes, a competitor would write into the paper and issue a challenge – either to a specific individual or to all-comers. The challenge would typically be accompanied by a wager. Competitors’ backers, or the competitors themselves would put up the money to bet on the outcome of the match. Many of the biggest matches involved bets of $50 or $100 (roughly $750 or $1,500 in 2017 dollars), but a few were contested for much more (one match organized in 1908 between Alfred Gingras and a man named Auger, two early champions, reportedly involved a wager of $1,100!). If the challenge was accepted, arrangements would be made to meet to iron out the match details. Many times, competitors would be accompanied by their managers.
A detailed contract would be developed that would include a variety of stipulations. In addition to standard details (e.g., date, time, location), competitors also had to agree on the format (2 out of 3, 3 out of 5, etc.), who would officiate, the duration of each round (i.e. pull), the amount of time between rounds, and the distance to which an opponent had to be pulled for a fall to be registered (typically between 12 and 16 inches). It is clear that armwrestling techniques were already being developed, as some contracts stipulated whether or not the thumb could be capped, and in rare cases, whether the hands would be tied together to prevent them from coming apart. And of course, the contract included payment details. Usually there would be the matter of the wager (for which the money had to be provided by both sides in advance of the match), and in some cases a share of the gate receipts. Many people were willing to pay for the privilege of seeing high profile matches.
1921 turned out to be a big year for Théophile Massé. On January 19th he faced a very strong opponent in Joseph Desjardins, from Hull, Quebec. The wager for the match was $500 (close to $7,500 in 2017 dollars). It turned out to be one of the most hotly contested matches ever seen in the province. The format for the match was 2 out of 3, with each pull lasting a maximum of 25 seconds. To get a fall, a competitor had to pull his opponent over 16 inches. It took six pulls before Mr. Desjardins finally won a fall, and another six pulls before Mr. Massé was able to tie up the match. They then continued to pull an additional 35 times (!) without either opponent registering a win before the referee finally declared the match a draw. After a couple of hours of pulling, the crowd of 200 spectators was happy to recognize the two men as co-champions. However, because Théophile had not lost the match, the title of Canadian Champion did not change hands.
Just three months later, on April 18th, the biggest match of the era took place. It was the highly anticipated match between Théophile Massé and Hector Décarie. Hector made his living as a travelling strongman, and for many years he lacked the monetary incentive to pull Théophile. Training for a big armwrestling match was just not something on which he wanted to spend time. However, the right elements finally combined to make this encounter possible. The match would be for a wager of $500. Canada’s two best pullers – both undefeated – would finally pull to determine who the TRUE Canadian Armwrestling Champion was. The result was a bit anticlimactic, with Hector winning the match in two straight pulls. Théophile lost his title. He was understandably disappointed that he lost, but he felt the loss was in part due to the fact that he conceded to too many of Hector’s demands during contract negotiations. The stipulations were less than ideal for Théophile’s style of pulling: in his desire to make the match happen he made some poor decisions.
Over the next few years, Mr. Massé continued to take on armwrestling challenges and beat everyone he faced. Mr. Décarie, on the other hand, did not. His lack of armwrestling activity was likely due to the same reason it took so long to arrange his match with Mr. Massé. He was not interested in straining just for fun. An armwrestling match had to be worth his while, monetarily-speaking. The amount required to lure him was significant, and because it was felt that so few people had a legitimate chance of beating him, it appears no one felt it was worth the financial risk.
The person who most wanted a match with Hector was Théophile Massé. He wanted a chance to pull Mr. Décarie a second time, but this time with stipulations that were equally fair to both men. Through the newspapers, he tried on at least a couple of occasions to call Hector out for a match, without success. Eventually, he offered to pull Hector for an amount of his choosing, to which Mr. Décarie responded that he was interested, but at 48 years of age he needed some time to train for the match. Several months passed before Théo reached out to Hector once again, and this time received no response. So in late 1928 Théophile proclaimed himself the Champion of Canada. He had pulled for seven years billed as “the former Canadian Champion” -- he now once again started being billed as the current Canadian Champion. It does not seem as though Hector minded. In one of his public refusals to pull Mr. Massé (due to insufficient incentive) he said he would be willing to concede the title, because he respected Théophile’s abilities. Perhaps Hector was “paying it forward”, as Louis Cyr had bequeathed his title of world’s strongest man to him when they tied in their strongman match back in 1906. Louis’ health was rapidly declining and he recognized that Hector was a worthy successor for the title.
Based on the sport’s coverage in the local newspapers of the era, it appears armwrestling matches were at their peak in popularity during the 1920s. At a few points during this decade, armwrestling matches were being promoted on an almost weekly basis. Sometimes the matches were run in conjunction with wrestling and boxing bouts, and sometimes they were run in conjunction with strongman contests. But the biggest matches were generally organized as separate events.
Hundreds of matches took place over the course of the decade, but a handful of matches garnered more attention than others:
December 18th, 1924 – Henri Groulx, a 150-lb blacksmith from Lachine, Quebec, faced Philippe Fournier, a young up and coming strongman from Grand-Mère, Quebec. There was considerable excitement because Mr. Groulx had not had a loss in 75 straight matches, and 19-year old Mr. Fournier was a rising superstar in the world of strength. Philippe won the match, along with $300.
December 23rd, 1924 – Philippe Fournier met Wilfrid Latour, a champion strongman who outweighed him by 25 lbs. Only five days after his win over Henri Groulx, Philippe pulled Wilfrid to a draw in front of a crowd of 400. Mr. Fournier would go on to be one of the most active pullers of the decade. It is said that for a while, he made most of his living off the money me won in armwrestling matches (he would bet on himself).
December 15th, 1925 – Théophile Massé faced Placide Laframboise. Placide was coming off his win over Wilfrid Latour two months prior. He outweighed Théophile by 40 lbs and was the favorite heading into the match. But Mr. Massé silenced the crowd by taking the match with a score of 3-1. Their hands were tied together for all of their pulls.
March 28th, 1928 – Théophile Massé faced yet another rising star in Léonide Marleau, from Valleyfield, Quebec. Mr. Marleau had handily beaten Henri Groulx the previous fall and was the favorite heading into the match with Mr. Massé. Perhaps people were starting to underestimate Théophile as he was reaching 40 years of age? Regardless, he proved he was still very capable, beating Léonide by a score of 3-2.
Armwrestling’s popularity in Quebec started to wane in tandem with strongman contests. There are a few possible reasons for this. In the 1920s, weightlifting associations were starting to form and there was a move towards the adoption of standardized lifts and rules. The strongman contest format fell out of favour. As well, wrestling and boxing were exploding in popularity, and had much more to offer young men (in terms of potential fame and riches) who in years previous would have likely shown an interest in pursuing strength sports.
One of the last major matches to draw media attention was a match for the Canadian Championship between Théophile Massé (title holder) and Wilfrid Latour on October 16th, 1930. At the time of the match, Mr. Massé had suffered only a single loss against Hector Décarie 10 years earlier. Théophile’s title was on the line and he was facing an able opponent. But once the action started, Mr. Massé made quick work of his opponent, winning the match in three straight pulls. Mr. Latour took the loss very well. He immediately stood up to congratulate Théophile and shake his hand while announcing to everyone “Mr. Massé is the champion and he is much better than me”. This prompted someone in the crowd to stand up and express his admiration to Mr. Latour: “A spirit like the one displayed by Mr. Latour is what makes a true Canadian man”. A great time was had by all and the night even ended up with everyone joining in song! The festivities served as a fitting end to the golden era of Quebec armwrestling.
Researched and Written by Eric Roussin