The Biggest Supermatch of All Time
The time was November 1978. Cleve Dean, a 6’7” 480-lb hog farmer from Georgia had been competing in armwrestling tournaments for less than a year. Aside from losing in the final of his first competition in December 1977, he since hadn’t lost a single match. He had just won the heavyweight title at the World's Wristwrestling Championship in October in Petaluma and he felt on top of the world. However, even though he won the title, some of the top competitors of the day did not take part in that event. Cleve wanted to prove that he was the best armwrestler on the planet, so he came up with a proposition…
In 1978, Tony Celeste was busy establishing his new venture – Arm Wrestling International (AWI) – as the top professional armwrestling organization in the world. He had already organized two elite-level events in Las Vegas in January and June of that year. The events set records for prize money and consequently attracted many of the very best armwrestlers. Cleve caught wind of this and contacted Tony and asked if he was interested in organizing a special event. Mr. Dean was willing to pull anyone in the world in a two out of three format for $2,500 (equivalent to nearly $9,000 in 2013). Tony would take care of the event arrangements, but the money would be put up by the competitors. Only one puller came to Tony’s mind: Virgil Arciero.
Virgil, a 6’5” 245-lb California native, was recognized by most as the man to beat in 1978. By November, he hadn’t lost a match in almost three years, and he had won world titles in all of the biggest professional armwrestling organizations of the ‘70s: the World Wristwrestling Championship (WWC), the World Professional Armwrestling Association (WPAA), the National Arm Wrestling Association (NAWA), and AWI. He actually won the first two big money events that Mr. Celeste had organized. Tony was convinced that Virgil had the necessary strength and experience to beat the big man from Georgia. He proceeded to give Virgil a call and describe what Cleve had in mind.
Although Virgil hadn't seen Cleve's Petaluma matches, he happened to be training partners with the pullers who came in second and third to Cleve - George Hood and Clay Rosencrans. Both told Virgil that they had had good matches with Cleve and made him struggle for his wins. Because at the time Virgil was able to beat both Clay and George with relative ease, he was confident that he could beat Cleve as well, and didn’t hesitate to put up the $2,500.
The “supermatch” went from concept to reality in just a matter of weeks. The contest would take place in the evening of November 15th at the Silver Slipper, a Las Vegas hotel and casino. The armwrestling would be featured as entertainment between boxing matches. A stand-up armwrestling table would be used, and everything would be conducted in the boxing ring.
A day or two before the event Virgil and Cleve met to pose for some publicity photos. Virgil gripped up with Cleve and was a bit overwhelmed – he had never gripped up with a hand so big. He was going to have to hope that his plan of attack would work. He didn't think Cleve would be particularly fast and so he thought he would have a chance of getting a good position off the start. Virgil also thought that Cleve’s relative inexperience could hinder him.
Both Cleve and Virgil had a number of their own supporters who very confident that they would win, and were willing to put money up to prove it. Though Cleve and Virgil were betting $2,500 of their own money, others wanted to bet as well. The total amount being bet swelled to at least $11,000 per side (some believe the total amount was even higher). John Woolsey, another top armwrestler and good friend of Virgil, bet $500 on him. Bob Howell, another top armwrestler (and the supermatch referee!) also bet $500 on Virgil. Cleve’s entourage, on the other hand, seemed ready to back their man for almost any amount. When Bob Campregher (armwrestler and future AWI referee) and his father showed up the day of the match ready to bet $15,000 on Virgil, Cleve’s camp agreed to match the amount, however they could only get the cash by the following morning. Because they didn't have cash in hand prior to the supermatch, the Campreghers decided it may be unwise to bet that type of money against an IOU and didn't proceed to place the bet (a decision that they would not regret).
Leading up to the match, someone asked one of Cleve's backers if they had ever seen Cleve armwrestle. This was the backer's response: "No, but back in Pavo, Georgia, there ain't no Cadillac in town that Old Cleve can't pick up the front end on." Virgil didn't believe anyone could be that strong.
By the time the first match was about to start, the atmosphere was very tense – there had never been so much on the line for an armwrestling contest. Though Virgil wasn’t very comfortable in his set up with Cleve – he didn’t know where he should apply pressure – he decided to focus on using a sweeping move to try to pin Cleve. His concentration was a bit frazzled, because Cleve was rocking back and forth during the set up. If timed right, Cleve could be rocking back at the time of the go, in effect beginning to top roll before the match had started. Nonetheless, Virgil didn’t say anything and the referee didn’t either. Cleve proceeded to bring Virgil’s arm down to the pad. It wasn’t a flash, but it was a convincing win.
Luckily, after the first match Virgil had some time to regroup and think about what he wanted to do for the second match. Unlike most supermatches held today which only have one or two-minute breaks between matches, Cleve and Virgil had over a half-hour to rest. Virgil was undoubtedly shaken by the result of the first match, as so much money was at stake, as was the unofficial title of the “best armwrestler in the world”. He discussed strategy with John Woolsey, and they decided that Virgil should put a lot of downward pressure on Cleve’s wrist with his ring and pinky fingers prior to the start of the match. This would hopefully prevent Cleve from executing his top roll, and allow Virgil to use his great tricep pressure. With the wrist out of play, perhaps he could win arm-to-arm.
The second match was closer than the first. Virgil was able to establish slightly better position, but was still overpowered by big Cleve. The crowd erupted. In less than a year, Cleve had become the king of the armwrestling world.
Virgil lost $2,500 of his own money and his unofficial ranking as the best armwrestler in the world. But to him what was worse was that he felt responsible for losing the money of everyone who had bet on him. Looking back on the supermatch years later, he stated that it was “the worst night of my life…. you don't know how bad you feel when you lose other people's money.”
Cleve was in a celebratory mood. Bob Howell accompanied Cleve and his win to dinner where he witnessed something else that amazed him. Cleve ordered the first three dinners on the menu!
Winning this supermatch, Cleve Dean began an almost uninterrupted 8-year reign atop the armwrestling world. Though he did lose a very small number of matches between 1978 and 1986, he was the heavy favourite in every event he attended.
Steve Simons, President of the WPAA, has an interesting theory about this supermatch. Based on the end result, as well as how everything unfolded, Steve thinks it’s possible that Cleve duped Virgil. Steve thinks Cleve may have made his final Petaluma matches with Clay and George appear more difficult than they actually were, because he was planning to put forth the supermatch challenge in hopes of making some money. Whether this actually happened or not (I don’t believe it did), it makes for a very interesting conspiracy theory. The pig farmer from Georgia quite possibly pulled off the greatest con ever in the history of armwrestling!
Researched and Written by Eric Roussin