Getting Over The Top: Michael Selearis Story

Arm Wrestlers Try To Crack The Mainstream
Michael Selearis isn’t your typical school teacher. He wears neatly pressed pants and magnificently collared shirts, but it’s a disguise. Selearis is the reigning 189-pound national champion in arm wrestling, and he feels just as comfortable wearing a wife-beater to competitions as he does a shirt and tie to class. The Elmhurst resident and Chemistry teacher at Queens Gateway To Health and Sciences gives "A’s" to students who can pin him and knock him off his pedestal. With his huge forearms and menacing glare, the kids are better off studying.

"The kids think its cool," he said.

At 28, Selearis is a star of a sport that first gained prominence in the 1970’s with ABC’s "Wide World of Sports" but has since fallen on hard times, appearing in films like "Over The Top" but ultimately disappearing from the public’s view like a cloud of smoke. Despite over 50 sanctioning bodies and colorful characters to fuel the sport, arm wrestling still can’t crack an egg when it comes to breaking into the mainstream. The sport’s troubling lack of exposure is a hard pill to swallow, especially for "grippers" like Selearis, who work full-time jobs to support themselves.

"I can say that I’m a world class athlete in arm wrestling, yet I get less recognition than a mediocre player in basketball," Selearis said. "In arm wrestling, there’s only chalk, a strap and a table. There’s nothing to market it with. If we got into the Olympics, that would change."
Until that happens, Selearis plies his trade in relative obscurity, traveling to "money" competitions, like the one he went to in Dallas two weeks ago, where he ran the table in three different weight categories against competitors as big as 230 pounds.

"Making a trip like that is a gamble. I’m putting out the money for the airfare, car rental, hotel, so you have to win it to get the money back," Selearis said after returning from the Dallas US Open. "If I don’t win then I come back with a loss [of money]."

Fielding sponsorships for arm wrestlers can be like spotting a needle in a haystack. Gene Camp, president and founder of the New York Arm Wrestling Association, blames the image of the beer-guzzling, muscle-bound baffoon that many people have as the reason businesses are affraid to jump into the "ring" with arm wrestlers.

"It’s difficult because you can’t sell anything [like equipment] in arm wrestling," said Camp. "We get local sponsors but not the big corporate ones like Coke or Pepsi. Maybe the sponsors feel like arm wrestling is a sport full of drunk guys in a bar who are brawling with each other in a smoky room, but that couldn’t be further from the truth."

To promote shows like the Big Apple Grapple, Camp relies on the Parks Department and friendly neighborhood sponsors for support. He was fortunate to secure the Good Year Jamaica Tire and Auto Service Center and the pet food brand, Nutro-Natural Choice Dog and Cat Food, but even with their help, Camp is lucky if he breaks even.

Caught between fastening their wagons to the WWE (formerly WWF) and trying to maintain a sense of sportsmanship during competitions, arm wrestlers tow the line between giving the crowd what they want, which would probably attract sponsors, and upholding their own sense of decorum during competitions.

"The most respect I ever got from a match was against a guy who when I walked onto the table, he got overly excited and started slamming the table and putting on a show for the crowd," said Christopher Myers, a resident of Whitestone and the number two ranked arm wrestler in the nation at 209-pounds. "He was swinging his fist in the air and when I grabbed his hand to try and begin the match, he pulled me away from the table. He was doing all this stuff that was completely disrespectful and what happened was the crowd began feeding into it. They wanted a fight. I grabbed his hand and pulled him over the table. I wanted to fight, and the more intense we got with each other the more the crowd went nuts."

Arm wrestlers who perform for the crowd like the pinky-less "Psycho" and the collar-and-chain-wearing "Mad Dog" fly in the face of Selearis’ code of ethics, but he acknowledges that the sport could probably use a few more odd balls to boost its popularity.

"In order for the sport to become popular, it probably needs that type of stuff, but to get into the Olympics, that stuff wouldn’t make it. It goes against sportsmanship," he said. "I mean, do we want it to be more like the WWF sport or do we want it to be like a real sport. Me, I like the integrity of the sport. To make it into the Olympics, you have to have sportsmanship. That’s the only way we’ll get respect."

Can you imagine the heavyweight champion of the world holding down a day job as a school teacher?

Selearis, who also coaches the wrestling team at Newtown HS, is arm wrestling’s version of Oscar De La Hoya, the golden boy of boxing— a good-looking, well-spoken ambassador to his sport. It’s unfortunate that more people don’t know who he is.

"He’s the Michael Jordan of arm wrestling. It’s an honor to practice with him," said Myers, who exercises with Selearis and a number of other grippers in a makeshift gym in the basement of his house.

He is Michael Jordan— without the corporate sponsorships.

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