Rushmore’s Richard Lupkes wins world armwrestling titleRUSHMORE — Richard Lupkes faced a dilemma.
RUSHMORE — Richard Lupkes faced a dilemma.
At 54 years old, the farmer from Rushmore was in a position to try to add a second world title to his long list of armwrestling accomplishments.
The stage was set — this year’s World Armwrestling Federation (WAF) world championships were to be held in the U.S., in Mesquite, Nev., and Lupkes was coming off of titles that he won in both the superheavyweight open division and superheavyweight grand master division at the national championships in Billings, Mont., in August.
Then Lupkes was given an opportunity that he couldn’t turn down.
He was one of eight elite armwrestlers invited to the invitation-only “Arm Wars ‘Sin City’” supermatch in Las Vegas, an event put on by world-renowned British armwrestling promoter Neil Pickup.
The problem was that Lupkes wouldn’t be able to compete for the world title in the open division in Mesquite on Dec. 11 and also participate in “Arm Wars,” the following day.
Lupkes decided to pull out of the open division at the world championships — the main event, in which he had won his world title in Eskilstuna, Sweden in 1988 — and decided to enter only in the grand master division, the category reserved for competitors 50 and over.
“I didn’t want to take a chance of tiring my arm out,” Lupkes said.
Despite passing up the chance of a title in the open division, Lupkes seized his opportunity in the grand master division.
“I actually felt pretty confident,” Lupkes said. “I trained really hard, so if I wouldn’t have won I would have been really disappointed. I felt good.”
Lupkes beat competitors from Azerbaijan, Russia, Canada and France to reach the final in the double-elimination competition, where he was paired up once more with Minabaddin Gurbanov — the competitor from Azerbaijan whom he had defeated earlier.
His second match against Gurbanov ended with the same result as the first, giving Lupkes the superheavyweight grand master world title.
Lupkes had some regrets leaving the world championships early to compete in “Arm Wars.” The event in Mesquite was the biggest armwrestling competition ever to be held in the US, with 1,313 competitors from 43 countries in attendance.
But he knew by then it was too late to change his mind.
“After being at the worlds and seeing the venue and all the competitors, I kind of had some second thoughts,” Lupkes said. “I kind of wish I wouldn’t have pulled the open, but it’s too late then already.”
However, “Arm Wars” provided a great opportunity for Lupkes to compete in a very different environment.
“It was exciting — just to be invited was something,” Lupkes said. “To be there with that class of armwrestlers — I mean, they were all world-class armwrestlers, there was nobody there that’s bad — it’s pretty amazing.”
Lupkes was matched up against the best of the world-class armwrestlers in the first round, Britain’s Devon Larratt.
“I had to pull the No. 1 ranked guy in the world my first round, Devon Larratt,” Lupkes said. “You armwrestle six times in a row with only a minute break between rounds. It was totally different for me, and I was old enough to be everybody’s dad there, basically.”
Lupkes was close to winning the first round against Larratt, but Larratt slipped through his grasp. Larratt then won the next five in a row, handing Lupkes a first-round loss.
However, Lupkes then swept his ensuing matches against Ryan Espay — the Canadian national champion — and Tim Bresnan, a former world champion from Connecticut, to finish on a high note.
Although disappointed, Lupkes said that “It turned out OK.”
Few people would be upset losing to the top-ranked armwrestler in the world, but Lupkes isn’t used to losing. Asked what percentage of his matches he estimates he has won during his career, Lupkes responded, “Since I started armwrestling, probably 99 percent. I’ve been pretty fortunate so far, except against Devon.”
Lupkes learned later that he currently is the No. 1 ranked armwrestler in the U.S., and the No. 2 ranked armwrestler in the world — making his expectations to win every match understandable.
“I’ve always probably been in the top-10 I suppose, but to be honest with you I don’t really pay that much attention to (the rankings),” Lupkes said.
Despite his accomplishments, Lupkes doesn’t consider himself to be particularly famous — despite the fact that in Mesquite he was asked by numerous people to have his photograph taken with them.
“People would come up and say, ‘Can I have my picture taken with you?’ and they wouldn’t speak English, but they would want pictures,” said Shirley Lupkes, Richard’s wife. “The respect that they have for Rich is just awesome.”
Richard Lupkes doesn’t consider the attention he received as particularly proving his fame.
“It’s maybe just because I’ve been in the sport a long time,” Lupkes said. “I don’t really consider myself famous or anything. I’ve just been in the sport a long time, so I’ve been around a lot, and I think that’s really the only reason.”
The truth is that in the USA, armwrestling has never gained widespread popularity. The 1987 Sylvester Stallone movie “Over the Top” and the accompanying tournament in Las Vegas — which until this year’s world championships was the biggest ever armwrestling tournament in the U.S. — brought some attention to the sport, but since then, Lupkes says media attention towards the sport has waned.
“Once in a while you’ll see it on ESPN, but it seems like it’s actually gotten a little quieter if anything,” he said. “The sport is actually really growing in the country, there’s a lot more competitors. It seems like now with the Internet and stuff people are a little more interested in keeping track of who’s pulling where. It’s easier to communicate I guess.”
The sport is far more popular in Europe.
Pickup has invited Lupkes to compete in another “Arm Wars” event, this time in England. The event will be aired on Eurosport — a European sports network comparable to ESPN in the U.S. — where the estimated audience for the sport is around 200 million viewers from between 50-60 countries.
“It’s way bigger in Europe,” Richard Lupkes said. “They watch armwrestling like we watch football over here — that would be a comparison. It’s a lot more popular over there.”
However, Lupkes will have to weigh the offer before committing to the event.
Although Lupkes is advancing in years, and has undergone surgery for a number of injuries recently, he will continue armwrestling competitively as long as he can, even in the open division.
“It’s definitely not getting any easier,” Lupkes said. “It seems that these young kids are getting bigger and stronger all the time. If I would just stay in my own age group I think I could do well for a long time, but I always end up getting in the open class because that’s really where it’s at.”
Lupkes is unsure whether he will be able to compete in next year’s WAF world championships in Kazakhstan, or the 2012 world championships in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil — both locations that pose logistical difficulties for Lupkes to defend his grand master world title and attempt another open division world title.
One thing that’s certain is that Lupkes will continue weight training — his primary passion, from which he says his armwrestling career developed as a “byproduct from spending time in the gym” — and embracing his new role as a personal trainer at Anytime Fitness in Worthington.
When Lupkes does find himself at a tournament in the future, he is bound to be received as one of the most respected armwrestlers, whether he considers himself to be famous or not.
“Going to the tournaments is a lot of fun, because, I always say, it’s like a family reunion,” Lupkes said. “You get to see your old friends and people you don’t see but maybe once or twice a year. You get to meet a lot of new people, see the new armwrestlers coming into the sport, and that’s always a lot of fun, too.”