Policing The Pit

August 19th 2015

Bart Wood is the guy standing between Word Armwrestling League finalists, two pullers who have battled a gauntlet of competitors to do final battle in The Pit over a $20,000 stack that can be theirs if they win just one more series. Wood is the WAL’s main referee, a puller himself with more than 20 years competing and reffing matches.

The 40-year-old union cement finisher by day started reffing in 1995, a few years after he started pulling. Wood, a former world champion power lifter who lives in Erie, PA, says that having competed himself makes reffing that much easier. He knows the mindset of the pullers he is policing, because he has been there. Wood knows that some pullers will take any edge they can get, if a ref doesn’t see it.

“When I’m competing, I’m trying to get away with all the advantages,” the father of 5 said. “As a referee, I’m eliminating those advantages and making sure there’s a fair start.”

Wood can be seen on ESPN holding the chalked up hands of the WAL athletes, calmly yet insistently tugging them into position to ensure a clean start to the match. He must ensure that he can see the knuckles of both mens’ thumbs, to ensure no one gets an upper hand in the grip department. He must also ensure their wrists are straight and that they are centered before he lets them go.

As he’s lining them up, Wood said he can feel if the puller is going to try to go inside or if they’re going to press up high. Not on his watch. Wood said the WAL on ESPN is taking not only arm-wrestling, but officiating the sport to a whole new level. Never has there been so many refs so focused on ensuring a match is clean, he said. Having been part of the sub culture himself for years, Wood said he knows everyone’s tactics for getting an edge.

“I know what most of the guys do,” he said. “I prepare myself as I see them walking to the table. I know where they’re going to try and gain advantage, and it’s easy for me to dissect it.”

Wood also focuses on taking control of the table, no matter what big names are up there, or what complaints they might make. Many of the big names have competed elsewhere in the arm-wrestling scene, but the WAL requires a whole new level of professionalism on the part of officials to go along with the sports ascendance into the mainstream.

“You need to have patience, a quick eye and be able to make a judgment call and be able to have presence to where you take control of the table, no matter who the competitors are,” Wood said. “It’s not for everybody. You can lose control, and you’ll never be able to get them to listen to you.”

Reffing in the WAL is a lot like competing, he said.

“You have to be crisp and fresh,” Wood said. “It’s the same mental aspect. It’s the concentration, and making sure my eyes are focused. As soon as I get the match off, boom, I’m down to the elbow as fast as I can.”

Wood has to get down to the elbow so he can see when a pin has occurred. His wife, Jennifer, is also a WAL sub-referee. Like an officiant in any professional sport, Wood feels the heat of the spotlight, but loves it nonetheless. He’s right up in the action and still gets the rush the competitors feels.

“I love how in the heat of the moment, tempers can flare, but then after it’s done, everyone is shaking hands and complimenting each other on a job well done,” Wood said. “Nothing better than going to work and truly loving what you do.”