COLUMBIA — The room was dark. Only one light in the back of the restaurant was turned on, turning the narrow room into a spectrum of light: pupil-wrecking bright in the back fading to a darkness in the front that made faces hard to recognize.
The scent of coffee mixed with the smell of cheap beer and laced its way through the 30 or so gathered in a semi-circle in the front of the room.
There, Tia Thompson took her seat. Her short blonde hair bounced and she smiled confidently. She placed her tatooed arms, bulging out of a tight white-and-pink shirt, on the small wooden table and cocked her legs at a wide angle.
Sabrina Braden, in a dark tank top that showed off her own sculpted biceps, sat down more gingerly, and the two locked arms. Shannon Diaz, the event organizer, placed her hands on the pair’s intertwined grip and counted down from three to start the championship match.
It was over within three seconds. Thompson’s victory concluded Diaz's seventh all-girls arm-wrestling tournament in the past three years.
Café Berlin hosted the latest incarnation of the tournament Saturday night as a benefit to offset the costs incurred by a mid-January robbery. For the raucous crowd chanting, "Rip her head off!" the eight arm wrestlers were a big draw.
Braden, 30, is owner of the Maude Vintage clothing store in downtown Columbia. She was one of three former champions competing in the event, a first for Diaz's tournaments.
Still, Thompson, wearing her "muscle shirt" and wrestling for her fourth tournament title, had to be the favorite going in.
“I was a little worried,” said Thompson, after watching Braden roll to easy victories in her first two rounds. “But I knew I would leave here tonight a winner. That’s for fact."
Thompson said most of her strength comes from her job as a pole dancer.
“I had so many other things to do tonight,” she said. “But I knew I couldn’t sleep tonight if I didn’t keep this title.”
Thompson’s title defense helped draw a diverse crowd, including her friends Josh Fancher and Cassie Wampler, who said they were there to support Thompson and watch her “defend her honor.”
Other spectators and participants came for a variety of reasons.
Gail Plemmons, wearing a denim jacket covered in decorative patches, came as a fan of John Sheffield, one of two musical performances preceding the arm-wrestling. Once Diaz started circulating the sign-up list, Plemmons decided to sign up to compete.
“I’ve been lifting weights lately and just now realized I’m getting some muscles,” said Plemmons, one of only a handful of middle-aged women in attendance. “This helped me see I’m making some progress. I have pretty high testosterone ... the fantasy (of impressing the younger wrestlers) is what spurred me."
MU student Polina Yamshchikov decided to attend after reading about the
event on a “missed connections” listing on Craigslist's personals section.
After the event’s conclusion, shortly after midnight, Diaz dubbed this most recent edition of her brainchild a success.
“This was the first time we had it at a place that’s not a bar,” said Diaz, who also competed and wrestled to a controversial first-round draw. “It was fine; it was a nice change. As long as there’s arm-wrestling and girls, I’m OK.”
But, as she reflected on previous tournaments, Diaz had a hard time remembering how she first started holding them.
“I thought it’d be funny. I don’t remember why,” Diaz said. “I definitely didn’t think I would win. I never will win. I’m not that strong ... I like lame sports like that. I have ideas ... but it’s one of the only ideas of mine that’s actually worked.”
Diaz was happy, though, with how what began as a random idea has turned into such an event.
“It’s like 'Girls Gone Wild' but really cool,” Diaz said. “There’s no weight or age or strength brackets. They’re just out for blood.
“You’d be surprised how seriously some of these girls take it. They don’t give up.”
Diaz did make the decision from the beginning to restrict the competition to women.
“Guys are meatheads, and they always get to arm-wrestle,” she said. “Some guys have asked me, 'What if I dress up in drag, can I compete?' I always tell them, 'No, man. Just enjoy the show.' It’s fine if they want to arm-wrestle the girls after the match, but we won’t count it.”
Thompson did take on a male challenger, Jack Falby, immediately after her championship match. She lost in a close match. The crowd, though, was firmly on the side of Thompson, shouting, “You suck!” in Falby’s ear and turning the music progressively louder throughout the match.
“My arm hurts,” Falby said afterward. “I thought I was going to get my ass kicked.”
Thompson responded by saying that she “beats guys all the time” and “totally let him win.”
The crowd left happy, most heading to a bar together to celebrate the night. All the calls of “over the top,” references to the 1987 Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling movie, and “kill, kill, kill,” all the profanity-laced cheers, all the competitive hostility of the eight arm-wrestlers faded quickly from memory as the participants left arm-in-arm.
“It’s really crazy,” said Café Berlin manager Marlene Stevens-Hanson of the event that raised $250 in donations. “It’s an every-age ordeal. Really all the best artistic minds in Columbia like to watch girls arm-wrestle people. I don’t know what that says about them, but it’s pretty cool.”