For mother-daughter duo, arm wrestling is a competition but also family bonding time

WINTER HAVEN

Inside the Saltwater Grill, a hulking man with Guns N' Roses on his headphones hopped from one foot to another, like he was readying for a fight. Another with a silver bike chain necklace stood in the back of the bar, trying not to worry about breaking his arm again. "Look at the belly on that thing," a 26-year-old was saying, pointing to his thick forearm. "It's like a 9-pounder."

Just then the glass door swung open and in stepped blond, green-eyed Charity Messer. She was a fluke of nature with barrel-shaped biceps and a lip-gloss smile, a 34-year-old mother who believed that a woman's place was in the home as well as in an arm wrestling competition.

Not far behind trailed her 14-year-old daughter, Cheyenne. She'd beaten women twice her age and weight and turned pro two years ago, at age 12. Her arms were almost as thick as her mother's.

They had come to compete against women from Canada, Missouri, Jacksonville — but no one had showed.

"They're all afraid of you," joked Todd King, an organizer of the "Battle of the Souls" arm wrestling match.

Charity's smile dissolved. She had driven two hours to get here, worked out for weeks to prepare.

There was still that $250 prize. She turned to Cheyenne.

"Let's arm wrestle each other," she said. "I'll split it with you."

Cheyenne looked at her mother: "What makes you think you're going to win?"

• • •

Charity was 9 years old when she entered her first arm wrestling match. Three years later, she wore a red ribbon in her hair and beat a woman who had been a world champion.

She learned arm wrestling from her dad, John Griffiths, a retired glazier who is now a Pentecostal pastor. He picked it up from his dad, who liked to say often: "I'll arm wrestle you for it."

Charity's dad got big in the world of pro arm wrestling. He won first in the country in 1989, second in the world in 1990. He collected a trophy for strongest man in Palm Beach in 1986.

Charity's dad taught her the top roll and the hook. He explained that a wrestler with smaller arms could best one with bigger arms. It was all in the wrist and who got the upper hand first.

As a teenager Charity won dozens of arm wrestling trophies. When boys approached, she'd tell them they had to arm wrestle her for a date. Cecil Messer came along when she was 14 and beat her. They married six years later.

Charity had children, and her interest in arm wrestling waned.

Then about three years ago, her brother won a national arm wrestling match. It brought back memories, reminded her of how her whole family would gather in her parents' back yard with 20 or so other arm wrestlers and work their arms on Sunday afternoons. Then they would get in her dad's van and travel to the meets. Even her mother and sister competed in a match or two.

The world had changed. But arm wrestling was still the same. It reminded her of her childhood, of drinking out of a hose and backyard barbecues.

Her kids were growing up. Cierra was 11. Cheyenne would be 15 soon. Every week, they got together to practice with other arm wrestlers in West Palm Beach, where they lived. They worked with bands and springs and weights and each other.

Cheyenne was like Charity. Arm strong and headstrong. She'd won first place right-handed in her weight class at state and nationals in 2011. And she was growing up fast.

Already she had her eye on a 17-year-old arm wrestler from Jacksonville who had asked her out at the last competition in Orlando. They were texting daily. He'd pledged his love.

"As soon as they start lifting their heads off your chest when they're babies, they're starting to let go," Charity said. "They're starting to fly away."

Arm wrestling kept them together.

• • •

Charity was bragging about Cheyenne. She did this often.

"It's like pulling an 80-pound dumbbell," Charity boasted to a table of arm wrestlers. "That's how much power she has."

Cheyenne sat at a table, eating chicken fingers. She had aqua eyes and wore a camouflage jacket over a strappy white tank.

Her 17-year-old boyfriend, Dalton Price, was playing with her flowing, light brown hair. He cuddled her in his linebacker arms, shaking his shaggy bowl-cut hair out of his eyes. He kissed her on the cheek and whispered in her ear. Then he squirted a ketchup bottle near her nose. She hit him on the shoulder with her empty water bottle.

Charity smiled.

"You being shy?" she whispered to her daughter.

"No," Cheyenne whispered back.

An arm wrestler from Missouri walked up and shook Cheyenne's hand.

"I've seen videos of you on YouTube," he said.

"She's the future of this sport," said another arm wrestler.

Cheyenne blushed. She had been hearing this more and more recently. Arm wrestling was one of those pastimes that had always struggled for respect. People were looking at her as the pretty face who could bust the sport out of the bar and lure some national attention.

A man with a graying beard walked up. Joel Youngs wanted to introduce Cheyenne to his 13-year-old son, who stood awkwardly nearby.

Youngs, 45, held out his arm to Cheyenne, jokingly. Soon their elbows were pinioned to the bar, their hands clenched tight.

Cheyenne grimaced. Her chin vibrated. And then she pulled his arm toward her in a hook and he strained back the other way, more urgently now.

"Holy crap," he said. "She is strong. Oh, my God!"

And then she had him, flat on the table. Pinned.

"I'm embarrassed," he said, shoulders sagging.

Challengers approached Cheyenne throughout the day. She beat another 14-year-old cheerleader with arms thick from carrying bags of feed on her farm, the bartender's slightly drunk 23-year-old boyfriend and a flirty 19-year-old named Nathan who had come to play pool.

Charity stopped Cheyenne only once — when Cheyenne was fighting to hold off a big guy in a Harley shirt and her shoulder moved in front of her forearm, a dangerous position that can lead to a broken arm.

In two years, she hoped to take her daughter to the world championship. In her vision, Cheyenne would win the lightweight category and she would take the middleweight.

But Charity wasn't about to let her daughter beat her today.

• • •

It was all rather official, with an announcer, referees, a bathroom scale for weigh-ins and a cameraman taking video for an extreme sports TV show.

Men with monikers like Godzilla and Mean One Grinch and the Bear Hunter grew red and grunted and became elated or deflated by a contest that was over in a matter of seconds.

And then it was Charity and Cheyenne's turn.

Mother and daughter stood on either side of the arm wrestling table, grim-faced. They rested their right elbows on pads, clutched fists.

Cheyenne was up on the tippy toes of her white sandals, one leg hooked around the table leg.

"I tell you what, the day Cheyenne beats Charity, that's going to rock," the announcer said, "isn't it?"

The referee released their fists. Cheyenne pulled hard, turning her wrist into a hooked grip and getting the upper hand on her mother.

Charity, who is 28 pounds heavier than Cheyenne, sucked her lips into her mouth and shook with the force of her effort. She tried to roll her wrist to counteract Cheyenne's hook.

They had practiced against each other in their back yard just a few weeks before. Charity felt like she was pulling against a big metal safe. But Cheyenne's resistance began to wane as the force of her mother's top roll pulled them back to even.

By this time, most matches were done. But the seconds continued to tick by as Cheyenne fought to keep her mother from winning.

"Oh, my God," Charity said. "She's stronger than I expected."

She said this right after she beat her daughter, but before she had time to think about the fact that the day Cheyenne would beat her and fly away was coming sooner than she expected and that she wasn't ready for that.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8640.

For mother-daughter duo, arm wrestling is a competition but also family bonding time 07/20/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 20, 2012 5:39pm]

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