Wayne Withers was introduced to arm wrestling by his father, Tommy Withers, when the elder Withers ran a logging operation and was constantly challenging people to friendly competitions of strength.
The younger Withers stopped arm wrestling when he was 18, but after taking a job at a gas station whose owner also owned a gym, Withers went to the gym one day to pick up a paycheck and noticed a flier for an arm wrestling competition out of the corner of his eye.
Now, Withers trains four days a week at the gym, working out his wrist, hands, forearm and back. After not winning a professional match his first five years competing, Withers is currently ranked as the best right-handed arm wrestler in Mississippi and has participated in both national and international competitions.
This year alone, Withers won the Pound For Pound Arm Wars Championship, Alabama Overall King of the Table Championship, the Coney Island Clash in Hattiesburg, the Contraband Days Louisiana State Championship in Lake Charles, La., and the Overall King of the Table Championship at the World Armwrestling League tournament in Scranton, Penn. He also placed second in the Unified Nationals competition in Anaheim, Calif., and is currently preparing for a Supermatch with Matt Mask on Sept. 28 in the Mississippi State Championships.
“This is by far my biggest year,” Withers said.
And the recognition he’s earned in the arm wrestling world has been edifying, as Withers was picked by fans online prior to the Unified Nationals competition in Anaheim to win.
“They had a poll on the Internet asking who was going to win nationals (in my class), and people kept replying and saying Wayne Withers,” Withers said. “I told myself even if I don’t win, just getting that kind of respect in the arm wrestling world is amazing and worth a lot.”
It wasn’t an easy road for Withers at first. A Leake County native and current resident of Neshoba County, Withers said the flier in the gym years back led to him competing in his first tournament and winning without much effort. A trop to Little Rock, Ark., for a professional tournament opened Withers’ eyes, however, as he was defeated both times and told a state tournament was more his level.
The first five years, Withers said he never won a professional match unless he was paired against another amateur. A second-place finish in the amateur division at the Alabama State Championships left Withers dejected until a pep talk with a referee there who also competed.
“He said when he first started he went to 14 tournaments and never won a single amateur match,” Withers recalled. “I asked him if he meant he never won a tournament, not a match, and he said, ‘No, I never won a match.’ His dad told him he loved him but said he might want to think about another sport.”
The referee went on to explain that he eventually ended up ranked No. 2 in the world three times despite the early hardships.
“‘Never give up’ was his message,” Withers said. “This guy was 60-something years old and was unbelievably strong.”
Not long after that state tournament, Withers went to his first arm wrestling practice in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and was getting beat when a 55-year-old national champion came over and began giving Withers advice.
“He said, ‘Son, you’re not using half of your power,’” Withers said. “He showed me how to harness my power with the right technique, and after that, it was almost a complete turnaround.”
The success has been much sweeter thanks to the early struggles, and Withers said the competitiveness is part of the reason he continues to arm wrestle. He also enjoys making friends with the people he meets through competing in tournaments.
“If I can beat the guy across the table from me, it’s a good feeling,” Withers said. “I love everything about it. I’ve met people from all over the world, and when I see these guys (at tournaments), it’s like a family reunion since we haven’t seen each other in so many months. We’re all buddy-buddy and having a good time.”
The sport also keeps him going to the gym, which is another plus.
“I can’t say I’m tired on a particular day so I won’t go, because the guys I’m going against are going, so it keeps me in better shape as well,” Withers said.