By day, Richard Lupkes farms the same 320-acres his father did in the southwestern corner of Minnesota. But in the world of professional arm wrestling, he's a local legend.
"I saw a poster hanging on a wall in a gas station," says the laconic Lupkes of his start in the '70s. "It was something to do."
Earlier this month, after forty years in the sport, Lupkes went to Nevada hoping to clinch a world championship title at the unlikely age of 54.[jump]
Lupkes is credited as a founding father of arm wrestling in Minnesota, when he schooled other farmhands in the local bars. His stature and tree trunk arms quickly pushed him into the spotlight as an up-and-comer. In 1988, he won his first world championship title in Sweden. He pulled off the same feat in '89.
In 1991, at the top of his game, Lupkes retired because of an injury. He returned to the life of a corn and soybean farmer, with some personal training work on the side.
Then, in 2007, Lupkes decided to come back to the sport. Still massive at over 300 pounds, he's been training hard, though he doesn't claim to have any special tricks -- it's just a normal lifting routine. He says he doesn't even practice before his tournaments.
"I always try to stay in good shape," he shrugs. "You gotta have a good strong hand and wrist."
Earlier this month, Lupkes headed for the World Armwrestling Federation Championships, held stateside for the first time in decades in Mesquite, Nevada.
Lupkes took the stage opposite Minabaddin Gurbanov of Azerbaijan, his first opponent in the Grandmasters Over-50 tournament. Seconds after the ref signaled the start, Lupkes wrenched Gurbanov's arm over the podium. If you blinked, you missed it.
The same fate awaited opponents from Russia, France and Canada. A bespectacled Lupkes seemed to stare straight through them, moments before he whipped one ropey arm after the next over the podium.
In his final match, he faced Gurbanov once more -- defeat for Azerbaijan was swift and final. Lupkes took the World Champion title in the Grandmaster class for the U.S.
Though he'd planned to compete in the open category for his old '88-'89 title as well, Lupkes was lured away to Las Vegas to compete in "Arm Wars," a special exhibition with eight of the most elite arm wrestlers in the world. He faced the world's highest ranked arm wrestler, Canadian Devon Larratt. But in all six of their back-to-back face-offs, Lupkes came up short. Though he swept the rest of his competition, he left without an overall victory.
"At my age, that's pretty good," he says.
Lupkes is considering another tournament in March in Ohio or taking a shot at his old world title again in 2011 in Kazakhstan. But the Nevada trip also caught the eye of the British promoter of Arm Wars. Lupkes says he's been invited to compete in another match in England, which means he could be hanging up his coveralls to arm wrestle across the pond for a much larger audience.
"It's huge over there," he says. "Two-hundred million people watch it."
Here's a fan video of the Lupkes's performance in Mesquite. The match against Russia starts at 1:25:
Here's his 1988 world championship victory: