- Associated Press - Saturday, February 7, 2015

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - Being featured on the AMC cable TV network reality series “Game of Arms” in 2014 helped John Heynoski Jr. elevate his passion for arm wrestling.

“It changed me to being more dedicated, to train harder,” said Heynoski, a 27-year-old auto technician who lives in Summit Township.

The unscripted series, which debuted in February 2014, featured Erie’s Team Relentless and regional arm-wrestling clubs from Sacramento, Calif.; New York City; Baton Rouge, La.; and Kansas City, Mo.

Erie’s Team Relentless members were Heynoski; world arm-wrestling champion Dave Chafee, 38, of Erie; James Wagner, 47, of Erie; Bart Wood, 40, of Millcreek Township; and Travis Bagent, of Charles Town, W.Va.

AMC in 2014 ordered 10 one-hour episodes, which were produced by Undertow Films.

The series attempted to depict the lives of the arm wrestlers behind the scenes. It showed how they trained and prepared physically and mentally for their matches, and looked at their lives outside the competitions.

AMC officials in the fall canceled the series’ second season.

Still, the four Erie athletes who competed for Erie’s Team Relentless pulled their share of national attention and helped bring their sport more into the mainstream.

“Before the series, I was not training 10-fold for the sport, and now I’m a much more serious athlete,” Heynoski said.

His father, the late John Heynoski Sr., won a world arm-wrestling championship in the 187-pound weight class in 1991.

“I’ve competed in six tournaments since the series, and I have only one loss,” Heynoski said. “It was a great opportunity to give me the drive to be the best arm-wrestler I can be.”

Heynoski said AMC officials decided to cancel “Game of Arms” because they don’t want to do another unscripted reality series.

“We were all disappointed when it was canceled, but it’s not over,” said Wood, a cement finisher who has longtime ties to arm wrestling as a competitor and referee.

Undertow Films is currently negotiating with other networks to possibly bring back “Game of Arms,” perhaps as early as 2016, Wood said.

Wood said the 2014 reality series “opened up opportunities for the sport to grow and gave me an opportunity to do more arm-wrestling refereeing.”

Wood has officiated arm-wrestling tournaments locally and regionally since 1994. He is the head referee of the World Armwrestling League, which formed in March and is based in Chicago.

“The sport has started to grow rapidly since the show,” Wood said. “It helped the World Armwrestling League grow.

“It was a fun experience with Game of Arms to be able to travel and have everything paid for,” he said. “It was stress-free. I enjoyed hanging out with my friends and doing something we love.”

“Game of Arms” also brought national attention to Chaffee, a corrections officer at the Erie County Prison, and his status as one of the world’s elite arm wrestlers.

“It brought more people into the sport,” Chaffee said. “People started watching the show, and then they would see you mostly around town and they’re like, ‘Hey, aren’t you that guy on the arm-wrestling show,’ ” Chaffee said. “That happened in the Cleveland airport. I’d get a chuckle.”

Chaffee won the 242-pound weight class right-handed title at the 2010 World Armwrestling Federation Championships in Mesquite, Nev.

After the World Armwrestling League formed in March, Chaffee competed in five WAL tournaments and did not lose a match on his way to winning every tournament, he said.

Chaffee is 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 270 pounds. He said he is one of the smaller heavyweights competing in the World Armwrestling League.

One opponent Chaffee defeated at a World Armwrestling League tournament in Atlantic City, N.J., in October stood 6 foot 8 inches and weighed 490 pounds, Chaffee said.

Chaffee advanced to the 2014 World Armwrestling League championship finals right-handed super heavyweight match on Jan. 10 in New Orleans. That tournament served as the 2014 championship event.

ESPN is filming eight one-hour episodes of World Armwrestling League tournaments.

The network’s first episode, scheduled for broadcast Feb. 13 on ESPN2 at 11 p.m., will chronicle the New Orleans tournament. Other future episodes will chronicle 2015 tournaments.

Chaffee said he is not permitted to discuss the result of his championship match before the broadcast airs in two weeks.

Wagner, a maintenance worker at Accuride, describes Chaffee - his friend and teammate - as “the biggest thing America has for arm wrestling.”

“Dave is the best or second-best arm wrestler in the world now,” Wagner said.

Wagner said his experience with “Game of Arms” was “cool and enlightening.”

“I realized it was a television show and a reality show, so certainly some situations were created, and definitely there was a general persuasion of where the producers preferred things to go,” Wagner said.

Participants from the five teams entered the series with different expectations, he said.

Wagner’s approach, he admits, was of tempered enthusiasm and slight pessimism.

“I went into it with the mindset, ‘Look at what I get to do with my friends,’” he said. “I certainly didn’t expect to be on a Wheaties box.”

Wagner hoped “Game of Arms” would seriously portray arm wrestlers for the extensive work, training and dedication required to compete and to reach the sport’s highest levels.

“I didn’t want our guys to be portrayed as … clowns,” Wagner said. “These guys are true, hard-core athletes. We train hard for these things, and that’s what we love. I don’t know if that was portrayed enough.”

Heynoski said he wouldn’t trade his “Game of Arms” experience for anything.

“I was a little upset when it was canceled,” Heynoski said. “I was early in the game and I was hoping a second season would give me a second chance to redeem myself from some losses (on the series) and show some improvement.”

Heynoski said traveling, competing and gauging how he matched up against some of the nation’s top pullers on the series exceeded his expectations.

“I never really experienced competition in arm-wrestling at that level,” he said. “I got to meet new people and make friends with a lot of these guys.”





Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com

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