Steve "The Animal” Walker sizes up Bill “The Beast” Runkle.
“Over there,” Walker whispers to his 18-year-old daughter, Madison, his eyes darting toward Runkle, the wide-shouldered man in the backwards hat.
For weeks, Walker and Madison have been studying YouTube videos of Runkle, a popular pick in this year’s national arm-wrestling championships: a man 12 years younger, and the best competitor in the room. The test.
At one time, Walker was ranked in the top-five super heavyweight arm wrestlers in the world. He hasn’t tasted a first-place victory since his oldest daughter, Devan, was born in 1999.
That’s why he’s here, 19 years later and nearly 100 pounds heavier, at the March 9 Winter Slam arm-wrestling tournament at the FOP Lodge 5 in Northeast Philly. The 6-foot-4-inch dark horse with the shaved head and broad grin is competing again for first place.
But does he still have it?
Walker is a retired youth corrections officer turned school security guard. At 6:30 every weekday morning, he walks 75-year-old secretary Mary Jane Mullen from her car to her desk inside Lenape High School in Shamong, N.J.
He grew up in a one-bedroom apartment, raised by a single mother and his grandparents in a poor Trenton neighborhood. He was always a bigger kid, and was reminded daily by his elders to protect and defend, never bully.
In 1988, at age 17, he was a 242-pound Trenton High School graduate who missed playing for the school’s football team. He spotted a flier for an arm-wresting tournament at a car dealership in Marlton. He went up against a man 20 years his senior, a truck driver and arm-wrestling coach who blew him off the table. But the coach liked the kid’s vigor, and helped nurture Walker’s passion for performance.
The sport became a lifestyle. In 1990, Walker met his wife, Tracy. Their second date was an arm-wrestling tournament in South Jersey. She admired the fellowship among the wrestlers, and the inclusion of their families. Arm wrestling is where they found a community.
After moving in with Tracy, Walker gained more than 30 pounds, and joined the super heavyweight ranks for wrestlers weighing 243 pounds and higher. He wore T-shirts saying “Steve The Animal,” and his trainers would smack him in the face before his matches.
In 1991, he placed second in the American Arm-Wrestling Association Nationals tournament in Georgia, which qualified him to fly to Israel to compete against the world’s best. He placed fifth, making him a top-five super heavyweight arm wrestler. A world-class grappler.
He stopped competing at 30, after his wife became pregnant. She couldn't follow him into smoky barrooms, and he wanted to be the father he never had.
Now he’s 48, Devan is in college and Madison isn’t far behind. It seems like a good time to make his comeback.
“It’s the circle of life,” Tracy says.
In February, Walker competed in his first tournament in nearly two decades, winning a few second-place medals. Not bad, but not good enough.
At weigh-in at the FOP Lodge, he tips the scale at 355 pounds. He enters three events: open-weight police, masters pro super heavyweight, and super heavyweight pro. He mows through the first two divisions, earning his first first-place finishes since the old days.
In the main event, though, he loses in the semifinals, missing the opportunity to face Runkle, who takes first place.
Walker isn’t satisfied. After the final match, he approaches Runkle. He has to know.
“You mind if we go right now?” he asks.
“Absolutely,” Runkle says. “Let’s go.”
Pound for pound, Runkle is stronger. But the art is 60 percent strength, and 40 percent technique. It’s about finger positions and grips. Winners focus on the wrists and hands, and pressure the weaknesses.
As “The Animal” and “The Beast” lock up, spectators and wrestlers stand on folding chairs to watch. Walker hears the whispers in the crowd: There’s no way the fat old guy who has trained for only two months can beat “The Beast."
A dance of sweaty palms begins.
Runkle’s advantage is speed. He attacks first with a lightning-quick pin attempt. Walker absorbs the first strike, and responds by bending back Runkle’s wrist, pulling his hand away from his body, applying pressure, separating Runkle from his power.
Three pumps later, and “The Animal” pins “The Beast.”
Runkle tips his cap: “You are one strong old dude,” he jokes.
Walker’s new goal is to return to nationals next year, and to win while his daughters watch. But he’ll be competing for a different group of kids.
Earlier this year, at a Lenape School District special-education competition, he noticed that the winners were awarded dinky trophies. So he started peeling off the engraved name plates on his past trophies and medals and is donating all of them to the program for repurposing.
He still has it — the heart of a champion.