two women in costumes about to arm wrestle
Kari Portis and Vico Suave (Vico Ortiz) at the Los Angeles Lady Arm Wrestlers' Fall Brawl. Photographs by Nick Dee
Identity

In a Downtown LA Warehouse, the Ladies Are Arm-Wrestling

A couple of times a year, people of all identities gather to determine the lady with the strongest arm in all of Los Angeles.
24 February 2020, 6:12am

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

On a platform above a roaring crowd, Mother Earth, played by Monica Percich, swathed in flora and flashing her literal bush, stares down Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader _Guns_berg, played by Vanessa Flanders, an attorney giving homage to her role model. Gunsberg has printed her insignia onto a sports bra, but has otherwise disrobed. A spotlight highlights the cut of her muscular body. The two women place their elbows on pads, position their right arms into 90 degree angles, grip each other’s hand, and push.

Like any good wrestling show, the Los Angeles Lady Arm Wrestlers (LA LAW) mixes performance with competition. During the final round of the Fall Brawl in November, the arm-wrestlers—and their entourages of sexy lawyers, feline fatales, and deadbeat dads—raised money for Women’s Center for Creative Work, an intersectional feminist community center.

Earlier in the night, a personified cactus, Prickly Pair, was wheeled into the ring in a giant terracotta pot. The overworked One Bad Mother (Shut Your Mouth) shoved a pie into sweet baker Lemon Meringue Sly’s face. Money-grubbing El Capitalismo accused their opponent of cheating and demanded a rematch—“That’s America for you,” quipped emcee Amanda McRaven—and lost again.

Ruth Bader Gunsburg (Vanessa Keiko Flanders) celebrates her victory alongside fellow competitor Katy Winterbottom-Winters (Alexis Sanchez).

Left to right: Trey (Taylor Orci) and Glittoris (Mary Borrowman).

Mother Nature's entourage member Bethany Vee watches the performance.

Though the league isn’t highly competitive, all the wrestling is real. Before competing, LA LAW holds an orientation to teach wrestlers proper form and the official rules of arm wrestling as outlined by the World Armwrestling League: Shoulders must be square, elbows can never leave the table, and players signify the start of their match by saying, “Ready? Go!”

After a yearlong hiatus, the league was performing at its new host venue, Angel City Brewery. LA LAW took over the massive brewhouse’s ancillary beer hall. The ring, raised on a platform, dominated the space in front of the stage, where McRaven kept up a lively narration of the matches.

By the time the first match began—Sister Patricia Pistolwhip, a devious, bloody nun, versus Prickly Pear, the potted plant—the crowd was dense and rowdy. Fans were dressed in sequins, drag, rainbow colors, and feminist slogan T-shirts. The room was full of LA LAW veterans, but also plenty of newcomers who tentatively joined in on the cheering and jeering, gradually becoming more invested as the tournament whittled down the 16 competitors.

Left to right: Mother Nature (Monica Percich) and El Brazo Capitalista (Coral Lobera).

Hosts Brian Allman and Lotte Bootay (Lauren Oppelt).

Brian Allman, Kevin Greene, Sister Patricia Pistolwhip (Provvidenza Catalano) and Lotte Bootay (Lauren Oppelt).

The organization loudly welcomes competitors who are queer, transgender, and gender non-comforming. Though LA LAW has “ladies” embedded into its name, not all of its participants identify as such. “‘Lady’ means ‘just not a dude,” explains Provvidenza Catalano, a co-organizer who competes as Sister Patricia Pistol-Whip. “It’s the best way to communicate who can wrestle.”

As she does at the beginning of every event, McRaven read LA LAW’s manifesto: “As an organization, we reject and resist sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, fatphobia, ageism, and classism.”

Alexis Sanchez, a transgender woman, joined the league as Brigadier Katy Winterbottom-Winter, a steampunk adventurer who whimsically dances her way into the ring. “I had a lot of reticence when I was thinking about competing because I thought participating in strength-based activities is a very male, gendered thing," she said. "I carried a lot of fears about it, but they’re great at making a radically inclusive environment.”

LA LAW is also conscientious of the other ways people can be excluded from progressive spaces. A lack of childcare support often forces new parents to drop out of sporting leagues. Emily Gibson, aka One Bad Mother (Shut Your Mouth), thrived in the league, despite exhaustion and postpartum depression. The Fall Brawl took place only seven months after Gibson gave birth to her son, and LA LAW made space in the dressing room for Gibson to pump breast milk so she didn’t have to skip the tournament. Gibson kept her pump on her when she roamed through the crowd. In the ring, she used diapers as elbow pads.

Betty Pain (Jacqui Martin) and Krafty Kitty (Alana Chevront).

Mother Nature (Monica Percich) and Lotte Bootay (Lauren Oppelt).

Prickly Pear (Karen Stasevich) at the Los Angeles Lady Arm Wrestlers' Fall Brawl.

The heel of the league—wrestling parlance for "villain"—of the league is Trey, played by Taylor Orci, who describes Trey as “a hot guy that hates to read, and he hates to lose.” Trey storms into the competition demanding LA LAW make room for men. He hands out his phone number to any woman who makes eye contact, buys drinks for ladies who rebuff him, and greets male spectators with a dick-tap. Trey's love of the ladies isn’t mutual. One woman splashed beer in his face to rebuff his advances. When he was on stage, the booing was so loud that Trey’s misogynist clapbacks were indecipherable.

“He becomes this cathartic character in the scope of LA LAW,” Orci said.

As I watched the show, the crowd got loose. Someone squeezed past me, growling, “Move it, sweetcheeks!” Surprised by their own behavior, they turned around to apologize: “Sorry, I meant it in the least misogynist way possible.”

In the championship round, Ruth Bader Gunsberg, bested Mother Earth. Flanders, who also trains in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Sumo wrestling, was confident in her athletic abilities, but didn’t consider herself a performer. Before the match, she had worried her lack of confidence on stage might hold her back. Surrounded by her sexy lawyer entourage, trophy in hand, Flanders pointed to the sky—number one. Just like in court, she loved to win.