PUNTA GORDA — A bevy of boisterous fishermen who had gathered under the shade of some gumbo trees at the Riviera Marina last Saturday hailed this passing reporter over to witness what they claimed would be the arm-wrestling bout of the century.
And fishermen never exaggerate, or so it would seem.
The match was to pit one of their own, second-generation Punta Gorda fisherman Jamie “Bull” Hendrickson, 35, against Port Charlotte block mason Ronnie Barrett, 45.
A mutual acquaintance had coaxed the contenders into the match because both have “unbeatable” reputations for this nonviolent form of barroom combat. Barrett, in fact, had just won a trophy at an arm-wrestling championship at Porky’s Roadhouse in Charlotte Harbor.
“They never gave me a trophy,” Hendrickson countered. “They just give me a beer.”
He was asked if he ever lost a match.
“Not that I can remember,” he replied. “I never arm-wrestled nobody better.”
“I love this,” exclaimed the promoter, who said his name was “Tommy.” “This is the baddest of the bad, right here, right now. This is Punta Gorda versus Port Charlotte.”
“It is the best of the best,” added Jay Peterson, who works with Barrett in Peterson’s company Jay’s Masonry. “I’ve arm-wrestled (Barrett). He slammed me, and I can hold my own.”
While both contenders work in a labor trade, their disciplines differ.
The 245-pound Hendrickson trains merely by hauling up nets holding up to a thousand pounds of mullet during winter spawning runs.
The 185-pound Barrett describes himself as “the guy who does pushups at every streetlight” while running across the Peace River bridges each morning. The 3-mile run, which entails 560 pushups, takes him about an hour.
“It makes my job easier,” he replied, when asked why he works out so much.
As anticipation began to build, some fishermen hauled a plywood fish box off one of their boats for a wrestling table. A few others entered into some friendly wagering while others sized up the contenders.
Dwight “Titty” Brown, 59, a retired mason himself, recalled arm-wresting Hendrickson when he was just a kid, “and he popped my arm like it was nothing.”
Barrett, who arrived on a Harley low-rider, seemed to brim with confidence.
“I’m an arm-wrestler, you know?” he said. “I don’t back down, I get down.”
Hendrickson, wearing a baggie T-shirt, shorts and rubber fishing boots, also seemed unfazed.
“(Just a) ’nuther day,” he said.
One fisherman held the wagers, another clasped both contenders’ hands, someone shouted “go.” And the arms of the titans were suddenly locked in battle. Muscles bulged. Faces grimaced. Groans erupted. The intensity was palpable.
And then it was over.
Like a linebacker refusing to be stopped, Hendrickson charged his way over Barrett to pin his hand to the table.
Only one problem. Hendrickson had lifted his elbow off the table during the rout, a clear violation of United States Armwrestling Federation rules, Barrett protested.
After a rematch ended the same way, Barrett showed Hendrickson a video recorded on a cellphone by one spectator’s wife. It showed Hendrickson’s elbow rising off the table by several inches.
The Riviera’s spectators didn’t seem to mind much, though.
“This is fisherman-style,” explained one, who identified himself as “Turkey Tom” Pegg.