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Grand Theft Auto Developer Produced This Arm Wrestling Doc

Monday, June 9th, 2014 by

The best documentaries usually take a while to produce. It took four years and lots of international travel to make “Pulling John,” and all of that work shows up on the screen. At a lean 72 minutes, every frame of this film delivers either key character development or is part of a tension build for tournament action.

The documentary follows three champions including two Americans – John Brzenk and Travis Bagent (shown in the photo above), and one Russian – Alexey Voevoda. Brzenk is an arm-wrestling legend having gone undefeated for 25 years, but the days of his dominance hang in the balance. Bagent is a wily, young West Virginian with a loud mouth, the desire to be the best, and a father who worships raw strength and runs a bar dedicated to the sport. “I like to treat people like children,” says Travis Bagent in “Pulling John.” “And I treated Alexey like a little child.”

Voevoda, on the other hand, is an even-tempered Adonis with steel in his blood like Rocky’s nemesis, Ivan Drago. “In the gym you will see how I will become champion,” Voevoda says in the film. However the Russian is also a sympathetic character with a philosophical side, who takes the time to bless himself before each match.

For the uninitiated, which is still most of America when it comes to this sport, Brzenk’s tournament record is astounding. Brzenk – a soft-spoken airline worker with a golly-shucks facade that hides a deep competitive streak – is much more than just the Michael Jordan of his sport because he’s beaten opponents for more than two decades. And this is one of the big reasons it’s fascinating to watch him squirm as he considers retirement.

Nothing about this doc doesn’t pop like a broken arm bone. As tightly edited as it is, the way it tells stories with graphics is equally as impressive. The history of arm wrestling is delivered in just over a minute: The first U.S. tournament took place in 1954 in Petaluma, Calif., but the real jolt arrived for arm wrestling when it had a highly rated run on ABC’s Wild World of Sports from 1969 to 1985. Two years later Sylvester Stallone starred in “Over the Top” (featuring a cameo from Brzenk) and that sparked growth of the sport internationally.

Co-directors Vassiliki Khonshari and Sevan Mattosian, and producer Navid Khonshari, later plow through what might have been a laborious review of the various pulling techniques. Instead they use a style based on Grand Theft Auto, a massively popular video game with a cinematic look that “Pulling John” producer Navid Khonshari helped create when he worked at Rockstar Games from 2001 to 2005. Since then he and his wife Vassiliki started their own production company, iNK Stories, which released “Pulling John” in 2009.

Flash forward five years and arm wrestling is rising once again. “Game of Arms,” a reality show about the sport that features Travis Bagent and many others, premiered in January on AMC. It was a big ratings hit. So get in on the game. “Pulling John” is available now from Indiepix via digital download, to watch on demand or purchase on DVD.

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