Finger pulling is a straightforward sport for strongmen. The rules are easy to learn. There’s not much room for shenanigans. All you need are firm fingers, steely determination, and the ability to convert speed to power. It’s a simple concept: might makes right ...
The German Finger Wrestling Championship
On 30 April 2023, the bells of St. Peter and Paul’s church rang out across Mittenwald as they do every Sunday. The only people attending church on this particular day, however, were women and children. All of the men had gathered around a series of long picnic tables at the local gymnasium in their traditional costume. Seated in front of plates packed full of pork roast and dumplings they took turns yelling out ‘Au-erberg!’, ‘I-sar-gau!’, ‘Wer-den-fels’, ‘Schlierach-gau!’, or ‘Boarischa Woid!!’ in support of whichever of the combatants on stage had the upper hand at the time.
This gathering of finger wrestlers is all about deciding which of them was most skilled at pulling people over a barrel (or, over a table, as they say in Germany). To call it a German championship might be stretching things a little. Not a single finger hustler from outside of Bavaria dared to make an appearance. ‘Pull’, the referee exclaims. Facing off were the defending champion Josef Utzschneider, from Werdenfels, and Josef Brandhofer, representing the Isargau region. The two men have their hands stretched out at mid-table with their middle fingers hooked in a leather loop.
A Matter of Seconds
It only takes one second for both of their faces to be contorted and glowing red from the immense effort. Both men are driving their knees into the padded table edge, trying to gain leverage.
Two seconds. Utzschneider braces his free hand against the table leg. Brandhofer sprawls out flat on his stool, his legs outstretched.
Three seconds. Seated behind the two fighters are what are known as catchers. Any second now one of the two hook fighters is going to let go of the loop and come crashing backward with tremendous force and it’s up to the catchers to break their fall.
Four seconds. Brandhofer Joe has been pulled out of his seat and is laying halfway across the table. He’s now dangerously close to his opponent’s table edge, barely hanging on.
Five seconds. He’s holding on with all his might, like he’d rather lose an arm than allow someone from Werdenfels to beat him. This is it: the moment of truth.
The rules of the game are simple. Competitors are grouped into weight classes and then paired by a draw. When the referee yells out ‘pull’, you start pulling. There is a line drawn along two of the table edges. Whoever succeeds in pulling their opponent’s middle finger over the line on their own edge, wins. It’s a double-elimination format.
The Grand Finale: Utzschneider versus Brandhofer
When the dust settled after 440 rounds of wrestling, only two of the initial 163 finger fighters remained standing: Utzschneider and Brandhofer. Speaking of big, strong lads – the top flight of finger wrestlers were on deck. To reward competitors for participating, each of them is allowed to select a prize corresponding to their final ranking. Winnings include items such as tools, machine oil, or motorcycle helmets, for example. Finger wrestling is unquestionably a man’s game.
‘We didn’t come here to listen to somebody spout nonsense all day.’
Everyone in the venue fancies themselves an expert and has been thoroughly engrossed in the action for going on seven hours without any unwanted announcer interruptions. Regular beer breaks have certainly also played a part in keeping the afternoon from dragging on. ‘We’re not here to listen to anybody spout off’, the elder Utzschneider, whose name is Anton, makes clear. ‘All we need is for someone to get up there, read out the names of the lads about to have it out, and then get off stage.’ Quickly, his focus shifts. Will this be the moment that his son sends his opponent from Isargau packing? The old boys at the table, all of whom used to finger wrestle competitively, nod confidently.
Training with 52 Kilos of Concrete
The lawn next to the gymnasium entrance is full of men either doing some last-minute training, smoking, or both. Most of the men are tugging away feverishly at chest expanders. Some of them are squeezing hand grips. The tension is palpable. These men know that brute force alone won’t suffice to see them crowned national champion.
‘You need to be able to activate your fast-twitch muscles at lighting speed. When you hear that signal to start, you can’t hesitate for a millisecond’, one of the finger fighters told me. ‘You also need to be able to stand the pain’, he added. Finger wrestling is a five-tool sport, as it were. To compete, you need poise under pressure, strength, finger skill, speed, and stamina.
‘During a bout, there are up 200 kg pulling on your finger.’
Joe Utz spent months training twice a week at a tiny hobby workshop in Ohlstadt to prepare for the competition. Whether anything got worked on at the shop besides Josef’s middle-finger strength is difficult to say with any certainty. All we know is that Joe’s brother, another Anton, is a carpenter.
And that he also finger wrestles, obviously. They’re not men of many words. There are weights and concrete blocks laying under the workbench. ‘For the children’, Anton grumbles. ‘Ten, twenty kilos tops.’
In the centre of the workshop, a wooden table stands bolted to the floor. Mounted on its edge is a pulley through which a rope is threaded. One end of the rope attaches to a 52-kilo concrete block and the other to a little leather loop, just like the kind one would see at a sanctioned tournament. The loop is where fighters hook their middle fingers – left hand, right hand, doesn’t matter. Then the brothers take turns lifting the 52-kilo behemoth off the ground, seemingly without effort.
The weight dangles in the air as the two men stand there grinning. ‘This is nothing. During a bout, there are up 200 kg pulling on your finger’, Josef explains. You can’t keep that up for long.’ Ten seconds feels like an eternity. Your body keeps saying, ‘just give up!’ But I’m trying to make the guy across from me quit.’ Tough luck if you happen to draw the strapping 90 kg competitor as your opponent.
Finger Pulling is a Family Affair
When Joe Utz reaches out to shake your hand, you know what to expect. Thickly-callused hands – the size of bear paws, at least – taking you into their vice-like grip. ‘They pack a punch’, the machinist reflects with satisfaction. ‘The guy across from me knows what he’s dealing with right away.’ He says that big, strong hands run in the family. As does talent. Anton the elder was a perennial finger wrestling champion.
He won German and Bavarian titles. He even took home the most prestigious silverware of all, triumphing at the Alpine Open, in which Austrian fighters compete as well. Grandad finger wrestled. Great grandad finger wrestled. And on down the lineage the tradition goes all the way back to the time of the holzknechts (traditional Bavarian forestry workers), many of whom the Utzschneiders probably count among their forefathers.
That only makes sense for a Werdenfelster family. It makes even more sense once you’ve seen the surging white waters tossing and churning through the nearby Gleirschklamm Gorge. It’s not hard to imagine what type of man it must have taken to drive logs through that abyss and down into the valley below.
The Grand Prize is Glory
‘The lads have been facing off here with their fingers instead of their fists for at least 400 years at this point’, Anton, the elder Utzschneider states matter-of-factly. Back then, conflicts between parties would be decided in favour of whoever could literally pull their opponent across the table. These days, finger wrestling is about renown and not about being right. How pleasing it would be to watch his son send the fellow currently on stage with him home to Isargau with his tail between his legs.
At this point, Utzschneider Joe had already successfully dispatched six opponents within either one or two seconds. Josef Brandhofer had no interest in becoming the seventh. How would he fare against the champion? Several years had passed since someone last managed to pull him across the line. All of the sudden, it happens.
Josef Utzschneider buckles slightly and allows himself to be pulled back to mid-table. Six seconds. Roars of ‘Isargau!!’ and ‘Werdenfels!!’ go up from the crowd of 300 looking on. Both combatants are gasping for air. Seven seconds. In a flash, Josef is back on the front foot. Brandhofer has barrelled over the table. It’s over! ‘And your winner is Utzschneider Joe from Werdenfels!’ Cut to dazed backslapping. The champion strutting off. A brass band blaring.