The Gentle Giant: Huge Hands, Huge Expectations And One Big Comeback
One look at Jeff Dabe and his 19-inch forearms will tell a story of a man who possesses super-hero like arms and hands fit for a giant. But Jeff Dabe doesn’t live in a fairy tale or in the pages of a comic book. He’s a real man with real arms, and he’s had a really interesting journey climbing to the top of the arm wrestling world.
Like many athletes, injury entered Dabe’s life and could have sent the train off the tracks, derailing a promising career; but Dabe didn’t want to be defined by injuries, and he certainly didn’t want to stand idle while his natural advantage — paws fit for bears — atrophied on the sideline. So while the media may hype him up as a freak of nature, he’s actually a lot more than that. He’s a husband, a father, and a competitor. He’s an athlete who has overcome and triumphed. Here’s how Jeff Dabe went from a Minnesota kid with uncomfortably big hands to a legend in the growing community of arm wrestling.
Who is Jeff Dabe?
Jeff Dabe was born in 1963 in the small town of Stacey, Minnesota, located about 40 minutes from Minneapolis. Being from a small town, with a population well under 2,000, may be the only part of Jeff’s life that is small. They say everything is bigger in Texas, but, really, everything’s bigger in Jeff Dabe’s world.
Growing up in such a small town meant Dabe and his outsized hands stuck out even more. He was like a fish out of water, except he wasn’t struggling for air. What he was struggling with was finding his place, finding out why he had huge arms and, more importantly, what he could do with them. There had to be a line of work or some skill where his massive pipes could be utilized for more than their looks.
Born with his signature massive-arms, doctors were initially concerned that Dabe suffered health problems that would linger throughout his life. After all, having hands that big is usually an ominous sign of things to come, and babies born with arms bigger than an adult male’s leg naturally would raise some alarms.
Fortunately, after many tests and doctors visits, Jeff was given a clean bill of health by the University of Minnesota hospital. All he had was big hands and nothing else. Maybe, the very thing people were fretting about would be Dabe’s ticket to fame and fortune. Maybe the thing that concerned doctors most would be the thing in Dabe’s life that helped him most.
As Jeff grew, so did his arms, albeit disproportionately to the rest of his body. He and his family quickly found great uses for his massive pipes, because as they say, use it or lose it. So growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota presented a perfect opportunity for Dabe’s father to put his son to work and for Dabe to develop his latent strength.
Based on photographic evidence, he provided a huge hand on the farm and redefined the meaning of farm hand. Some people can palm basketballs, Dabe could (probably) palm a bale of hay. What he can’t do is use an iPhone, or any touchscreen phone for that matter. The touchscreen proves to be too small for Dabe, forcing him to use an archaic flip phone. But who knows, maybe the simplicity and ability to disconnect from emails and social media would actually be a nice touch, a way for him to escape the celebrity status he never asked for.
In high school, Jeff took up wrestling, a perfect sport to utilize his abnormally large arms. For those of you who don’t know, Minnesota is one of America’s most passionate states about wrestling; one could even call it huge, even more so than his hands. But wrestling wasn’t his true calling, wasn’t his true passion, and certainly wasn’t going to be his future.
It wasn’t a sport that put all of its focus on huge hands, and the singlet, by the looks of things, seems uncomfortable at best. There was only one sport for that- arm wrestling, and before we talk about how Dabe came to discover his true passion, let’s take a look at one of the world’s oldest, purest sports.
The History of Arm Wrestling
Arm wrestling’s origins can be traced back to at least 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. Turns out the Egyptians were passionate about more than just wrapping up their dead in elaborate dressings and intricate coffins. The ancient Egyptians, a highly organized and structured society, used arm wrestling to determine who had the strongest arms, a sign of superiority and dominance.
Ancient Greece was also an arm wrestling hotbed. As many of you know, the Greeks prided themselves on physical activity and competition. Olympics anyone? Wrestling there was huge (Grecco-Roman style), but arm wrestling was also prominent. It allowed the lazier Greeks, the ones who had too much feta cheese and pita bread, to get involved in competition and prove their worth to society.
However, arm wrestling as we know it today developed in what is modern-day America. Originally, the sport was practiced by Native Americans and spread to frontiersman traveling through uncharted territory. It was a test of strength and friendship. Yet, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the sport really developed and got some structure.
Bill Soberanes, a journalist, organized the sport’s first sanctioned match at a bar in Petaluma, California. Over the course of the next 10 years, the sport continued to grow and, in 1962, the annual competition moved from the small saloon to a much larger auditorium in Petaluma. Here, in this auditorium, arm wrestling officially got its big break.
Six years later, the wildly popular “Peanuts” cartoon featured Snoopy arm wrestling his way to the championship match in Petaluma, but because he lacked thumbs, he was disqualified from the event. How, then, did he get to the championship match to begin with? We’ll never know. Although the cartoon was fiction, the results were real.
The sport’s popularity skyrocketed as people discovered the sport on a large scale, and in 1969 ABC’s Wide World of Sports televised the championship. For the next 16 years, ABC continued to televise the championship as the sport became integrated into American society, from friends arm wrestling over a slice of pizza to amateur competitions held at the local bar.
Today, the sport features multiple governing bodies staging competitions around the world. The premier governing body is the World Arm wrestling Federation. Founded in 1977 and headquartered in Bulgaria, the WAF organizes the Arm wrestling World Championships, considered the most prestigious arm wrestling event. It’s the Super Bowl of arm wrestling, the signature event that attracts thousands of people from all corners of the earth, the ultimate test of arm strength and grip technique.
The World Armwrestling League, another major governing body and the fastest growing arm wrestling organization in the world, is the league of choice for Jeff Dabe. It’s the league where he makes his side money and solidifies his image as one of America’s premier arm wrestlers. And with that, let’s head back over to the life of Jeff Dabe and understand how he went from farmhand to nationally ranked arm wrestler.
Dabe Gets Involved With Arm Wrestling
During his senior year of high school, Dabe began his arm wrestling career, a move that would shape his future. Time to swap the singlet for a t-shirt and back pins for arm pins. As a senior in high school, Dabe was given the nickname “Popeye,” a very fitting moniker for a man possessing arms that have a 19-inch circumference, about six inches larger than the average American male bicep size of 13-inches.
Although Dabe doesn’t chew on a corn cob pipe, wear a white paper-boy hat, or have a faded anchor tattoo on his arm, there couldn’t possibly be another human being with a closer resemblance to one of America’s favorite comic characters. There couldn’t be another man more deserving of the nickname than Jeff Dabe.
Fast forward to 1986, a year that had two monumental and massive sporting events occur. The Chicago Bears and their lovable, large defensive tackle William “Refrigerator” Perry defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, and even Perry, despite slow feet, managed to have a rushing touchdown in the big game.
Although the Bears have yet to win a Super Bowl since and the Fridge’s career fizzled out shortly after his Super Bowl triumph, big men ruled the land. Finally, and long overdue, it was the big man being popularized and glorified like never before. It was The Big Mac burger, a national hit consumed by millions every day, that helped boost McDonald’s to fast-food superiority. Everything in America at this point was just bigger. And better.
Meanwhile, Jeff Dabe, a loveable and famous man, at least in his hometown of Stacey, had his own monumental event, albeit a negative one that would send his career to a halting stop. After a grueling competition, Dabe tweaked his elbow, a far too common injury that alters the careers of arm wrestlers everywhere.
The injury, occurring in Dabe’s dominant right-arm, prevented the local legend from competing. So as one man’s career reached its pinnacle, another man’s spiraled into a pit of misery. One man basked in the glory of winning while another figured out how to change careers and passions. One man raised the Vince Lombardi trophy while another man couldn’t even lift his own arm.
With his good hand out of the fight, Dabe decided to prematurely end his arm wrestling career. In fact, his career took a 26-year hiatus. A farmer from a young age, Dabe turned back to what he knew best. He left the arm wrestling circuit and took up a job on a farm working with and operating heavy machinery.
Far from the glory of being an arm wrestling icon, Dabe seemed to be content with the cards he was dealt. Big hands, big equipment, and little worries. The injury would heal, hopefully, and Dabe would continue to live a quiet life and let arm wrestling become a distant memory of the past, a photo on the wall of his younger years.
Why His Hands Are So Big?
So you may still be wondering why Jeff Dabe’s hands are the way they are. Surely something must be wrong. Although he was born with a clean bill of health, maybe problems developed as he aged? Legends like Andre the Giant suffered from gigantism, a rare disease that causes excessive, abnormal growth.
Although not a lethal disease, gigantism can be severely debilitating with people reaching heights of over 7-feet and weights easily above 400-pounds.
Thankfully, modern advancements in medicine have given people with gigantism the option for surgery which can remove tumors that cause the exponential growth. About 80 percent of gigantism cases, in fact, can be cured by a relatively simple surgery.
Another disease that can cause large limbs and excessive swelling is elephantiasis, a disease that affects less than 1,000 people per year in the United States. But in other parts of the world, such as Africa and Asia, this disease is much more prevalent. Caused by the bight of a mosquito carrying parasitic worms, this disease spreads to one’s extremities, causing severe inflammation.
Although it’s treatable, it is often incredibly painful and severely affects one’s quality of life.But for Dabe, it was neither of these diseases. It was simply rapid growth that caused his hands and arms to skyrocket to nearly-unimaginable sizes. Now that we’ve put your worries to bed, let’s get back into the life of Dabe.
Rise to Arm Wrestling Stardom
As we mentioned, Dabe essentially retired from the sport in 1986, following his elbow injury. In those years off, he worked and tried to live a normal life despite his outwardly abnormal appearance. Then again, living in rural Minnesota, off the grid and far away from any metropolis, is a pretty surefire way to avoid publicity.
But the craving for arm wrestling could never be satiated, and the sense of belonging in a community he loved lingered in his mind. Dabe craved the pin, the adrenaline rush of defeating your opponent in the most primal of ways. He needed to hear the roar of the crowd when he stepped in the building and vanquished the most formidable of foes.
Exactly 26 years after his injury, Dabe made his comeback. It was in 2012 that Dabe realized that he had another arm to use, another arm ready to punish opponents while he grips them into submission. For a sport like arm wrestling, one arm is all that is needed to compete, and for Dabe, that one arm would be his ticket back to stardom, back to the life he so dearly missed.
It remains a mystery why Dabe didn’t attempt to use his left arm many years earlier, why he didn’t try and compete with his other massive arm, but when the lightbulb went off in Dabe’s head, it was go time. No more moping around. No more feeling sorry for yourself. No more waiting around.
Legends are made during the comeback. It’s the story of the athlete recovering from devastating injury that inspires people and defies conventional logic of what the body is capable of. The comeback is woven into the fabric of society in America. It happens in Hollywood and at home, and from a young age, anyone who plays or follows sports knows just how important the comeback is.
It’s glorified in movies and on sports fields nationwide. It’s Teddy Bridgewater returning to play following a horrific knee injury that gives people goosebumps on their arms. It’s his triumphant return to the field after an injury that had doctors saying his career was done. Injuries may be devastating, but a triumphant comeback can make all of the pain go away.
With that in mind, that quest for glory, Dabe began arm wrestling on the local Minnesota circuit, and with each match, his legend – and the audience – grew. Momentum is one of the most fascinating aspects of sports. A hidden element, momentum can be captured and harnessed but not defined. There’s no way to plan or prep for it, but once you have it, you ride the wave for as long as possible.
And that is exactly what Jeff Dabe did. He used his big arms and an even bigger wave of momentum to propel himself back into the sport. He was a freight train with no brakes, and anyone who stood in his way would be hastily demolished. Anyone who went up against Dabe went down just as fast.
Local bars sold out as fans poured in to see the massive hands work their magic. Either fascinated by his hands or inspired by the comeback, fans couldn’t contain their excitement for Dabe. The first stop of the comeback tour came at the Minnesota State Tournament, the state’s premier arm wrestling competition. The stage was set and the competition was top notch.
Dabe, not a man who trained seriously with weights, preferring manual labor and farming as his primary method of strength training, miraculously rose to the top of the tournament before taking first place. The comeback tour was officially in progress, and moving forward at a rapid clip. Against all odds, Dabe was back. The big man was on top once again.
With that state championship, Dabe was invited to participate in the World Arm Wrestling League circuit- the most prominent arm wrestling league on the planet. The competition would be fierce, but Dabe had a natural advantage and a 26 year craving for arm wrestling success. Big arms and an even bigger pool of motivation created a winning recipe that could not be contained, stopped, or altered.
Dabe’s potential — and power — were fully being realized. “I was always good at arm wrestling, but the size of my hands did shock people at first – I had the strength to back it up,” Dabe told the Daily Mirror. If the shock alone, from seeing his hands, didn’t already give him a competitive advantage, his sheer power certainly did.
On the World Arm Wrestling League circuit, Dabe has done considerably well, especially considering he is competing using his non-dominant hand. Imagine a pitcher throwing with their off hand or a quarterback passing touchdowns with their band hand. Almost unimaginable. Thankfully, arm wrestling is a little bit more forgiving in that sense.
One can succeed at a high level even while using their bad hand, and Dabe was no exception. With some of the cards stacked against him, Dabe has managed to exceed expectations and fulfill personal goals. He’s been able to re-write his story and star in his own personal comeback tale. “People freak out when they see my hands in real life,” Dabe said.
To date, Dabe has gone to the finals twice and placed third at the 2015 Northern Region tournament. Had he been arm wrestling with his dominant hand, there’s no telling how dominant Dabe would have been. Despite arm wrestling being a very specialized, niche sport, its popularity has rapidly grown with each passing year.
No, it will never supplant the NFL as America’s go-to sport. Nor it will replace baseball, America’s pastime that appears to be on its deathbed. What it will do is become a sport perfect for gym rats, brutes, and anyone else looking to prove to anyone willing to watch that they, not the competition, have the best forearms and biggest biceps.
At the World Championships, held in Las Vegas and televised nationally on ESPN2, the winner takes home roughly $25,000. Not enough to buy a new Porsche, 25 grand definitely pads the bank account, and more importantly, their fame and conquest is televised on national television for anyone willing to tune in. With each passing year, the publicity increases and so does the payday.
Not a bad haul at all, and with local, regional, and national tournaments held relatively frequently, arm wrestling has become a major way to supplement income. Maybe, just maybe, a professional arm wrestler will one day be able to live entirely off the sport. That day may not be soon, but it isn’t too far fetched a dream, and it’s people like Jeff Dabe paving the way.
In an interview with News.co.au, Dabe expressed his gratitude for the World Arm Wrestling League.
“Thanks to the World Arm Wrestling League I am now competing with people from all over America.”
And the competition allows him to travel across America. He’s not traveling on private jets or staying in 5-star hotels and resorts. What he is doing is seeing the country and treating fans to an unforgettable experience.
“It’s so fun to travel to places we wouldn’t normally go,” Dabe said to News.co.au.
Yet, despite the travel and newly found celebrity, Dabe remains humble. He doesn’t feel like a superhero or a legend. What he is is a silent star. Finding fame and fortune isn’t his focus nor is it his goal, and that alone is honorable, commendable, and respectable.
His Biggest Supporter
To be the man Jeff is today, to complete the miraculous comeback, Jeff needs an anchor. And whether he’s anchoring opponents to the table or getting pinned himself, Jeff has a loyal supporter in his wife Gina. He has an unwavering pillar of support that, no matter what happens, will stand strong, side-by-side with her husband.
Although, as Gina would say, meeting your future spouse at a bar is not advisable, that is exactly how the two met. Gina was out with a few of her friends when Jeff strolled in. The two locked eyes and, to make a long story short, the rest is history. Love at first site. Except we can’t confirm whether Gina locked eyes with Jeff’s hands or his eyes first.
The two, both from Minnesota, consider themselves homebodies, but in recent years have been afforded the luxury of travel thanks to Jeff’s line of work. They’ve been able to escape the harsh Minnesota winters and see parts of the country that neither of them would have gone to otherwise, and that itself is a victory for Dabe and Gina.
Gina, one of the loudest, most vocal supporters out of the generally small, tame crowds at arm wrestling tournaments, stands in his corner no matter what. Win or lose, 100 people or zero, Gina is there yelling words of encouragement for the man she fell in love with years ago.
“I always encourage Jeff no matter what he does – and it’s so fun, Gina told the Daily Mirror. “Everyone thinks Jeff is really funny and we do lots of goofy things together.”
“I love the tournaments, and he gets me on airplanes to nice hotels and beautiful places,” Gina said. “We are so proud of him.” Clearly the Dabes are taking advantage of Jeff’s line of work and are utilizing his big arms for more than victories.
There’s no telling how Jeff’s future in the arm wrestling circuit will pan out, but two things that will remain constant in his life are his wife’s support and the amazement fans and cursory passersby show in his massive arms. It’s safe to say that Jeff Dabe is a big deal.