XARM: All Hype, No Hyphen

Fightland Blog

By Justin Feinstein

A few years ago, propelled by the marketing savvy of one of the originators of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, XARM made a brief PR splash in the sports world. Though hailed by ESPN as “a sport for a new digital age," the arm-wrestling/MMA hybrid was written off by most as a gimmick, a blatant attempt to supplant the UFC as the next big, extreme thing. Did arm wrestling really warrant a platform beyond junior high school cafeterias and Over The Top reruns?

The brainchild of a few Seattle sports executives, XARM (pronounced “ex-arm,” not “zarm” or “kzarm”) was conceived over (a presumably alcohol-enhanced) lunch as an attempt to modernize arm wrestling for an MMA-accustomed world. Competitiors would be tied together with a strap and then allowed to punch, kick, elbow, or knee their opponents in an attempt to either knock them out or pin their hand. After toying with names such as WTF (seriously: World Tethered Fighting) and shooting an early promo with Danny Bonaduce, the execs settled on XARM and hooked up with Art Davie, a former advertising executive as well as the UFC’s original booker, matchmaker, and commissioner. Davie provided some MMA street cred as well as desperately needed marketing and promotional know-how.

One of Davie’s first moves was to organize a "boot camp," in which a mix of MMA fighters, arm wrestlers, and boxers could take XARM for a test drive. A key takeaway from these sessions was that the sport was too intense for five or even three-minute rounds. Thus the XARM tagline--"The Roughest Three Minutes In SportsTM"--was born.

While many assumed XARM would soon join the ranks of bankrupt, one-off, midlevel MMA promotions, the promotion has doubled down on its product, investing in two strategic marketing partnerships over the past year and a half. The first was with Endemol, who built the surprisingly enjoyable (and free) XARM F.U. video game, which “combines hardcore arm wrestling, kickboxing and jiu-jitsu to create the first hybrid MMA sports game blending both twitch elements and fighter management.” While it might sound presumptuous to create a video game for a sport no one knows about, XARM obviously knows their target demographic--young males who enjoy violence and sitting on couches.

XARM also claims that the confined quarters of its combat zone make the sport a natural fit for the small screen era. This line of thinking led them to partner with the YouTube behemoth Machinima, Inc., whose gaming-oriented video content has amassed more than 2.2 billion views. In additional to massive exposure, Machinima has provided amped-up production, complete with screeching bro-step soundtracks and hazy Instagram-filter inspired shots.

The XARM fighters themselves are an endearing lot. They do their best to hype and sell the fights via UFC-inspired confessional shots, but mostly they come off as a hodgepodge of third-rate MMA aspirants, UFC washouts, and street fighters. “I don’t do a whole lot of running,” brags Tater Williams, a fighter whose strategy before fights is to gain weight. "I think cardio is for women."

Of course whenever two combatants are harnessed together, there is always a chance that someone could get knocked out right now, but there is little in the way of technique in XARM fights, as footwork, a hallmark of every standup fighting style, is rendered moot. When there’s no distance, there’s no distance to close. So instead, we’re treated to a succession of wild hooks, deep leans, and dramatic head-fakes--the kind of thing that’s entertaining but offers little room for the development of individual fighting styles. In fact, the only technique native to XARM appears to be a duck-and-arm-pin-combo, which comes off less as arm wrestling than the squashing of an opponent’s hand to the table while cowering in a defensive posture. The move feels like just the sort of "boring" fighting XARM sought to position itself against and a problem no amount of glossy post-production or savvy marketing can fix.

Check out this related story:

Kingdom Come