Ever the champion of the strange and unusual, Petaluma Argus-Courier columnist Bill Soberanes promoted a barroom battle of the brawn in the 1950s that would go on to receive international acclaim.
The World’s Wristwrestling Championship owes it all to Soberanes, who decided a mano-a-mano contest between town characters might provide good entertainment in a sleepy farm town north of San Francisco.
Back in the 1950s, patrons of Gilardi’s Corner saloon would demonstrate feats of strength in “wristwrestling” contests.
The matches caught the notice of Soberanes, who was fond of writing about the characters of Petaluma who gave the city its charm. Jack Homel, a visiting trainer for the Detroit Tigers baseball team, was overheard bragging that he never lost a match at the bar.
Determined to promote the strength of our local farmers, Soberanes challenged Homel in 1955 to compete against Oliver Kulberg, a local rancher known to be the “strongest” man in Sonoma County. The bout ended in a draw when the competition table collapsed to the ground. Thus, a Petaluma tradition was born.
In 1962, the event became known as the World’s Wristwrestling Championship and in 1969, co-founder David DeVoto attracted international competitors when he contracted ABC to cover it on the “Wide World of Sports.”
Soberanes and DeVoto wrestled with a number of celebrity contestants to promote the event. Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Liberace all participated in auxiliary rounds.
In 1968, cartoonist Charles Schulz drew a series of 11 comic strips that sent Snoopy to the WWC. After, entering the contest, the all-paws participant was eliminated early for having no thumb.
The World’s Wristwrestling Championship left Petaluma after Soberanes’ death in 2003 and moved to Reno.
Janet Balicki Weber