Inspired by his hometown and fueled by tradition, Petaluma native Saleh (Sal) Khazal shocked even himself, finishing an astonishing second in the Ultimate Armwrestling California Championships in his first competition in the sport that has its American roots in his hometown.
“I had never even pulled on a table until I competed at the Fitness Expo in Anaheim,” he said.
He was given a quick lesson. His first opponent was the defending super heavyweight amateur champion, James Nicholas, and after one match, the Petaluman was 0-1.
Undaunted, he fought back, learning as he pinned five straight opponents, including a 6-foot, 6-inch, 330-pound behemoth from New York.
“Once I started winning, I got the momentum going and I just kept winning,” Khazal said. Grunting and screaming, “Petaluma Proud!” he fought his way back to the finals, where he again faced his undefeated first opponent.
This time the Petaluman prevailed, giving both men one defeat each, and setting up a winner-take-trophy match for the championship.
“I thought I could beat him, but he was desperate not to lose,” Khazal recalled. In an exciting battle that had spectators screaming, the Petaluman made a mistake and was pinned, settling for second place.
“I was disappointed I didn’t win, but I was proud of my silver medal I won in my first time in a tournament,” Khazal said.
An all-around athlete who played baseball and football at Casa Grande High School, Khazal wasn’t motivated by the hope of personal glory, but by a burning desire to gain recognition for Petaluma as the American roots of organized armwrestling — called wristwrestly during its heyday of international fame in the 1960s and ’70s.
“I wanted to show that armwrestling started in Petaluma and we could still do it,” he said. “That’s where my strength came from.
“I’m just doing it for the love of the game,” he added. “I want to bring armwrestling back to Petaluma.”
He said every time he runs by the Bill Soberantes statute on Washington Street, it rekindles his passion to bring the sport back to his hometown.
It also renews his determination to continue his own armwrestling career. And, he is serious about continuing in armwrestling.
“I’m taking it really seriously,” he said. “It is hard to find someone to practice with. I’m looking right now to find someone to pull with. If I can’t find someone, I’m going to train by myself. I want to reach the professional level.”
Bill Collins said Khazal might well have a future in the sport, and the promoter knows a thing or two about armwrestling.
He is a two-time world champion himself, has trained several world champions and hosted more than 300 events. He now runs a league for armwrestlers called the Ultimate Armwrestling League. He was also one of the original World Wristwrestling champions.
When Sal contacted Collins prior to the tournament, the promoter sensed there was something different about the Petaluman.
“His enthusiasm was greater than most,” he said.
Collins spent about 45 minutes prior to the tournament giving Khazal some quick training. It paid off.
“His techniques were spot on,” said Collins. “He beat guys who had already won two or three tournaments.”
Collins, who is working on a “big project” in Las Vegas he said would give national exposure to armwrestling, said he hopes to promote a tournament in Petaluma featuring a reunion of some of the greats of past years.