John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
James "Tigermonkey" Isaacs was having a rough year. Then he started thumb wrestling.
How formidable of a thumb wrestler is James Brent Isaacs? To give you a hint, one of the last guys who challenged him wound up on crutches.
"He started to get really flashy, tried to twist his arm around," says Isaacs, a 27-year-old aspiring actor who works as a runner in a Los Angeles restaurant. So he turned his own arm to counter the move. "I heard him go, 'Oh! Oh, my god!' He was holding his leg, saying, 'Someone call 911!' I could see through his jeans that the knee was twisted to one side."
Although the gruesome injury wasn't as death-dealing as, say, the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique – the man was able to pop the knee back into its socket – it did add to the fearsome legend of James Brent Isaacs, Thumb Warrior. Today, Isaacs goes by the nom de guerre "Tigermonkey" when playing Norman Mailer's favorite sport, because his burly, double-jointed digit pounces like a jungle cat and dodges like a methed-out orangutan. His record is impressive: Out of maybe 1,000 battles he's waged since the third grade, he says he has lost not a one.
"I truly believe there's one thing everyone has inside them that they can do better than anybody else. Some people can swim, others are good at singing, others are track stars," Isaacs says. "I thumb wrestle. That's my thing."
On August 3, Tigermonkey will show the whole of civilization his ferocious "Thumb Fu" skills in Lowestoft, England, a former herring-fishing village that now hosts the annual World Thumb Wrestling Championships. History is fingerprinted with other planetary championships, like one in a Queens bowling alley and another in a bar in Bundoora, Australia, but Lowestoft is the undeniable biggie. To quote the WTWC, it is one of the "most nail-biting, nerve-shredding sporting events around." Think Enter the Dragon with fighters who are slightly less athletic and take breaks to quaff beer.
Mysterious assassins with names like Thumderbird, Thumberlina, the Thumbertaker and Jack the Gripper gather at Lowestoft's Triangle Tavern, where they stick their extremities into a plastic wrestling ring and fight to the death... well, to the annoying feeling of having someone's muscled paw squeezing the daylights out of your thumb. The event attracts top-notch talent, with last year's men's tournament bested by a dude who likes to wrestle two players at once with his eyes shut.
The looming thumb-off will be the biggest in the championships' five-year history, with more than 100 weirdly gifted people prodding and poking for the title belt. They hail from countries all over the globe, including Ireland, France, Poland, Germany, the U.S., South Africa and Australia. If landing in London, they'll travel northeast for about 120 miles, past wonderful landmarks like Snab Hill, Sallow Walk Covert and Mutford Big Wood until they reach Lowestoft, a quaint town of about 65,000 souls that also happens to be the easternmost settlement in the U.K.
Lowestoft once was waders-deep in fish money, and when that industry dwindled it became a launching point for petroleum exploration in the North Sea. But a couple major shipbuilding companies shut down in the '90s and other employers handed out layoffs, and today the municipality is mostly a draw for vacationers who visit its Victorian gardens and joyride donkeys on the beach.
The international thumb fracas is the "biggest event" in Lowestoft, potentially pumping £100,000 into the local economy, says the championships' inventor, Rory Van Bellis. He asserts with authority, if perhaps not 100 percent accuracy, that the hamlet was a natural spot for an ultimate thumb showdown: "Thumb wrestling is engrained in the history of Lowestoft, as herring fishermen (when that was the life bread of Lowestoft's economy in years past) used to thumb wrestle to keep their digits strong and agile for the rigors of fishing."
The woman to beat this year is "Big Digit," who allegedly hones her game by hunting rabbits and badgers and thumbing them into "meaty pulps." And in the men's category is Graeme "Flash" Cunningham, a 33-year-old systems engineer from Edinburgh who emerged victorious in 2012 atop a pile of 29 crushed thumbs.
Cunningham's also the guy who wrestles with his eyes closed. "This is not intended as any disrespect to my opponents," he explains, "simply that I feel that reacting from instinct rather than with visual cues allows me to move faster. I call this having 'Thumb Sense.'"
In the lead-up to the big match, contestants have locked themselves into strict training routines. Cunningham is asking his family to text rather than call his phone so his thumbs get a "regular workout." In Los Angeles, Isaacs is rotating between chugging Muscle Milk, challenging random people in bars, and tying a belt around his thumb and stretching it back for 30-minute periods. He's gotten to the point where his friends refuse to wrestle him – they worry he'll "snap their thumbs" – and plans on taking it to the max by soon executing thumb pushups, "like Bruce Lee used to do."
Isaacs and his buddies are hoping to capture his journey from "zero to hero" in a documentary called Tigermonkey. As of Thursday night, they were tantalizingly close to getting funded on Kickstarter. (The Tigermonkey campaign expires on Saturday, so if anybody is thirsting to watch the Rocky of thumb wrestling, donate now.) Even if the cash doesn't come through, he'll still travel to the U.K., because this thumb war is personal.
The idea for becoming the best ever in thumb wrestling lodged in his head around 3 a.m. during a moment of introspection over how cruddy his life had become.
"Last year was kind of tough for me. I had a lot of medical and health issues, just one after another," he says. These include being accidentally stabbed in his restaurant and growing a staph infection in the wound, suffering two more infections after that, having an accident that bruised his ribs and lacerated his nose, getting a fourth staph infection on his chin and being anemic all throughout September.
That was also the month that his car died. "I had this thought in my head, I am a struggling actor in L.A. who works in a restaurant and has car trouble. It was too many stereotypes at once. It sent me into a deep depression, like, What is up with my body? Why does it hate me?"
So when Tigermonkey walks away from the world championships with a certificate and basket of gifts from the event's sponsor, a novelty shop (possible sample gift: "fanny soap"), he hopes to have a whole new attitude toward life.
"I just need this," he says. "Get me in good spirits, have something positive to dwell on."