ATLANTA (AP) — Geoff Hale is a mild-mannered, bespectacled geologist by day.
He takes on a whole new persona when he steps into The Pit.
Eyes bulging. Muscles popping. Boasts flying. Adrenaline flowing.
He becomes the Hale Raiser.
"We all hold it in, because we're a civilized society, but to be put in an environment where you can just go crazy out there ... it's just freedom is what it is, " Hale said, his voice rising excitedly. "Freedom to be that animal, that beast, to let loose that natural killer instinct. That's what comes out when you're on the table."
Hale competes in the World Armwrestling League, a fledgling organization that hopes to take this most basic of sports beyond the barroom, to make it something more than a simplistic way to determining who buys the next round of beers and a punchline for Sylvester Stallone's 1980s crime against filmmaking, "Over The Top."
The WAL held its final event of the season Wednesday night at the TBS studios near downtown Atlanta, doling out some $100,000 in prize money during a production that borrowed heavily from the theatrics of wrestling (an actual pile of cash was placed in the middle of the table for the matches) and the hype of a heavyweight title fight (an announcer's booming introductions accompanied the athletes' entrance into the small arena).
"I believe we've tapped into something really cool," said Steve Kaplan, the league's president. "In today's world, there's not a lot of things that bring people together. The sport of arm wrestling does that, unlike anything else. You see just brutal competition and strategy and moves and counter-moves and people that just want to rip each other's arms off at the table. But afterward, there's always an embrace."
Arm wrestling is merely a part-time job for these athletes, who traveled to the Atlanta from seven countries and a wide range of backgrounds.
There was Hale, who runs a petroleum consulting firm in Oklahoma with his wife, has a 13-month-old daughter and competed in checkered Vans right out of the Jeff Spicoli Collection. After winning a four-man "battle royale," he had to catch an early morning flight to be back at work on Thursday.
There was David Chaffee, who works as a maximum-security jail guard in Erie, Pennsylvania. He broke his arm not long after taking up the sport but has come back stronger than ever, a 275-pound behemoth who routed his Bulgarian opponent with three quick pins.
There was Devon Larratt, a towering Canadian who is perhaps the sport's biggest star. The 40-year-old has done seven tours of duty in Afghanistan as part of special forces.
There was Fia Reisek, who grew up in far northern Sweden in a family of loggers, which made for a natural transition to arm wrestling. She has won several world titles and emerged as the strongest of four women competing in the WAL's middleweight division.
All seemed laid-back and downright normal. That changed when they were called to the table, egged on by the music and the lights and several hundred screaming fans surrounding The Pit.
Hale takes his cue from a famous cartoon character.
"Everybody loves Joker from 'Batman,'" he said. "He's funny, but he's evil. He's a bad dude if you really get down to it. That's kind of what I wanted to create.”