DURHAM — With a touch of the outlandish pageantry that marks the staged mayhem of a televised smackdown, a woman who called herself Monster Cookie claimed the championship of a Bull City charity tournament for female arm wrestlers.
Her arm was sore and slippery with the sweat that covered most of the rowdy crowd packing the balmy back patio of the James Joyce Irish Pub on Saturday night.
Monster Cookie, known by day as Khuwailah Beyah of Durham, was prepared to call it a night, but someone from the crowd offered a $50 donation if the champ arm wrestled Heidi Williams, a spectator who dubbed herself Hardcore Heidi for the challenge.
Robert Bland, one of the arm wrestling judges, protested loudly. This is the champ, he said. Her agent won't let her wrestle for less than a $100 donation, he said. No, make that $200.
Within minutes, audience members passed up a total of $300 in cash to see Beyah take down one more challenger just before midnight. That capped the first League of Upper Extremity Wrestling Women of Durham tournament, which raised more than $3,500 in three hours for the Durham Crisis Response Center, which provides shelter and support services to domestic violence and sexual assault victims.
Most were not surprised to see Beyah, a 30-something executive assistant at Duke University, dominate the competition.
"I am as strong as an ox," said Beyah, who says oatmeal cookies are her kryptonite.
But onlookers and organizers said they were surprised by the contestants' creativity and the intense enthusiasm that pulsed through the crowd.
"It was a phenomenal event," said spectator Ryan Kennedy, 26, a Self-Help Credit Union analyst. "I have never seen so much tenacity from so many strong and powerful women."
A board of seven established the Durham arm wrestling league after reading a February article in The Washington Post about similar groups popping up from New Mexico to New York. They hope to hold a second event this fall, said founder Diana Barden, 29, a UNC Hospitals nurse.
Emily Carmody, a Durham Crisis Response Center board member, touted the event's concept of using strong women and entertainment as a way to tap donations in the face of the recession's aftermath.
"There is always going to be a reduction in donors in times like these, but if you can come up with innovative ways to fundraise, there is money to be found," Carmody said.
Strength and creativity
About 9 p.m. Saturday, announcer Wendy Tonker kicked off the fundraiser. Contestants faced each other on a raised picnic table. Referee Lars Jarkko would make the women start over if they turned their shoulders too much or rose up from their seated position, gaining an unfair advantage.
"There is absolutely nothing that qualifies me to do this," Jarkko, 32, of Durham, admitted between matches.
Channa Pickett, who appeared as fortune-telling gypsy Madame De Mort, took the Hometown Hero award for raising the most money, $550. El Pulpo Feroz, also known as Rebecca Graves, took home the best costume for her shiny blue and purple ensemble that portrayed a ferocious Hispanic octopus that holds a grudge against fraternity boys. Judges, however, did note that Graves, who lost in the first round, should have spent less time at the sewing machine and more time at the gym.
At the end of the night, announcer Tonker sat at the bar, dazed by the contestants and the final rush of donations.
"I can't get over it," said Tonker, 40, a Durham consultant. "It's just a testament for what people can do when they work together."
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