At an age when many athletes have already retired, or are at least contemplating the ends of their careers, Travis Bagent is entertaining no such thoughts.
The Martinsburg resident will celebrate his 40th birthday in October, but he remains among the world’s most elite arm wrestlers. Just a few weeks ago, he won a national championship at a tournament in Las Vegas, the latest achievement in his storied career.
“It looks like arm wrestlers start hitting their prime around 35 to 45,” Bagent said recently, “so I’ve got five more years to be in my prime and still, up to 55, the champs are still winning. I think I’m lucky because of the sport that I chose. It’s only about eight inches of movement, so it’s a lot less wear and tear on the body.”
Bagent learned arm wrestling from one of the best. His father, Jerry Boyd, was a pioneer in the sport who won hundreds of matches around the world during a career that spanned more than two decades.
In the late 1960s, Boyd met a fellow Marine from Maryland and they discovered a mutual interest in arm wrestling. When they were discharged, they returned home and formed a league in the tri-state area, and Boyd embarked on his illustrious career.
By the early 1990s, Boyd owned the Big Arm Bar and Grill in Shepherdstown, which, with eight arm wrestling tables, had become a popular destination for competitors at various levels of the sport. At the age of 15, Bagent started working at the Big Arm as a barback and pool room assistant. Although his work kept him busy, he quickly discovered that he could get a match whenever he wanted.
Bagent said it didn’t take long for him to master the technique of arm wrestling. By the time he was 19 years old and playing baseball at Shepherd University, he felt capable of winning national championships left-handed. But, as a southpaw pitcher, that didn’t seem like such a good idea at the time.
By the end of his senior season in 1999, though, Bagent was ready for the big stage. Just three weeks after the season, he traveled to Baton Rouge, La., and won a national championship his first time out. Since then, Bagent has captured an additional 37 national titles and 15 world championships, making countless television appearances along the way and cementing his legacy as one of the sport’s most legendary performers. “Life’s good,” Bagent said. “I’ve never been as far, unreachably on top than I am right now.”
When his matches air on TV, usually several weeks after they take place, Bagent often hosts a viewing party. Occasionally, hundreds of people show up for the parties, which can include informal arm wrestling tournaments. But for the Las Vegas tournament, which aired at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9, Bagent held a smaller gathering for friends and family.
“I’ve been on TV a couple hundred times now, so it’s not as cool as it was back in the day,” he said. Bagent was born and raised in the Eastern Panhandle, graduating from Jefferson High School in 1995 and Shepherd University in 1999. He met his wife, Casey, at the Jefferson County Fair; they have been together for 22 years and married for 12.
The couple has four children. Sons Tyson and Ezra are 16 and 11, respectively, while daughters Diem and Valyn are 8 and 2.
Tyson is a 16-year-old junior at Martinsburg High School who plays quarterback on the varsity football team. “He’s a bad dude,” Travis said proudly. “He (takes after me) with his performance but not with his trash talking. He’s a good kid; he’s a lot like his mom.”
These days, Bagent enjoys promoting arm wrestling tournaments and helping grow the sport as much as, if not more than, he enjoys competing. Taking care of his family has a lot to do with that.
“The motivation is 100 percent financial,” Bagent said. “It’s a job. I won $90,000 three weeks ago and that will supplement our income around here. Depending on how we do in June makes us decide how hard we’re going to work until Christmas. We’re going to have a good Christmas this year.”
Bagent frequently travels from city to city helping local organizers host tournaments. He is involved with promotion, on-site management, working with venue staff, hiring and managing referees, assisting with registration, passing out prizes and collecting data for tournament winners.
In recent weeks, he has visited New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Orlando, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The arm wrestling league which he owns and operates can hold as many as 350 qualifiers throughout the year, and Bagent personally runs about 45 of them. As a result, he is usually off for only about three weekends each year. He has visited 36 countries in addition to all 50 states.
For Bagent, the goal is to help the tournaments become self sufficient. Typically, he said, he will run an event once and, from there, local organizers are able to run the tournaments themselves.
Bagent hopes to expand into Canada and Brazil soon, and next year, he hopes to add events in Australia and Sweden.
“The struggle is trying to grow arm wrestling into an industry and not just a hobby,” he said. Bagent looks to another successful promoter, World Wrestling Entertainment Chairman Vince McMahon, for inspiration.
“I could do without competing,” he said. “I know that probably sounds crazy for a lot of people to hear that. I want to be Vince McMahon, not The Rock, if possible – not that The Rock is not a cool guy. And even the Rock would tell you that he doesn’t think it’s as cool to be The Rock as his fans do.”
In order for arm wrestling to gain more widespread attention, Bagent believes the sport needs more larger-than-life personalities like the WWE has.
“I don’t think arm wrestling has enough characters to own it yet,” he said. “It’s not quite WWE, but it’s not quite Olympic wrestling either. There’s a place in the middle that we’re trying to get to, and we’re not quite there yet.”
Bagent certainly wouldn’t mind being one of those characters himself. He says he’s comfortable in the role of the villain. He looks for the trash talker to love him, and for people who may not enjoy the trash talking to at least respect the fact that Bagent backs it up.
“I extremely enjoy being the focal point of the room when I’m in that arm wrestling environment,” said Bagent. “I don’t like being the underdog.”
“How do you create excitement when you’re not the underdog?” he continued. “That’s where talking trash comes in, and embracing the fact that you can’t possibly lose. You can do it (feed crowd reaction) with unbelievable ability, being bigger, faster, stronger than everybody. But that gets old, so drama and charisma help.
“I think that you start out as the young person that’s super hungry and everyone’s rooting for you. You’re supposed to be this super gracious person and thank everybody for winning, which was the route that I chose not to take.
When I first won, I told people I was going to win and I couldn’t possibly be beaten. I went through a ten year period where the hatred was intense, but I sold a lot of tickets, and we made a lot of money. … And then there comes a time when the haters can’t hate anymore.”
Bagent says he knows his fellow arm wrestlers are riddled with insecurities; he sees it all the time. As confident as he is, Bagent admits the doubts do creep in sometimes, but they usually don’t last long.
“For me, when I have negative thoughts and negative feelings, it’s hard to shake them; even when you attempt to shake them, they kind of resurface even more,” he said. “For me, as a tournament gets closer, I try to avoid negative thoughts.”
According to Bagent, Eastern Panhandle residents looking to get into arm wrestling have plenty of options to choose from. By visiting armwrestling.com, they can find a tournament within a certain radius, whether it’s in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland or Pennsylvania. Bagent said there’s a tournament within a three-hour drive every single weekend. Novice classes feature a $5 entry fee, and newcomers can win up to $1,000 by winning a tournament. However, Bagent said, it’s usually only the top two finishers who make that much money.
From there, though, winners can advance to one of six regional events held each year, where prize money is typically around $3,500. The next step from there is the national tournaments, where winners can take home tens of thousands of dollars.
Surprisingly, Bagent doesn’t spend a lot of time practicing arm wrestling. He is a firm believer in the CrossFit training regimen and also does a lot of weight training.
“I think it’s helped with the bumps and bruises,” he said. “A lot of arm wrestlers get hurt on Wednesday nights at practice more than they get hurt on Saturday at the tournaments. For me, I don’t enjoy the rigorous work of getting those tendons ready to arm wrestle.”
After being around the sport for more than two decades, Bagent believes he has it pretty well figured out.
“I’ve dissected every move to where I’m kind of playing chess out there and the other guys are playing checkers,” he said.