Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature
Thumb wrestling 'can get quite heated', says defending world champion Dayna Hunt

I don’t know if there is a skill involved in thumb wrestling, I just have really long thumbs. I’m 25, 5ft 11in and my big hands seem to help. I did play against my brother when I was young but it was just a silly game to pass the time. I always used to beat him but I had no idea then that one day I would become the women’s world champion.

I got into thumb wrestling properly three years ago. My boyfriend, Mark Wright, is a referee for the World Thumb Wrestling Championships, which are held in Norfolk. I went along to Lowestoft to watch and because they were short of female competitors, I was persuaded to have a go. I didn’t expect to win but I did.

Each bout starts with the two players locking the four fingers of their right hands together, in a tightly gripped handshake. Elbows have to remain on the table, like in arm wrestling, and you can’t cheat by having long fingernails. Some people decorate the end of their thumb, and every competitor has a nickname. Mark came up with Dayna Big Digit, for obvious reasons. The men’s champion is an American called James “Tiger Monkey” Isaacs.

The game starts with both wrestlers chanting “one, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war!” The rules are strict and if you try to unsettle your opponent with unsuitable language or singing you can be disqualified. To win, a player has to pin the other competitor’s thumb long enough to say “one, two, three, four, I win thumb-a-war!”

Long thumbs help because if you pin somebody by the back knuckle, there’s no way they can release the hold. That’s my favourite technique and it catches people out time after time. They try to slide out of the lock but I have a hard grip.

Men and women compete separately at championship level and it can become quite heated, especially towards the final round, when most wrestlers have been eliminated and you’re in with a chance of winning the title. But I’ve never heard of anyone getting injured.

Each heat consists of three 60-second rounds but if it’s an even score at the end, the match is decided by a game of paper-rock-scissors. In my first championships, the final went on for ages because we kept forming the same hand shape. Eventually, my rock beat her scissors.

I think one reason for thumb wrestling’s appeal is that there aren’t many rules. Provided you lock hands correctly and say the chants, you can go at it however you want. The championships last all day and are held in a pub, which encourages people to come and enjoy themselves.

I’m studying at university to become a theatre nurse but secretly I’m dreaming of winning my third title in a row. I’m the only competitor in any category to have ever retained their title, so the pressure is very much on me.

You never know who’s going to turn up, or how good they’re going to be. I approach every bout as it comes and I don’t take anybody for granted. I’m never mean and aggressive but I know some of the other women are a bit scared of me.

The prize is a trophy and a £100 hamper but really it’s about the prestige of being a world champion. I don’t practise much through the year but I do train with my mum and dad in the build-up to the championships. People ask if I’m careful with my championship thumb but that would be silly. It’s not insured and I don’t wear gloves to protect it. I sometimes train with my boyfriend but he hasn’t beaten me yet. He did compete one year but he was knocked out in the first round and hasn’t taken part since.

I don’t think thumb wrestling will ever be an Olympic sport but maybe one day it will help me make my fortune.

The 2014 Thumb Wrestling Championship takes place at the Stanford Arms, Lowestoft, on August 2; thumbwrestling.co.uk

Photograph: Luke & Nik

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article