Once the sport of hustlers and barroom brawlers, arm-wrestling has hooked more followers in recent years, going from makeshift competitions in local taverns to organized tournaments at posh hotels.

With tournaments airing on cable sports networks such as ESPN and Fox Sports Net, fans are beginning to wonder: Will arm-wrestling, like poker before it, become the next sport to go mainstream?

"I believe we're on the verge of having the same thing happen to us that Texas hold 'em had happen to them," said Leonard Harkless, president of the U.S. Armwrestling Association. "Everybody has arm-wrestled -- it's probably the only sport out there. Almost everybody stuck their arm up there and tested how strong they were."

Competing since 1978 and now the sport's top referee (yes, there are proper black-and-white-clad referees), Harkless treats arm-wrestling as more passion than pastime. He wants to change the sport's barroom bent that paints arm-wrestlers as drunk, brutish and ready to fight.

"I knew guys who wrestled in bars for a couple hundred dollars," Harkless said. "It's no different than a pool shark. You can see how it escalates very quickly, especially if there's money involved. That's how our sport had a little bit of a rough reputation."

But with the Internet came change, he said. Organizing tournaments was easier, and its appeal spread.

"It's about locking and exploding on the 'Go,' " he said. "When that ref says 'Go,' your whole body, you want to move, shifting all of your body weight. The harder and faster you can hit with that body weight, the more power you have."

Fans of the sport are hoping that kind of action will hook audiences. From pre-tournament weigh-ins to trophy ceremonies lauding yet another round of national champions, arm-wrestling has an appeal much like reality TV.

Like boxing, arm-wrestling has various associations. About 400 members from each group gathered recently in Little Rock for the Unified National Armwrestling Championship. Winners from each weight class head to Tokyo for world competition next month.

The stress starts at the weigh-ins, which have competitors sweating in steam rooms -- or, like eight-time national champion Michael Todd of Sheridan, Ark., eating 5,000 calories a day to bulk up with the 221-to-242-pounders.

"I realistically eat every hour and 15 minutes," Todd said, sitting down to a bowl filled with an entire box of macaroni and cheese and two cans of tuna. "I watch the clock to see when I eat again. I'm almost upset that I'm not eating now."

To make weight, some competitors stripped behind curtains, saying clothing can add up to four pounds.

Lee Freeman, a bodyguard and bouncer from Omaha, Neb., who started promoting tournaments back in 1972, said there are special gripping exercises that build the forearm, the crucial muscle in arm-wrestling. Competitors walk around with rocklike forearms, the better to slam opponents with.

"It's a legitimate sporting event like football, baseball, anybody else," Freeman said while watching the action in Little Rock. "These guys train just as hard."

Arguably arm-wrestling's most famous competitor, John Brzenk of Sandy, Utah, says he grows tired of stereotypes that mark it as a joke sport. Brzenk claimed fame when he won a $100,000 tractor-trailer in the 1986 Las Vegas tournament that served as backdrop for Sylvester Stallone's 1987 cult arm-wrestling film "Over the Top."

"These are guys who have dedicated their lives to arm-wrestling," said Brzenk, a Delta Air Lines mechanic. "They train. They lift. They analyze the sport."

Brzenk wins about $10,000 a year competing in tournaments. But he says if you average that out over his training time, "It comes out to 25 cents an hour. I'm thinking about it 24-7."

Tournaments such as the one in Arkansas give Brzenk the chance to test that devotion against the best in the country.

Before matches, competitors chalk their hands and elbows to prevent slippage. Referees set opponents' hands, sometimes finger by finger, to make sure no one has an advantage. Competitors can't move their hands until the referee yells "Ready, go!" Even the slightest muscle twist and it's a foul or false start.

There are right- and left-handed competitions, with wrestlers grasping a wooden peg with their opposite hand for balance.

"You can break your arm if you're not ready," Freeman said. "When it snaps you'll know. It sounds like a piece of celery breaking."

From 110-pound women to 400-plus-pound men, competitors hold their breath with veins popping, shoulders shaking and knees wrapped around the table legs to brace themselves. When the action gets hot, wrestlers writhe and wiggle while knuckles turn white.

If the chalk doesn't work or technique meets experience and opponents' hands slip apart, referees will use a blue strap to bind the wrists together. Those are the good matches -- the ones that last longer than a few seconds.

When local favorite Todd takes the table, the crowd goes wild. Todd, one of about a dozen arm-wrestlers with a professional sports agent, has four championships on each arm and prides himself on coming from behind.

In this particular match as he battles back, his face turns red, he clenches his teeth, licks his lips and lets out a final loud cry before slamming his opponent's hand on the pad. This match ends with a handshake. Others finish with hard stares.

Perfect drama. The American mainstream loves matches like that, Harkless said.

Nate Adams of Birmingham tries to mount a comeback against John Shaw of Fallon, Nev., at the U.S. ArmSports Unified National Armwrestling Championship.Tony Picchioldi of St. Louis shows his game face against Steve "Razor" Rau

of Sheboygan, Wis., during the tournament, held this summer in Little Rock.