Professor of philosophy; professional arm wrestler

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July 2, 2014

By Jillian Birkholz '15

John Houston trains with his 11-year-old daughter Grace in his St. Joseph garage.

For many people, an impromptu arm wrestling match with a cousin at family gatherings is as competitive as it gets. However, one CSB/SJU professor has taken the sport to the next level.

John Houston, assistant professor of philosophy, has spent the last two years training for and competing in 18 arm wrestling tournaments all over the nation, winning a total of nine championships. He is currently ranked seventh in the Midwest in the super heavyweight class.

Houston went to Illinois for his first tournament at the beginning of 2012, and won the amateur championship. After winning the right and left handed USAA (United States Armwrestling Association) National Amateur Championship in Connecticut in 2013, Houston decided to compete strictly professionally and made it to the top 10 rankings in the United States for professional arm wrestling.

Some may wonder how a philosophy professor ended up a professional arm wrestler. After receiving his bachelor's degree from Binghamton University in upstate New York, Houston spent time as an oblate in a New York monastery, traveled to San Francisco to study classical texts at a small Jesuit school, and moved on to Colorado to work as a truck driver.

During his time on the road, Houston listened to various audiobooks and recorded lectures that fueled his interest in philosophy.

"With technology where it is, you can get a handle on anything and learn anything, anywhere," Houston said. "I would call home and leave myself messages about things I wanted to write about because I was so interested in all the ideas."

After three years of truck driving around the country, Houston realized his need for interaction in a classroom to further develop his ideas, and decided to enroll in graduate school at Purdue University. It was during his time at Purdue that Houston was introduced to the sport of professional arm wrestling.

"I was serving as a referee at a strong man competition and one of the competitors came up and said, 'Give me your hand,' " Houston said.

The man introduced himself as a professional arm wrestler and asked if Houston would be interested in training with him. His name was Jonathan Vogt and he was ranked sixth in the Midwest for professional arm wrestling at the time Houston agreed to train with him.

"There's a lot of technique, but you also have to have the strength to execute that technique," Houston said. "There are some people who will travel several hours just for a practice with good pullers."

Houston continues to train, mostly in his garage in St. Joseph, Minn., using free weights, bands and even some homemade equipment. He now shares the sport with his 11-year-old daughter.

"My daughter Grace and I were both Midwest Champions in 2013," Houston said. "Grace is small but mighty, and regularly crushes any of the boys in her class who are willing to test her. She's 11, but can beat adults as well."

For Houston, physical activity has always been an outlet. Before his interest was taken by arm wrestling, he wrestled, boxed and competed in strong man and power lifting competitions.

"I think that all of us at some point have that inner dragon, that fury, that we need to release," Houston said. "I've always had to have that thing to drive for, physically. I love the competition and I love the people involved in the sport.

"There's a real sharp, competitive side to a lot of the people who are involved in it, but there's also a camaraderie and respect that the athletes have for one another."