By Joyce Leviton
April 07, 1980 12:00 PM

It was a little rash of Cleve Dean to sell his farm last year and plan to live off his earnings as the world champ of wrist wrestling. Wrist wrestling? Right. It’s a growing sport, but prize money rarely makes it into three figures and, even counting endorsement fees, it’s hard just to pay the bar bill.

So Dean, 26, has had to go back to working on his dad’s hog farm. But he and two partners have formed the “World Professional Wrist-wrestling Association,” and Cleve is still thinking big, which isn’t hard when you’re 6’7″ and 460 pounds.

Dean had dabbled in wrist wrestling as a high schooler and at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Ga. In 1977 he saw a match on local TV and immediately decided that here was a sport for him. He called up a promoter, and a few months later he won second place in a local meet. He hasn’t had to settle for a second since.

Cleve thinks he owes his skill and strength to growing up on his father’s farm near Pavo, Ga. (pop. 724). There Cleve had to weld machinery, lift feed containers and build farrowing houses for the hogs. “When you farm like us,” he says, “you use all your muscles.”

He met his wife, Sue, now 32, at a dance in 1976. (Cleve’s size notwithstanding, she says, “He’s a wonderful dancer.”) He adopted her two children by a previous marriage, Lee Ann, 7, and Shannon, 13, and the couple have their own daughter, Terri, a year old on Valentine’s Day. Sue wrist wrestles only casually. “I cry when I lose,” she admits.

They live in a neat bungalow where Cleve keeps his trophies and 100-pound weights, which he lifts by curling his wrists to improve his strength. In 1978 he won the national wrist-wrestling championship, then went on to win the world title—held in Petaluma, Calif., the Cooperstown of wrist wrestling—that same year.

But wrist wrestlers often have to belly up to challenges from a not quite identical twin sport, arm wrestling. The difference: Wrist wrestling involves pinning an opponent’s right wrist against his left arm, which is resting on the table; in arm wrestling, the left arm isn’t on the table. All clear? Anyway, Dean wasn’t considered bona fide champ until he disposed of arm-wrestling superstar Virgil Arciero, which he did in Las Vegas in November 1978. “I was high on adrenaline all the way home,” Dean recalls.

Dean’s tremendous grip is what probably accounts for his success. “Everybody fights for the grip,” he says. “You’ve got to grip deep and bring your fingers around to your opponent’s knuckles.” Most of his opponents can’t even get their fingers around his knuckles, since his hands measure 8½ inches from palm to third fingertip.

Though he won $1,100 at the world championships this year and is paid by sponsors for wearing their jackets or T-shirts when he competes, Cleve downplays his success. “I used to get nervous, I’d be sweating and my blood pressure would be so high,” he says. “My arm would get sore, and sometimes I’d wonder if it was going to hold up. But, you know, anybody can pull.”

Luckily for all concerned, Cleve doesn’t have a temper to match his size. “I’ve never seen him get violent or upset,” says his friend, featherweight champ Bert Whitfield of Atlanta. “I’ve only seen him mad once, and that was when someone tried to beat him using his shoulder. That’s been taken out of wrist wrestling.” Dean is a stickler for the rules, in fact. (Two he watches especially: At least one foot must remain on the floor at all times, and the starting grip must be formed within two minutes of the “ready” signal.) But he has to break one rule. At prematch weigh-ins to determine divisional match-ups, there usually is no scale that goes up to 460. Cleve, however, is accepted as a heavyweight without much argument.