Don’t take this the wrong way, Jets and Bills, but the most interesting thing about your matchup this Sunday—call it the Battle for the AFC East Basement—could be what happens at halftime, when an incredible athlete goes for a world record.
That would be Anthony Robles, who won an NCAA wrestling title in the 125-pound class in 2011. Making his story more remarkable—a movie based on his life starts filming early next year—is the fact that Robles won that championship despite being born with one leg.
The Guinness World Record for pull-ups in one minute is 61. With the denizens of MetLife Stadium cheering him on, Robles will go for 62, or more. It’s a curious, quixotic pursuit: wanting to be better than everyone else in the world at…pull-ups. It is, at the same time, universal: “Everyone in the world has tried pull-ups,” says Gary Lewis, Robles’ agent. “Everyone relates to how difficult they are.”
In this pursuit, Robles has been reminded of, and inspired by, his favorite movie. In the 1985 classic Vision Quest, a high school wrestler named Louden Swain (played by Matthew Modine, two years before Full Metal Jacket) rashly decides to drop two weight classes to take on defending state champion Brian Shute. “Last week I turned 18,” declares Swain at one point. “I wasn’t ready for it.”
Last summer, Robles turned 30. “I wasn’t ready for it,” he says with a laugh, consciously echoing that movie. Since graduating from Arizona State in 2011, he’s won an Espy and been appointed to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. He’s embarked on a successful career as a motivational speaker and wrestling commentator for ESPN and the Pac-12 Network.
He’s also been trying to fill a void.
“I’ve always considered myself an athlete,” he says, “someone who pushes physical barriers.” But once his wrestling career ended, “I just felt like I had all this free time. I was travelling around and speaking, but I felt like I needed to be working toward something.”
That need would explain, in part, the impromptu “pushup challenge” in which he and a friend recently engaged. While sitting in the sauna at their local gym, they wondered how many push-ups each could knock out in 15 minutes. Robles won, with 694. In the sauna. “My body hated me afterwards,” he allows.
“Since I graduated,” he goes on, “I’ve always been looking for something to chase, some big goal that can push me and challenge me. This pull-up challenge seems to be it. It’s my Vision Quest.”
That would make Adam Sandel, the current world record holder, the Brian Shute in this scenario. Which seems a stretch. Whereas Shute is a monster and misanthrope, glowering, grunting—“barely house-broken,” goes the line in the movie’s trailer—Sandel is a Harvard lecturer who earned his B.A. in Government at that University, summa cum laude, before receiving his Doctor of Philosophy at Oxford. His current projects, according to this Harvard bio, include “two articles on Plato … and an article on Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power and the television series Breaking Bad.”
After setting a new record last March with 55 pull-ups in a minute, the ripped Renaissance Man bettered that mark by six on September 15th. That got into Robles’ head a bit, the wrestler admits: “I’m training for 55, training for 55, then all the sudden, boom—now it’s up to 61. So I had to adjust my training.”
That training is going well. Robles is prepared, confident, and nervous. “I know I can do the number,” he says. “The hard part is doing the reps clean, especially as I start to fatigue.” (For a pull-up to count, one’s chin must clear the bar, and one’s hips may not break the plane” between the bar and the floor.)
He has embarked on this quest with “the same kind of wrestler mentality.” He’s studied Sandel’s world record videos. “I watch how he did it, the rhythm he had, how many breaks he took, and when he took those breaks.”
After college, Robles recalls, “I gave my scale to my brother. I said, ‘I’m never steppin’ on that thing again.” This pursuit, though, has him back on the scale. He’s cut 12 pounds for Sunday’s attempt, which he describes as “a mountain I want to climb.”
That calls to mind an argument Robles used to have with one of his coaches. In his first season at Arizona State, he butted heads with coach Thom Ortiz, whose preseason workouts for his wrestlers included a two-mile run up nearby Squaw Peak, a climb with steep, rocky, technical sections.
“Anthony, you don’t need to do that,” Ortiz told the freshman.
“Coach,” came his reply. “I’m doing it.”
TAYLOR: A Life in Balance
He did it.
Robles’ uncanny upper-body strength has always been matched, and then some, by his strength of will, the stubbornness that led him to ditch the prosthetic leg he was forced to strap on as a small boy. It bugged him. He preferred to wrestle without it.
That determination “is kind of what drew me to him,” says Billy Goldenberg, who won an Oscar for film editing for his work on Argo. He’ll direct Unstoppable, the movie based on Robles’ life. “This guy didn’t take no for an answer, didn’t see himself as different, saw himself as someone with challenges, just like the rest of us, and expected to overcome them.”
Robles took up wrestling in ninth grade. Before his first-ever match, his team jogged out and circled the mat, Robles crutching right along with them. A woman in the bleachers started laughing at him. It was her misfortune to be seated near Judy Robles, Anthony’s mother, who “got up in her face” and told her she should be ashamed of herself.
Robles lost more than he won that year. He would stand, hopping, inviting his opponent to “shoot” that leg, and take him down. Which they nearly always did successfully.
As a sophomore at Mesa High, he was paired with the wise, soft-spoken Bobby Williams, who convinced Robles to get down on his knee, forcing opponents to attack his strength: that yoked upper body. Working under Williams, Robles forged the style that helped him win national titles in both high school and college.
There’s another reason Robles is intent on sticking close to his old wrestling weight. In the movie Unstoppable, he’ll be portrayed by Jason Mitchell, who played Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton and stars as Brandon in Showtime’s The Chi. But the plan now is for Robles to do his own wrestling scenes.
Among many other movies, Goldenberg has been film editor on Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Concussion and Seabiscuit. While this is a departure for him, in that he’s directing his first feature, “it’s not a departure in terms of the subject matter,” he says. “I tend to gravitate toward true stories with a strong message for the audience.
“This, in my mind, is not a sports movie. It’s a movie about someone with incredible wherewithal and determination overcoming great odds to become a fully realized, successful person. And he happens to be a wrestler. And he happens to have one leg.”
David Crockett, producer on this project, puts it this way: “I’m not really interested in a movie about a competitive jazz drummer. But when I saw Whiplash, I cared very much about that kid’s story, and his journey.”
“We feel like it’s a really important time,” adds Goldenberg, “to have a film out there with a positive message about overcoming obstacles.”
The biggest obstacle in Robles’ life right now is a Popeye-armed Ph.D who has something he wants. Robles needs 62 clean reps to claim the record this Sunday. Even if he gets the record, how long will he own it?
Word is, Sandel is in training to go after the record again, come December. “Something tells me this might be a battle for awhile,” says Robles, who seems fine with that. He feels blessed to once again have a quest.