Joshua Davis has a trophy room. In an old storage space-cum-office below his flat in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, Davis shows off his various accolades and tchotchkes. There is, for instance, the fourth-place medal he won in the U.S. National Armwrestling tournament, which put him on the road to competing in an international championship in Poland, where he became the 17th-ranked lightweight arm wrestler in the world.
Davis has never actually won an arm wrestling contest.
He placed fourth in the nationals because only three other people competed in his class. And when the second- and third-place finishers couldn’t make it to the international competition, Davis had a spot on the U.S. team. Another competitor’s no-show at the event earned him his international ranking.
There’s also memorabilia from Davis’ stints as a sumo wrestler and a competitive sauna participant. Davis, you should know, stands 5 feet 9 and weighs less than 130 pounds. “These things took over my life for months and months,” he says. “I made a lot of friends, a whole community of friends, around the world.”
And then he wrote about his experiences in his new book, “The Underdog,” which chronicles his search for success and self-worth in the world of offbeat sports, a quest both sincere and laugh-out-loud funny.
“With an eye for tacky detail and absurdist humor,” Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “Davis recounts his hilarious misadventures among these colorful subcultures, but he takes the struggles and triumphs seriously. The result is a funny, beguiling quest that proves that losing is more enlightening -- and entertaining -- than winning.”
Davis points out a positive review in Entertainment Weekly, which gave the tome a B-plus, better, he notes, than Salman Rushdie’s new novel did. “I look at it like a competition,” he says. “I beat Rushdie. I’ve always felt like a B-plus student, and this validates it.”
He also shows off his backward running safety gear: a headband with padding on the back, which was issued to him when he took part in the sport’s international contest in Italy, which, again, Davis did not win.
“I don’t think it would do a thing,” he says of the padding. “You’d fall on your [rear]. They ought to give you a pad for that. The hat makes you look like a dork, but it gets you into the backward running mood.”
The hat, he points out, has the Olympics logo.
“They’re hopeful,” he says. “The backward running community and the arm wrestlers both want to get into the Olympics.”
Davis, 30, has thick brown hair and bright blue eyes behind square-rimmed glasses. He’s wearing a blue and gold warm-up jacket for the Kazakhstan national arm wrestling team (“I traded my Team USA pants for it”) and yellow clogs. He grew up in San Francisco and graduated from Stanford.
After school, he made an independent film called “West Coast,” about two friends who fall in love with the same woman. The film went nowhere and Davis found the experience disappointing, artistically and financially. He wrote a novel with similar dispiriting results.
“That sent me into a multiyear tailspin,” he says. “My wife was very supportive; actually she was supporting us.”
Davis took a temporary job as a data entry clerk and considered going into the advertising business.
“It was a temp job that went on forever. I was lining up the disasters,” he says of his string of failures. “Then I got wind of a bug-eating contest.”
A friend suggested that the two of them write an article about a bug-eating contest at Reed College. They sold the piece to the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Davis earned $200.
“I thought, ‘Wow,’ ” he says, “ ‘I can get paid for writing.’ ”
Davis began contributing to the Guardian, reviewing strip clubs, which his wife wouldn’t let him visit during business hours. Around the same time, he saw a flier for the national arm wrestling championships in Laughlin, Nev.
“It would be good if I won,” he recalls. “My wife would be impressed and get off my case.”
He didn’t win, but the experience gave him a surge of confidence, although he realized that his arm wrestling career had peaked. “Despite being an internationally ranked arm wrestler,” he writes, “I still didn’t have a job.”
When his wife, Tara, urged him to find a real career, Davis visited a job counselor who mentioned bullfighting. When he learned that top matadors could pull in half a million dollars a year, he signed up for a bullfighting class in San Diego. He wound up fighting a cow.
Then he took off to Spain, where he tried to break into the professional ranks. Even a troop of midget bullfighters rejected him. “You’re not a midget,” one diminutive matador told him curtly.
Finally, Davis staged his own match. To promote the event he could afford only a single stock bullfighting poster, which he planned to move to different spots around town since he didn’t have enough to post everywhere. He hired a Chinese calligrapher to write his name on the poster, calling himself El Americano Desesperado, The Desperate American. The calligrapher wrote it in Chinese characters. Davis had to cover up the lettering and start over. On the big day, two people -- friends of his -- showed up. Davis earned $40 as a professional bullfighter.
“I thought that the Spaniards would show up to see this American get his [rear] kicked,” he says. “I was trying to sell it as humorous. I don’t think they got it.”
Back in the U.S., Davis’ luck soon turned around. He pitched an idea to Wired magazine and then persuaded the magazine to send him to cover the start of the Iraq war. Before long, Wired made him a contributing editor. Then a literary agent called Davis about writing a book about the war. He countered with the idea of chronicling his spare-time adventures, which by this time included sumo wrestling, for which he gained 6 pounds.
“Arm wrestling and bull fighting have changed my life,” he says. “Arm wrestling opened up a world of possibilities to me. I could fail at something and still do good. I did well by not doing well. I felt like I discovered something. I found a world of people who exist off the radar and I liked them and I liked being part of them.”
One sport that Davis has actually been good at was running. But after a marathon his knees started to hurt, so he began researching less punishing ways to run. On the Internet he discovered backward running, which doesn’t strain the knees but does present other hazards, such as running into people or things.
“Backward running would be my new religion,” he writes. “It gave me a visceral way to struggle with uncertainty. I was constantly afraid of what was ahead of me while running backward because I couldn’t see it, but that was precisely the fear I was contending with in my day-to-day life.... Backward running let me attack the uncertainty and fear in a concrete way.”
Davis journeyed to India to train with the sport’s world champ, training that involved running backward on a beach filled with human excrement. He then traveled to Italy to race in the sport’s premiere competition. He finished 12th, the last position to win a prize, which turned out to be vacuum-packed bologna.
Still a contributing editor at Wired, Davis is talking to a backer about directing a Bollywood-style film about his backward running coach, K. Veerabadran, who lives in Chennai, India. “It would be a song and dance film about running backward,” he says.
But none of that has taken away his competitive edge. When his book came out in early September, Davis announced that he was going to try to beat the world’s record for the backward mile, which is 5 minutes, 48 seconds. He announced on a radio show that he would give anyone who beat him a copy of his book.
About 10 people showed up at a local track. Davis ran the backward mile in nine minutes. Another contender bested him with a time of around eight minutes.
“I came in second,” Davis says. “That guy beat me at my own race.”
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A sporting chance
Some of the myriad competitions and sports available around the globe, many of which have an association or other sponsoring organization supporting them:
Cup stacking: The sport entails stacking and unstacking plastic cups into a pyramid as fast as you can.
Naked Bug Eating: Reed College in Portland, Ore., mixes cockroaches, whiskey and outlandishness annually.
Bog Snorkeling: A Welsh competition in which snorkelers must navigate a 60-yard trench through the waterlogged peat moss of a bog.
Wife Carrying: The Sonkajarvi, Finland, contest involves a 277-yard track and a grand prize of the wife’s weight in beer.
Cheese Chasing: A Gloucester, England, event in which contestants race down a steep hill after a piece of cheese. “There casualties, of course,” says the group’s website.
Skijoring: A Scandinavian sport, skijoring is much like waterskiing in the snow behind a horse.
Pumpkin Hurling: One of several contests that calls itself the fastest-growing sport in the nation.
Extreme Ironing: The art of doing housework in the great outdoors. There are pictures of participants ironing on top of mountain peaks, underwater and in the desert.