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Utah restauranteur is also a world champion arm-wrestler

DRAPER — Anyone who has tried to run a restaurant business knows two things about the job: It’s extremely competitive and it takes a lot of determination.

A Draper man runs an entire empire of restaurants. But when the work stops, that's when the real competition begins for Robert Baxter.

"We've got 46 Five Guys," said Baxter, pointing to a long line of photos of his restaurants in a hallway, "and six Blaze Pizzas."

Baxter is friends with the people who run Five Guys restaurants in Utah and Idaho. They approached Baxter and a partner, looking to expand north of the border.

"The first one was in Medicine Hat," Baxter said, gesturing to a picture of it. "Alberta, Canada."

Baxter is forced to size up his opponents in a business like this, constantly picking his next move.

But for Baxter, the true competition isn't in battling other restaurants. Baxter is an arm-wrestler.

That's right: Arm-wrestling — where guys who look like Olympic powerlifters put their tendons to the test.

"Apparently I don't look like an arm wrestler," he said.

He's right. Baxter is often met with looks of confusion when he tells them about his "hobby." But for Baxter, it's not just a hobby — he arm-wrestles competitively.

"The way I started was just like everybody else, mainly, in school, elementary school, high school,” he said. “In college, I ran track and they had me arm-wrestle the guys on the track team. Then they had me arm-wrestle the guys on the field, which is hammer throw, discus, shot put, and I did pretty well with them."

And while he may not look like an arm-wrestler, Baxter's defeated the best in the world.

"I'm the world champion," he said, managing to utter those words as if it's a normal thing. "Grand Masters, 100 kg plus. That's 220 pounds plus."

At the World Championships in Bulgaria, Baxter's hand was raised. How does he do it?

"Stay calm, stay relaxed and believe," he said. "I visualize myself winning. I visualize what I need to do to win."

Baxter trains for competitions just feet from where he sleeps each night. That isn't meant as a metaphor — he literally has a piece of exercise equipment right next to his bed.

"It's a rope pull machine," said Baxter. "They have them in some gyms."

It's an unusual contraption, to be sure, but Baxter gets some good use out of it. He's even spoken with the people who build it.

"I called the factory and had them change it to double the tension. … So it's twice as hard as the normal hard," he said. "It simulates arm-wrestling almost perfectly."

Baxter doesn't just credit his muscles for his victories. He says the wins also depend on tendons and technique. Regardless of how he became world champion, Baxter didn't just win this year, he won last year, too.

"They look at me and they dismiss me," he said. "They call me the 'skinny guy.'"

Despite his accolades, Baxter isn't being followed by a horde of paparazzi. He says the sport hasn't been all that popular in America.

"It's getting more popular, so people are hearing about it more," he said. "It's growing in the U.S. (It's) not like it is in Russia and in parts of Europe. In Russia, in the World Championships, they'll have a circus act come out. They'll have a bear sweep the stage. They have the world-famous ballet dancers come out."

Although he isn't exactly being asked for his autograph while grocery shopping, Baxter's extremely dedicated to his sport — even after suffering a devastating injury.

"When I first started, the bones don't catch up to the tendon strength," he said, pointing to his upper arm. "When it spiral fractured, it cut the radial nerve to my hand and wrist, so it was paralyzed for two years."

The injury occurred during a match. Baxter said he has video of it, but doesn't think anyone would want to see it.

"It sounded like a 2-by-4 snapping," he said. "It was that loud. And I just went white and backed up, and they took me to the hospital. It was pretty painful."

And while his wife may not entirely approve of the rope pulling machine in his bedroom, Baxter is training for next year.

"To get stronger and improve on the weak areas," he said.

But to truly train, you need a partner, which means the real training takes place in the last place you'd expect: Baxter's office, where he has a couple of arm-wrestling tables set up in the back. This means it's possible someone investigating the next property for a restaurant may have heard some grunting or shrieks in the background while on a phone call.

He's an unassuming man in an unassuming office building. Baxter may be up to his neck in competition in both the restaurant business and the world of arm-wrestling, but he said facing off against an enemy has brought him some of the best friends he'll ever have.

"I have thousands of friends in the U.S. and around the world that are arm-wrestlers," he said. "We have that one common thread, and we'll be friends for life."