As Santiago struggles to maintain his hold on the great fish on the second day, his left hand develops a cramp in it which lessens his grip. This condition reminds the old fisherman of his youth when he was so strong and used to arm wrestle; in fact, he came to be known as El Campeon because he defeated the strongest opponent after his strength had waned and his arm was nearly "three inches off balance."
In his renowned match against Cienfuegos, the strongest man on the docks, in which blood issued from under their fingernails from the tremendous pressure of their fighting grips, Santiago recalls the great strain upon his hand as he an Cienfuegos fought for "one day and one night" just as he fights the fish. In this match, he "had raised his hand up to dead even again":
...he had unleashed his effort and forced the hand of the negro down and down until it rested on the wood...he had finished it....
Santiago's recalling of his defeat of the strongest man on the docks instills his heart with courage; for, he knows that he has a reserve from which he can summon strength, strength that he now needs in his "traitorous" left hand that wishes to cramp.