NATURALSTRENGTH.com – Old School Weight Training Strength Strongman Power Vintage Bodybuilding: Who Is The Strongest?

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Anyone who is reading this is interested in strength.  The building, testing, demonstration of strength.  In all its forms, categories, sub-categories.  For as long as man has walked the Earth, there have been tests, challenges, and contests devoted to the goal of physical strength.  Throughout recorded history, and even before, men ( and women ) have challenged themselves as well as others, all in the name of strength.  

     We all have our individual history of getting stronger.  All of us have started somewhere on our journey through the Iron Game.  For most of us, the journey is a labor of love, and never ending.  Once we begin hoisting the steel, it’s hard to stop.  Many of those reading this have competed in various strength sports.  Weightlifting, powerlifting, Highland Games, Shot-Put, Discus, there are numerous ways to test one’s strength.  There are myriad challenges, and over the years there have been no shortage of great performers and performances.  

     I can tell you right now how I first became interested in lifting weights.  It was the Summer of 1976, I turned twelve years old in July of that year, and I eagerly watched the Summer Olympics on television.  There were many great athletes and numerous outstanding performances.  Bruce Jenner winning the Decathlon, the USA Boxing team winning five gold medals, Nadia Comenici setting new standards in gymnastics, and the USA Men’s Basketball team winning the Gold medal ( after being cheated by the Russians in 1972).  

     But, by far, the most fascinating aspect of those Games was the weightlifting.  It was the first time I had ever seen weightlifting being contested, and even though I didn’t know the first thing about the sport, I couldn’t take my eyes off these men lifting huge weights over their heads.  There was even an American lifter who would defy the odds and win a silver medal.  Lee James, competing in the 90kg class surprised everyone took second, competing against one of the greatest lifters of all time.  Incidentally, Lee James recently passed away at the age of 69, his silver medal performance is still one of the most impressive feats by an American lifter in the last fifty years.  

     It was while watching the super-heavyweights on the last night of lifting, that really influenced me.  Vasily Alexeev won his second Olympic gold medal and, on his final attempt, set a new world record in the Clean and Jerk with 255 kg.  I was immediately hooked.  It wasn’t only his awesome lifting that captured his imagination.  It was how he was described by the various television commentators.  “The strongest man in the world,” was an appellation frequently used by the the announcers when describing the ponderous Russian.  Here he was, live on television, the strongest man in the world!

     Back then, it was easy to believe everyone on television.  When you’re twelve years old, you tend to be more gullible.  Today, I’ve become more cynical in my, ahem, middle age.  And, with the passage of time, there have been many strength athletes over the years who have been described as the “strongest man in the world.”  

     Not long after the Montreal Olympics, in the Fall of 1977, American television offered for the first time the World’s Strongest Man Contest.  There were ten athletes chosen from various strength sports ( although curiously there were no athletes from the Iron Curtain countries due to politics).  There were ten events, and the overall winner, Bruce Wilhelm, was an easy and deserving winner.  Now, by this time, Bruce had established himself as a world class shot-putter, discus thrower, amateur wrestler and Olympic weightlifter, so it should have come as no surprise that he would dominate that contest.  And the fact that he repeated the following year ( against tougher competition) demonstrates how great he was in all facets of strength.  

     Nevertheless, there were other people who were being touted as the “strongest.”  Superheavyweight powerlifters were approaching the 1,000 Lb Squat barrier, while the Soviet Union was still producing athletes who would dominate the superheavyweights in Olympic lifting.  Interestingly, each sport ( powerlifting and weightlifting) would claim that THEIR champion was truly the strongest man in the world.  Who was right?  Was it the powerlifters who were stronger or the Olympic lifters?  What about the WSM winner?  

     More importantly, IS there a way to determine just who is the strongest?  I remember years ago, reading an article by Dr. Ken Leistner where he stated that the strongest man in the world was living- and lifting- in relative obscurity in a suburban or rural setting.  His feats of strength were not being televised, nor reported on by the various strength “experts” who so proudly proclaim their own choice for the strongest man in the world.  

     As I have many time over the years, I tend to agree with Dr. Ken.  I don’t think there is one ultimate way to determine just who is the strongest.  While the WSM has expanded greatly over the years, and the events have become more challenging, there are still many questions.  And, some of the events, in my opinion, are not true tests of pure strength.  Throwing a keg for height, for example, is not a true test.  It obviously favors someone who is taller, and has longer arms.  Likewise, some of the other events.  And, naturally, having access to the various implements that will be contested is an advantage, too.  I remember competing in a strongman contest years ago where all of the equipment used for the contest was provided by one of the competitors.  Quite an advantage for someone to train with the very equipment that will be used for the contest.

     Another valuable opinion concerning the determination of who is the strongest came from a familiar source.  On February 8th of this year, we had our annual Bruno’s Health Club Reunion dinner at Domenico’s restaurant in Levittown, NY.  While we were breaking bread, the subject of strongman contests came up and Tom Tedesco came up with a short, to the point, answer as to how best determine who is stronger:  Combine the two Olympic lifts and the two Powerlifts in one contest and compare the aggregate of the five lifts.  Highest total wins.  

     Is this the ultimate way of testing strength?  Realistically, probably not, but it is better than most.  Very few people are proficient in BOTH the powerlifts and the Olympic lifts.  Just about every lifter has some sort of weakness or, at the very least, a lift in which he/she does not excel.  In that regard, it would seem like a fair way to determine who is stronger.  The lifting platform, like the world we live in, is not perfect.  I don’t think there will ever be an ultimate test of strength, but Tommy’s suggestion is close.

     I think that I should mention one thing, however, about Tommy’s idea of strength testing.  This is more in the line of a full disclosure.  Years ago, Tommy competed in a dual Olympic/Power contest.  He went 15 for 15.  You read that right.  He competed in two contests in one day and did not miss a lift!  I have never seen anything like that, before or since.  It’s hard enough to have a perfect day let alone have two in one day.  

     In a few days, Tommy will celebrate his 68th birthday.  Three years ago, on his 65th birthday, he performed 65 Clean and Jerks with 65kg.  This year he will do something even more impressive:  He will compete in the National Masters Weightlifting Championships in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.  Good luck Tommy Thundeer!

The picture is from our Bruno’s Reunion Dinner.  From left to right:

Chris Newins, Bill Mannino, Bob Sailor, Tom Tedesco, Jim Duggan, Dr. Rich Seibert.

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