The festive season, with its jingly Christmas music and embarrassing jumpers, can be a source of dread for many people, but to strongman fans it is eagerly anticipated as the time when World’s Strongest Man returns to their television screens! The Giants Live Arena Tour events are an appetiser for the heats and Grand Final of World’s Strongest Man, which can be enjoyed over a supper of cold turkey, in the traditional fashion.
Like the Olympics, The World’s Strongest Man is the sports’ pinnacle; the greatest title a strongman can strive to attain. The world’s best athletes plan their competitive year around it, focusing all their energy on arriving at that one contest in their best condition. Over the years, other titles have grown in significance, and some have even claimed to be a more authentic test of who really is the planet’s strongest man, but for the sport’s elite, the World’s Strongest Man title represents the zenith of all a strongman may hope to achieve in their career.
As the sport has evolved and developed in the last forty-five years, so too has World’s Strongest Man. From its inception in 1977 and its first contest at Universal Studios in California, to its latest showing in Sacramento, the contest has become bigger, slicker, more professional, and thanks to its television airtime and huge social media output, watched by hundreds of millions worldwide.
The American weightlifter Bruce Wilhelm claimed the inaugural title, defeating Bob Young, an offensive guard for the St Louis Cardinals, and Ken Patera, a former Olympic weightlifter. Of the eight competitors assembled on an invite-only basis, only one, the famous bodybuilder Franco Columbo of Italy, was not American.
Since no previous worldwide strongman competition already existed the competitors had to be selected from other sports on the basis that they would possess the necessary strength to complete the events that had been created. There was some trial and error in these early disciplines and some had to be re-thought, such as the fridge carry which resulted in Franco Columbo dislocating his knee. This first version of the World’s Strongest Man was in fact filmed over ten weeks and was commissioned for CBS by Trans World International.
In those early years the concepts and organisation of the contests largely came from David Webster and Dr Douglas Edmunds who later became head referee and would be referred to as the “Godfather” of strongman. The emphasis was on entertainment and the events and characters invited to try them out reflected this. Four and a half decades later, the contest, whilst retaining its principal objective, has changed enormously.
World’s Strongest Man 2022 comprised of thirty men, drawn from fifteen nations, all of whom had qualified through either the Giants Live Arena Tour, by virtue of their 2021 performance, or through winning national titles or other key contests. Unlike the trailblazers of 1977, these men are almost exclusively full-time professional strongmen, who train the events week in, week out.
Some have argued that to some extent the sport has lost the charm it once had, but with much higher rewards for victory, the athletes are more focused than ever before. Training for well-established events on much more standardised equipment, today’s stars of strongman are pushing the limits of human strength beyond anything that was deemed possible forty-five years ago.
Much of the success strongman as a sport now enjoys is due to the array of colourful characters that populated the sport, particularly in the early years of World’s Strongest Man; The Incredible Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno; “Superstar” Billy Graham; Cleve Dean, the arm wrestler; and Rick “Grizzly” Brown were just a few of the interesting individuals brought into the line-ups. Their involvement was as much due to their personalities or appearance as their physical prowess, and their presence was key in engaging audiences for this new sporting spectacle.
The American powerlifter, William “Bill” Kazmaier was the first real star to emerge in the sport and his menacing and imposing physical presence left an indelible mark on the sports’ fans. From 1980-1982 he was untouchable, but when he returned to World’s Strongest Man in 1988, he would form a brief but heated rivalry with Iceland’s Jón Páll Sigmarsson, whose charisma and success made him strongman’s greatest personality.
Sigmarsson, by this time, was a household name along with Britain’s Geoff Capes, with the pair trading titles from 1983-1986. The Icelander had a knack for a one liner, once declaring “I am not an Eskimo, I am a Viking!” after a member of the audience audibly mistook his ethnicity. On another equally comic occasion, he proclaimed “Too much power!” after the rope he was pulling on snapped. But most famously of all, having defeated and de-throned Capes in the arm wrestling in Mora, Sweden, he triumphantly roared: “The king has lost his crown!”
Four years later, the Icelander faced Kazmaier, who had returned to the fold of World’s Strongest Man, after a six-year absence. This time it was the American providing the soundbites as he was disqualified in the forward hold for over-bending his arms: “You made a big mistake Webster…REAL big…!” David Webster, had in fact shown remarkable bravery in applying the rules as head referee, but escaped unscathed, despite the threat.
Sigmarsson prevailed on that occasion and Kaz was to only make one more appearance at World’s. As one Icelandic champion retired, another, in the form of Magnús Ver Magnússon stepped up to dominate the sport, emulating Sigmarsson’s four titles. What followed was a period of Scandinavian domination with Magnus Samuelsson (SWE), Jouko Ahola (FIN), Janne Virtanen (FIN) and Svend Karlsson (NOR) all taking titles before another of the sports’ big hitters exploded onto the scene with the victorious yell of “Polish Power!”
Few athletes have shaken up the sport as Mariusz Pudzianowski did. His blend of athleticism, strength, explosiveness, and endurance, along with his ripped and muscular physique was unique, and too much for most of his competitors. He swept to an unprecedented five world titles between 2002 and 2008. In his last World’s Strongest Man win in 20008, he was so thrilled to snatch the victory from Derek Poundstone in the Atlas Stones that he thumped the Americans shoulders in celebration before he had finished loading his final stone. Hardly a sporting gesture, but “Pudzian” was more concerned with winning; something he was very good at.
If Mariusz is strongman’s greatest champion, then his successor, Žydrūnas Savickas, is perhaps the sports’ most impressive athlete. Big “Z” sealed his reputation through winning four World’s Strongest Man titles and re-writing most of the record books in the process.
Savickas is regarded by many to be the strongest man in history, which speaks volumes for the ability of his greatest adversary, Brian Shaw, who was one of few men to defeat the Lithuanian in his prime. Equalling Savickas’ four titles, Shaw heralded the start of a new era of true giants dominating the sport, along with fellow-leviathans Hafþór Björnsson and current champion Tom Stoltman.
Strongman’s most recent rivalry was perhaps its most intense and was played out between Björnsson and Britain’s Eddie Hall, who had risen to prominence after his famous half tonne deadlift. In taking the 2017 World’s Strongest Man title, their mutual animosity could only be resolved through a long-awaited boxing match – a first for strongman – in Dubai, billed as the heaviest match in history, eventually won by Bjornsson in March 2022.
Twenty-three men have held the World’s Strongest Man winner’s trophy aloft, of whom twelve have taken single victories, including America’s Martins Licis and Ukraine’s Oleksii Novikov. Both these men may yet claim a second title and join the four men to have won two titles: Bruce Wilhelm (USA), Geoff Capes (GBR), Jouko Ahola (FIN) and the current holder, Tom Stoltman (GBR).
Giant Live’s own legend on the microphone, Bill Kazmier (USA), is the only man to have totalled three victories. He won consecutive titles from 1981-1982, with only Iceland’s Magnús Ver Magnússon emulating that feat, winning three in a row from 1994-1996, on his way to four titles.
Along with “Maggie,” as he is affectionately known on the Giants Live circuit in his role as referee, there are three other athletes to have claimed four World’s Strongest Man wins. Fellow countryman, Jón Páll Sigmarsson became the first man to do so, winning his fourth title in 1990. Lithuania’s Žydrūnas “Big Z” Savickas and his great rival Brian Shaw of the USA, have also stood atop the podium on four occasions.
Standing alone as World’s Strongest Man’s most prolific winner is the man they used to call “The Dominator”, Poland’s Mariusz Pudzianowski. Between 2002 and 2008 the Polish powerhouse amassed five grand final wins as well and two second place finishes where he was only narrowly beaten. With seven podium finishes, equalling Jón Páll Sigmarsson’s total, Mariusz ranks equal third in total podium placings, behind Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson’s eight and Brian Shaw and Žydrūnas Savickas’s ten, making them the joint most consistently successful competitors in World’s Strongest Man history.
The USA is top of the pile when it comes to World’s Strongest Man titles by nation, with twelve victories; over a quarter of all the titles awarded. Just behind are Iceland who despite their modest population can boast nine titles. Britain’s six wins makes them the world’s third most successful nation, just one ahead of Poland. In fact, if Mariusz Pudzianowski were a country he’d be the fourth most successful, globally. Lithuania is fifth, thanks solely to Žydrūnas Savickas’s four victories, with Finland just behind having topped the podium three times.
The only other nation to have won more than one title is Ukraine, having taken the title twice, thanks to Vasyl Virastyuk and Olksii Novikov, with The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden taking single titles. Scandinavia, as an area, has therefore claimed fourteen titles which is nearly a third of all the championships held.
In terms of total podium finishes, USA have produced 31 podium finishes at World’s: ten more than Iceland’s 21. In third position, Britain has 18, and are well ahead of Lithuania and Finland’s 11. Poland place sixth with 10 medals. The Scandinavian nations, if grouped together have taken 43 podium spots. It could therefore be argued that the Vikings are the greatest race of strongmen on the planet.
Countries to have never won a title despite having produced many talented athletes include Canada and Russia, which is perhaps surprising. Mikhail Koklyaev, the former Olympic weightlifter is the only Russian to ever stand on the podium, whereas Canadian strongmen have done so on four occasions with Tom Magee coming closest, finishing runner up to Bill Kazmaier in 1982.
In a sport where the bulk of the competitors have significant difficulty self-regulating their body temperatures – due mostly to their significant bulk – the exotic and frequently hot and humid climes of the contest’s venues has caused a few issues. Many a super-sized competitor has suffered cramp, or finished a gruelling event laying prostate, gasping for breath in a sweat-soaked state of exhaustion. From Botswana to the Bahamas and from Malaysia to Mauritius, Strongmen have been on the receiving end of some much-needed oxygen and a cool damp towel in many an equatorial hotspot.
There have been a few exceptions, including the 1992 contest held in much cooler conditions in Reykjavík, Iceland. The title that year was won by Ted van der Parre, who defeated Magnús Ver Magnússon on his home turf.
Possibly the chilliest World’s Strongest Man was held in Mora, Sweden, in 1984, where in freezing conditions, Jón Páll Sigmarsson defeated Geoff Capes to win his first world title. Held in January, the competitors competed outdoors in sled pushing, giant ice cube loading and even truck pulling on snow!
In World’s Strongest Man’s early years, the events were designed to reflect the culture of the contest’s location, as well as to appear superhuman. Logs and boulders were more impressive to television audiences than barbells and harked back to the ancient legends of strength, such as Hercules and Sampson.
Health and safety had not yet fully established itself and injuries were not infrequent. As well as Columbo’s injury from 1977, both Kazmaier and Capes sustained soft tissue tears attempting to bend steel bars across their heads. In 1997, American Mark Philippi’s knee was wrecked after the car he was attempting to flip fell back on top of him. In 2002, on the banks of the Zambezi, athletes attempting to pull a train along its rail badly burned and blistered their hands and were effectively eliminated from the contest. The organisers had not accounted for the effect of the African sun on the black painted rail.
Over the contest’s forty-five-year history, the events have been fine-tuned and developed. Many are now well-established favourites, such as log lifting and Atlas Stones, whilst others have been abandoned. Some of the more off-the-wall events, such as sumo wrestling and sled pushing on ice have fallen by the wayside. It’s also unlikely we’ll ever see competitors squatting bunny girls again, as they did in 1980 when the contest was held at the Playboy Club.
In 2017 Rogue Fitness became the official equipment suppliers for World’s Strongest Man, the first time a large-scale commercial company had done so, but the events have retained their cultural twists and traditional feel. In 2022, the classic flint stone barbell plates were resurrected for an overhead pressing contest that was won by Oleksii Novikov with a world record of 240kg/529lb.
The contest was a straight final until 1994 in Sun City, South Africa, when heats were brought in for the first time. Four heats of four men were whittled down to a final of eight, which was won that year by Magnús Ver Magnússon. The following year there were five heats and a ten-man final and by 1996 the field had grown to 24 athletes. In 1998 there were 40 men invited to Tangiers, Morocco, but by 1999 the current format of five heats of six men was established, with the top two from each heat going through to the grand final.
One of the more recent developments in the contest’s format has been the “Stone-off” which has concluded the World’s Strongest Man heats since 2018. The second and third placed athletes of each heat must lift a stone alternately until one of the athletes cannot continue. It is a gruelling test of strength endurance and has caused much controversy, since several athletes placed comfortably in second have had their qualification place overturned by a superior stone lifter.
World’s Strongest Man has been no stranger to controversy in its forty-five-year existence. Possibly the greatest upheaval in the show’s history was its split from IFSA, the International Federation of Strength Athletes in 2004, which led to IFSA creating their own World Championship and banning many of the sports’ top stars from competing at World’s Strongest Man. Mariusz Pudzianowski was the only athlete from the 2004 contest that competed in 2005 and it wasn’t until 2009 that the IFSA split from WSM ended and Žydrūnas Savickas returned triumphantly to take his first title.
In the early 1980’s, the sport’s most successful athlete was not invited to retain his title in 1983. Kazmaier may have been a victim of his own supreme domination; in 1980 he won the contest by a staggering 28.5 points. World’s Strongest Man was held outside of America for the first time, and in Christchurch, New Zealand, Geoff Capes was crowned as champion. This paved the way for a period of European domination, which may have been hugely beneficial for the sports’ wider popularity, but for Kaz, the question remained: what could have been?
Joensuu, Finland, was the site of one of the sports’ most debated results in 1990. American O.D Wilson had a 5.5-point lead over Jón Páll Sigmarsson going into the final event, a 100kg brick hod carry over 200m. The massive O.D, not built for endurance, saw his lead evaporate as he struggled round the track. Meanwhile Sigmarsson, sprinting away, had finished sufficiently ahead in their race to take his fourth and final title. Many felt understandably sorry for Wilson to lose in such a fashion, and he is regarded as one of the strongest men to have never won the title. After his win, Sigmarsson very sportingly acknowledged that Wilson was the stronger, but that he was the faster.
A more recent controversy occurred in 2017 when Britain’s Eddie Hall took the title in Kasane, Botswana. In the third event of the final, the Viking Press, runner-up Hafþór Björnsson disputed the referee’s decision to disallow one of his reps, taking to social media to claim it cost him the title. This sparked the feud between him and Hall that culminated in their boxing match in 2022.
WSM – the long and short of it
The tallest winner of World’s Strongest Man is Netherland’s Ted van der Parre, who at 213cm/7’ 0”, claimed the title in Reykyavík in 1992. In contrast to the huge Dutchman, Wales’s Gary Taylor, who took the title the very next year, is the shortest man to win World’s, at a height of 1.83m/6’ 0”.
Establishing the heaviest-ever winner is not so easy as strongman often keep their precise weight to themselves, as it can indicate their conditioning. However, both Brian Shaw and Hafþór Björnsson were most probably around or just over the 200kg/441lb mark, or about 32-stone. The heaviest ever competitor is probably Northern Ireland’s Glen “The Daddy” Ross who tipped the scales at 215kg/474lb or 34-stone.
The lightest winner of the title is Finland’s Jouko Ahola, who at a positively svelt 121kg/267lb or 19-stone won, the contest in 1997 and again in 1999, sweeping aside much more massive men with his huge back strength and athleticism.
The oldest champion, at 38 years and 8 months is Lithuania’s Žydrūnas Savickas, who won his fourth title in 2014 in Los Angeles. The youngest is Jón Páll Sigmarsson who won his first title in Mora Sweden aged 24-years, achieving the feat just a few months younger than Oleksii Novikov, who was also 24 when he won the title in Bradenton, Florida in 2020.
The youngest ever World’s Strongest Man finalist is Kevin Nee (USA) who at just 21 reached the 2007 final, in Anaheim, California, where he placed 8th. The oldest man to compete is Norway’s Odd Haugen who placed 4th in his group at the 2006 contest in Sanya, China. He was 56 years and 9 months old, just 8 months older than Mark Felix of Britain, who was 56 years and 1 month old when he also came 4th in his heat at the 2022 contest in Sacramento, California.
Felix, however, does hold the record for the most World’s Strongest Man appearances, with 17 since 2004. Brian Shaw has the qualified for the final 14 times; more than anyone else, whilst Žydrūnas Savickas has finished as runner-up a record 6 times.
If you think refereeing a football match is challenging, then having to keep the planet’s most powerful men in check is not a job that many would envy, yet someone has to do it. In the inaugural contest in 1977 there were a team of officials, including Tommy Kono, the legendary Olympic weightlifting champion. Harold Connolly, the Olympic hammer thrower, refereed for a while before David Webster ,having survived his run-in with Kamaier in 1988, stepped aside to allow Dr Douglas Edmunds, donning his trademark hat, to take the reins.
“You can’t be fair to everyone,” was one of Edmunds’ classic lines, but the burly Scotsman did a remarkable job as referee, controlling the athletes and guiding them through the finer points of the rule book – not an easy task. Colin Bryce, the Giants Live co-founder, took his mentor’s mantle for a long spell until Magnús Ver Magnússon, the four-time champion, returned to World’s to become a greatly respected head adjudicator.
World’s Strongest Man 2022
The latest incarnation of the World’s Strongest Man contest was won by Scotland’s Tom Stoltman. Taking the title for the second time at just twenty-six, it looks possible that the Highlander could dominate the contest for many years. There are a few athletes, such as Oleksii Novikov and Martins Licis who will be looking to deny Stoltman his third title in 2023, with several more future stars lurking in the background, ready to step-up.
This year the finals, for the first time, were a ticketed event, with much larger crowds in attendance. The sport of strongman, with World’s Strongest Man at its summit, is reaching ever-greater audiences through television and social media. Its athletes are breaking records with increasing regularity and the standard of competition is ever improving. World’s Strongest Man’s future looks assured and who knows what the next forty-five years will bring?