• 30 March, 2023
  • 15 minutes

Novikov for the double? – Big Loz’s ESM predictions!

Laurence Shahlaei knows a thing or two about what it takes to win Europe’s Strongest Man- here's his hot tips to take the crown in Leeds this weekend!

Shahlaei shares his predictions ahead of Europe’s Strongest Man 2023

Laurence Shahlaei knows a thing or two about what it takes to win Europe’s Strongest Man. Back in 2016, in what was one of strongman’s most memorable nights, he caused a big upset when he de-throned the five-time champion, Hafthór Björnsson. That was the European championship’s first visit to the First Direct Arena – an occasion marked not just by the biggest win of Loz’s career, but also by Eddie Hall’s ground-breaking half tonne deadlift.

Eddie Hall deadlifts 500kg

Europe’s Strongest Man 2023 kicks off at 5.00pm on Saturday the 1st of April – April Fool’s Day – and only the most foolish of strongman fans will be unaware that this year it is happening just two weeks ahead of World’s Strongest Man, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Defending champion Oleksii Novikov will be returning to Leeds to defend the title he won from Luke Stoltman in a thrilling final last year. He’s had a bit of time away from competing but now the Ukrainian powerhouse is returning to the fray with victory at Europe’s and World’s squarely in his sights.

Standing in his way are five highly demanding events, all cooked up by Darren Sadler, and a field of thirteen of Europe’s best strongmen who are all eager to get their mighty mitts on not just the trophy, but one of the three invitations to World’s Strongest Man still up for grabs.

With the diverse demands of each of the five events and the varying strengths and weaknesses of this year’s contenders to consider, who better to guide the fans through the myriad of potential outcomes than one of Britain’s and Europe’s most successful strongmen, the 2016 champion, Laurence Shahlaei?

“I definitely think Novikov is going to be the favourite for Europe’s, but looking at the events I wouldn’t say everything is guaranteed,” says Loz who thinks that the new-look event schedule could set one or two cats among the pigeons. Reflecting on the time the Ukrainian has had away from competition Laurence is certain he’s going into both ESM and WSM with the intention of winning: “He’s definitely going to be the favourite for a lot of people and he’s going to be a favourite for World’s as well.”

The Contenders

One man who is likely to be pushing Novikov every inch of the way, In Shahlaei’s view, is the recently crowned Britain’s Strongest Man, Adam Bishop. “Bish is looking really good,” says Laurence of his dominant performance at Britain’s. “He really didn’t put a foot wrong.”  Looking at the event list Laurence predicts that the 2020 Europe’s Strongest Man runner-up has got four good events but perhaps one potentially weaker event in the Log Ladder.

Picking him for his top three, Shahlaei thinks Adam’s got a great chance with his speed in loading events, and unbelievable deadlifting. “He’s really good at Conan’s Circle and he’s a great stone lifter as well. I think even though the pressing is a weaker event for him, the fact it’s a Log Ladder, involving a little bit of a speed element, means he’ll pick up more points than if it was a maximum log. So, I think he’s going to be fighting for the top three. Definitely.”


The Other Pavlo

Bishop missed out on last year’s contest after sustaining a triceps rupture in training, and the extent to which he has healed will be fully tested in the opening event. One man who was certainly not absent from last year’s contest, finishing 4th in his Giants Live and ESM debut, is Pavlo Kordiyaka, the contest’s second Ukrainian competitor. The 2021 Official Strongman Games Open champion is not to be confused with the other Pavlo – Nakonechnyy,  AKA: “Wide Pavlo,” to avoid confusion, who withdrew to focus on his preparation for World’s.

“Tall Pavlo” is one of several of Europe’s finest who all have a shout at claiming the top prize, according to Shahlaei. “Lots of great athletes are coming over this year. Rauno Heinla is really solid, as is Aivars Šmaukstelis. Konstantine Janashia has been amazing in the past and has had a bit of time to train and recover for this.” However, it is Kordiyaka that impresses Loz the most: “He’s a great athlete!”

In Shahlaei’s view the Ukrainian is very similar to Bishop in terms of his fitness, all-round strength, and speed. “The only difference is Bish is a great deadlifter, but not so good at log, whereas Kordiyaka is a good log lifter but not so good at deadlift.” This kind of pattern, with athletes having at least one weakness, is one that Laurence feels is prevalent this year. “There’s athletes with some really good events and then maybe one potential weaker event. So, for those two (Bishop and Kordiyaka) it could come down to who does better on their weaker event. But I definitely have my eyes on Pavlo!”

The British Threat

Five other athletes from the British Isles will be vying for success on Saturday night, including the Welsh Bull, Gavin Bilton, who placed second at Britain’s back in January, and third and fourth placed Graham Hicks and Paul Smith. Joining them will be Shane Flowers, who was 5th last year and the entertaining Irishman, Pa O’Dwyer. “He needs a big performance,” says Laurence of O’Dwyer, who has had his share of injury woes of late. “His last few shows haven’t been the best and with World’s coming up he’s going to want to prove he’s good enough to get there.”

The events this year, in Shahlaei’s view, are more speed and endurance related in nature, with less emphasis on maximum weight, and potentially not advantageous to either Bilton or Hicks. “Gav has made huge progress this past year and Hicksy is just a beast, but I think for both, the fast pace and more athletic nature of the events, probably doesn’t suit them as well and may play out more favourably for Pa.”

Back in January, Paul Smith made a huge impact in front of his home crowd in Sheffield and was only denied a podium finish with an unfortunate performance in the Power Stairs. “This is a big step up for him in his first ESM and he’s really performed well in the shows that he’s done. I just think maybe a couple of these events are a few of his weaker ones and he may just be focusing on a solid performance and building confidence going towards World’s.”

Shahlaei describes Shane Flowers as “the unknown,” and thinks that event-wise the contest should be good for him, despite the poor performances he’s had of late, with his injury at WSM and then his stomach issue at Britain’s. “I think for Shane it’s important to just put in a solid performance and build that confidence back and work towards other shows later in the year.”

Events Predictions

Event 1: SBD Log Ladder

According to Laurence, most people would automatically look to Graham Hicks to take the event win in the opening event, having such a huge log max, at 220kg. However, Loz believes Novikov and Kordiyaka could potentially beat him, not because they’re stronger, but because they’re quicker. “Pavlo, particularly, is very explosive in the way he lifts and Novikov is just rapid at everything. The fact the competitors have to transition between the five implements is going to suit the Ukrainians, whereas Hicks is more methodical in his approach.”

Event 2: Clearscore Load & Push

Although similar events to this have been held at Giants Live, this is a new set-up and it’s tricky to predict who will excel and who might struggle. The athletes will race head-to-head, loading three objects into wheelbarrows, which they must then push down the 20m course. In Laurence’s view this event could be a fascinating one. “It could easily throw a spanner in the works. It’s very easy to make a mistake and speed is going to be an element as well, so this will be a hard one to pick.”

Event 3: Mirafit Deadlift for Reps

This event is little easier to predict, in Shahlaei’s view, and should follow the form book. There is no shortage of tremendous deadlifters in this field, including Estonia’s Rauno Heinla, Adam Bishop and Graham Hicks. Janashia is a former World Deadlift Champion and Novikov is certainly no slouch either. “For me,” says Laurence, “I’m going to pick Rauno for this one. I think, having won the World Deadlift Championships last year, and being seen as a deadlift specialist, he’s going to want to win this event, whereas the other guys I don’t think have to win it. In his head he’ll probably push to the absolute limit. Some of the other guys may just focus on good points.”

Event 4: BoohooMAN Conan’s Wheel

This year’s contenders will be shooting for Darren Sadler’s record of 835° and Shahlaei thinks that like the Load and Push, this event could throw up some surprises. “The Conan’s Wheel is an interesting one. Bish and Pa probably have the most experience on this bit of kit. Both are very good at it, but Aivars is very good at Conan’s as well. I think potentially one of those three will take the win, but never count out Novikov, you never know what he is capable of.”

Event 5: The Castle Stones

The lighter set is to be used this year and weigh in at 100kg – 180kg (220lb – 397lb) and this event could be a sprint between so many of this year’s athletes. As the contest reaches its climax, Shahlaei takes the view that the athletes’ placings will determine how fast they complete their stone runs.  “It comes down to positionings overall when it gets to the stones. Who’s battling for a podium finish and 1st place? If you slip down the board you tend to not try as hard, sometimes. So, I think it’s going to come down to who’s in contention. But they all are capable of doing these stones and doing them fast, so it could be a very exciting finish.”

The Dark Horse

Asked to pick an underrated athlete from the pack who could cause an upset, Loz plumped for Latvia’s Aivars Šmaukstelis. “I wouldn’t really call him a dark horse because he’s been on the podium at Giants Live before, but Aivars often gets overlooked and he’s an unbelievable competitor.” A prolific winner across Europe, Aivars has won more international shows than any of the athletes competing and has got great experience. “He’s quite a laid-back character and he can adapt to different situations. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him doing very well.”

But when it comes to the winner, Shahlaei can’t look past Novikov: “I think Kordiyaka will be 2nd and Bishop 3rd, but Novikov comes in as the favourite and I would definitely pick him to take the win.”


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