Legends of WSM: Bill Kazmaier

I knew he was a little bit different than a basic weightlifter out of a gym – Geoff Capes

Looking back there was something almost comical about the first World’s Strongest Man (“WSM”) competition.

bill1Located inside the playful ambience of Universal Studios, events included curious ones like the tyre toss, the wrist roll, and competitors included American footballers. There was no funny business with the likes of Lou Ferrigno bending an iron bar over his huge back, but the entertained crowd were watching a sport in its infancy; predominantly a stars n’ stripes one.

For two years on the trot weightlifting champion Bruce Wilhelm seized the title.

From Burlington, Wisconsin, a 26 year old powerlifter by the name of Bill Kazmaier was eager to get his crushing mitts on the 1979 trophy. It didn’t quite work out like he had hoped coming in at a respectable third, but that competitive fire did its job in intimidating opponents and disturbing officials…the last one was unintentional.

During those softly spoken interviews you could sense his focus was elsewhere, in between events there was a general look of dissatisfaction, and come Bill’s turn he was yelling at the apparatus like it was his sworn enemy. Getting every last drop out of weaker events, you could tell this strongman was hell-bent on winning.

Bill’s 6’3”, 330lbs/150kg frame was one of the more eye-catching physiques, bumbling all over and so much so near the neck that he didn’t appear to have one. Years of squatting, benching and deadlifting absurd weights had clad him in thick muscle and he was arguably the best in terms of pure strength; before his introduction into WSM he benched a record 622lbs/282kg.

The 1979 competition was a bit of a shock to the system. 1980 saw a different animal.

Winning 6 of the 10 events and coming no lower than 4th in any one of them, Kazmaier put on a clinic, winning by a huge margin. The sight of him preparing to squat 934lbs/423kg, eyes bulging with heavy breaths, is an unforgettable picture. The young bulldozer of a man looked good for another title.

1980 was the year in which WSM left its Hollywood roots, relocating to Newark, New Jersey. 1981’s showdown was at Magic Mountain, California and Kazmaier picked up where he had left off, working himself into that scary state to easily press 360lbs/163kg in the log lift. Things were going well until that steel bar reappeared. Going head-to-head with Britain’s Geoff Capes, Bill overstrained and tore a pectoral muscle.

The shrieks of pain said it all, but every strongman knew they came with the territory.

This was about pushing your body to insane limits, not in the cosy confines of a gym, having your weights guided by a machine, but in ways that engaged all kinds of stabilising muscles, tested your stamina, agility and compromised your grip. The word “awkward” quickly became something of a catchphrase. Like all great strongman, it was the challenge which enticed Kazmaier, and he pushed through the pain barrier to get another competition by the scruff.

It was back to business in the squat and, in response to those who said he wasn’t locking-out properly, Bill deadlifted 940lbs/426kg twice instead of the required one. That caveman-esque boasting, one of the great features of WSM, Bill had down to the T. A second title was his, equalling Wilhelm, and it was back to Magic Mountain next year for a shot at history.

Sweeping up the first two events, in an interview Bill claimed himself to be the strongest man who ever lived. There was definitely room for improvement, technically speaking, which made his 355lbs/161kg log lift all the more impressive. Bold as his statement was the defending champion powered on, atoning for a slip up in the squat to come joint-first in the deadlift with 1055lbs/478kg. It would have given Kaz great pleasure when he beat Dave Waddington in the sumo final (his main squat rival), and despite losing the final enough points had been tallied to make it three in a row.

Dreaming of a fourth, moments after his unprecedented triumph Bill claimed to have “already forgotten about it”. All those romantic analogies between man and machine were closer to reality than fantasy.

Previously Kazmaier had spoken about the fact he liked introducing Sumo to the American people. He seemed to have a sense of belonging and may have held a similar outlook on WSM. This was a possible factor for his non-invitation to next year’s competition which took place in Christchurch, New Zealand. A more common theory was his domination of a contest that was aiming to go global.

There was no invitation for 5 years.

bill2Kaz was able to get into the mix via different competitions, keeping his reputation alive. The 2425lbs/1100kg powerlifting total he set in 1981 stood for a decade which included the first ever 661lb/300kg bench-press (raw). He finally got back into WSM for the 1988 competition but ran into some bad luck and had to settle for runner-up. It was fourth place in 1989; Bill’s final stab at a competition which he had helped promote from a spirited contest to a respected title.

Many years have passed since Bill was in any kind of serious competition, but he has remained a classic part of WSM. Commentary is more his thing these days and perhaps nobody’s opinion is worth more. At nearly 60 years that boulder-like body is not the only thing he has retained, befriending guests with that easy manner and husky voice. The broiling madman of yesteryear is ultimately, like most strongmen, a friendly giant.

Had life cut him some slack, there’s no telling how many titles Bill could have won. Five was a real possibility, but to say the true king was absent during this era would be unfair. A certain Icelander had justified his boasting; a feat in itself given the non-stop commentary.

Unmistakably blonde, this strongman amazed and amused in equal measure.

Read our next article in the series on Jon Pall Sigmarsson.