“I’m a little bit crazy, when I’m competing. I have to do it crazy.” – Jon Pall Sigmarsson
Knowing what you want to do in life is half the battle. Those with tunnel vision from an early age are given a nice head start. No energy is wasted fretting, the eye is always on the prize; it’s a winning mentality. Soon enough you come to learn that dreams are merely pit-stops. Work itself provides the greatest satisfaction.
Jon Pall Sigmarsson was such a person.
In between competitions for bodybuilding and strongman, the 6’4” Icelander lived in the gym. Women weren’t hard to come by, not with his blonde locks and charm, but training and nutrition took precedence. During a first date Jon Pall devoured a tray of eggs out of the fridge. Back at home a friend observed that he would stuff a blender with so much food that it struggled to work.
An unappetizing mash-up of tuna, eggs, banana and milk wasn’t for everybody, but it provided essential fuel for that marble physique.
Aside from setting Icelandic records in powerlifting, Jon Pall was a keen bodybuilder; a detail which would call for some drastic cutting periods. His success in each discipline showed the mental strength needed to thrive in any situation. Despite its basic title, versatility is at the heart of World’s Strongest Man (WSM), and Sigmarsson used his well-rounded abilities to come runner-up in 1983.
Britain’s Geoff Capes got it right on his fourth attempt, but the megaphone quips of Jon Pall are what stole the show. “I am from Iceland!”, “How about that!” Though very polite in interviews there was a real showman beneath those 300lbs of muscle. As he worked his way through the events, spectators were just as interested in what he was going to say as they were in his performance.
Winning brought on episodes of posturing while losing saw Jon Pall stomp on ground and roar, but there were no sour grapes if he failed. All emotions were consumed in his efforts; a highlight of which was his deadlift showdown with Canadian Tom Magee. A record 1180lbs/535kg was a bridge too far for Jon Pall. Five seconds later he was blowing kisses to the crowd, and it was this sportsmanship which had him voted ‘Personality of the Competition’.
From New Zealand to frosty Sweden, 1984’s WSM took place in favourable conditions for the Icelander. Many expected him to do well. Cleaning up in the first three events made him a likely winner.
With eight events squashed into two days it was a fairly punishing schedule. Jon Pall admitted to having not slept very well and that his legs were a little sore, but that didn’t stop him from coming second in the sledge push. Only 24 years of age, the power of youth helped him claim his first title. Beating Capes in an arm wrestle the new champion bellowed “The king, has lost, his crown!”
Geoff made good of his chance to show that “The king is not dead!” winning a second title in 1985. Just like in ’83, Iceland’s foremost athlete was beaten by a whisker. In ‘86, within the sunny settings of Nice is where Sigmarsson tied with Capes, two titles apiece.
This competition was the first ever WSM to feature the McGlashen stones, another Scottish tradition; a classic test of manhood. They would come to be known as Atlas stones and WSM’s signature event. Just like any strongman meeting, they test your strength, stamina, speed and technique. Many have come to dread that final stone as it painfully slips out of your grasp.
It was a fairly dominant win. The superb Geoff Capes left WSM aged 37.
This era was certainly not wanting for talent; the Netherland’s Ab Wolder was a top contender of the ‘80s, but avid fans knew that Bill Kazmaier hadn’t been fishing for the last five years. The isolated grizzly eyed Sigmarsson was perceived a “paper champion”.
At a career heaviest, Jon Pall annihilated both Capes and Kazmaier in 1987’s Pure Strength contest, an unofficial substitute for WSM. However, Kaz was not 100%. He was also penalised in the deadlift. Jon Pall went on to lift 1153lbs/523kg at which point commentator Dougie Donnelly, who had narrated the event as you would a funeral, was in danger of sounding enthusiastic.
The real showdown occurred in 1988’s WSM, and at 34 Kazmaier was in serious shape.
A point ahead after the log lift, the former champ said he was “going to make it a point to win this WSM”. With Sigmarsson holding his left shoulder, Bill lifted 375lbs/170kg. It was looking good for the American but his fortune was about to change. In the front hold event Jon Pall’s coach screamed “Kazmaier!”, as if uttering his name removed lactic acid. Come Bill’s turn everything was going well, but he was penalised at that crucial moment for altering his grip.
Kazmaier recovered nicely in the sack race, taunting Jon Pall in their first head-to-head. This good work was undone by coming a disastrous sixth in the weight over the bar event. Disturbed by the surrounding waters, Bill couldn’t get his trajectory right. The Viking’s lead was now safe, but he closed the show in style, lifting all 5 McGlashen stones in under 30 seconds.
Kaz was good enough to arrange a group hug, though he figured that he and Jon Pall would carry on “until one of us drops”.
Injuries troubled them both in 1989, but Sigmarsson had one last moment of greatness in 1990 for title number four. Winning by a mere half point, a 200m dash with a 100kg/220lbs backpack was a cruel way to overtake American O.D. Wilson. Coming as low as sixth in the first event, Jon Pall explained that “It’s better to have a bad start and a good end than a good start and a bad end”.
No truer words were ever spoken.
And the refreshing truth about O.D. Wilson’s closing remarks is that Jon Pall would have gladly conceded (just as he had with Kazmaier) his superiority in static strength.
Injury prevented Jon Pall competing in 1991. Hardly a hiccup, this was the sign of a weary body. On January 16th 1993, the man who claimed that “there’s no point being alive if you can’t do deadlift” suffered a heart attack while doing that very exercise, and at 32 WSM’s brightest flame went out. His absence continues to be felt.
To have no weakness was the philosophy of a new, less crazy Icelander, but nobody imagined he would repeat his idols success.
Read our previous article in the series on strongman Bill Kazmaier.