“I’ve never seen a strongman so defined in all my days.” – Paul Dickenson
Part of the admiration we have for top athletes comes from the simple fact they can do things we can’t. Rather than tut and curse our feeble condition it’s empowering to see because ultimately, these guys are human. Victory is partly ours.
Pulling trucks, flipping cars; WSM has been as much to do with shifting objects that everyone agrees are heavy as it is to do with finding out exactly who is the strongest, and when it comes to admiring the competitors Paul Dickenson is in a league of his own. Repeated observations make me chuckle; “just look at his arms!”, but when it came to Poland’s Mariusz Pudzianowski it was difficult to exaggerate.
At 6’1” and 250lbs he wasn’t all that big but his physique leapt out. There was heaps of muscle, there wasn’t a pinch of fat, and during events his veins would surface in a manner that got you thinking gamma radiation. No doubt Jon Pall Sigmarsson would have enjoyed swapping training methods. Mariusz was also very flexible, quick and had a background in boxing which pointed towards a superior breed of strongman.
‘The Dominator”, I used to think the nickname was a bit cheesy. As time rolled on it became evident how perfectly apt it was. Mariusz didn’t just collect more titles than anyone else but won competitions by serious margins, shining in every event. Invariably focused on winning and sometimes a little grouchy, he won’t be remembered for that camaraderie WSM built its reputation on, but competitors don’t come to lose either, and Mariusz was awesome when the competitive juices were flowing.
As a youth Mariusz enjoyed both boxing and karate but he would follow in father’s footsteps as weightlifting began to shape his training. It didn’t take too long for him to realise that he was pretty darn good at lifting big and national competitions paved the way to WSM.
In 2000 Mariusz was 23, a mere baby in strongman. He was also a little on the small side, but back in South Africa’s beautiful Sun City he showed there to be uncommon fire in his soul. Finland’s Janne Virtanen won the day but Mariusz certainly turned heads and put some top performances in like jacking-up one end of a 1400kg/3086lbs car for 72 seconds.
A run-in with the law stopped this rapidly improving Pole competing in 2001’s WSM; Mariusz claimed to be coming to the aid of an assault victim. Regardless of the particulars of this incident he was back the following year and powered through the first three events. Such a start usually spells first place and sure enough Mariusz won his first title. One year on in Victoria Falls, Zambia and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching a repeat. Again the first three events were his, but this time Pudzianowski pushed his advantage for a 20 point winning margin over promising runner-up Zydrunas Zavickas.
Bill Kazmaier’s great margin of victory in 1980 was no more.
Still only 27 years of age, Pudzianowski wasn’t just the favourite for 2004’s WSM; he looked impervious. This time the competition was arranged much differently with one big heat taking place over five days. Only six men graced the final. It wasn’t the only noticeable difference as Mariusz wasn’t quite his dominant self, struggling to keep up with Zavickas and the Ukraine’s Vasyl Virastyuk. It was the latter who pinched the crown. Mariusz had to make do with third. Later he was accused of using a banned substance which knocked him off the podium.
It was a little unusual for a sport in which drug testing is a rarity. All that mattered was that Mariusz had plenty left in the tank. Chocolate (a favourite of his) helped provide the fuel for training and 2005 presented another chance to grab that third title.
Following a poor start more eyebrows were raised but it was merely a hiccup. Mariusz stormed back, performing so well that in the end there was a healthy lead of 14 points over runner-up, the late Jesse Marunde. With Jesse’s passing the chance of a new American champion was seemingly dead. Then came WSM 2006.
Surfer-enthusiast Phil Pfister had been competing for the last eight years at the top level but there was a noticeable gap between himself and the top spot. Out in Senya, China, carefully but reliably he got off to a decent start; the only one to lift all four stones in the overhead lift event. The key moment however was when the much shorter Mariusz fell behind on the Fingal’s Fingers. Pfister stormed through them, and, feeding off his growing confidence, proceeded to win the last five events, just piping Mariusz on the Atlas stones for an electric comeback.
I thought Mariusz had found his boogieman. I was wrong.
Like a true champion, in 2007 Mariusz improved where he had faulted, eating up the Fingal’s Fingers to post a better time than his main rival. There was an inevitability to the competition after this but that didn’t make Pudzianowski any less compelling to watch as he smashed the field in a way that only he could do. The plan to win five titles was back on track; a goal of his that was years in the making.
Charleston, West Virginia provided the backdrop for an historic competition. Again the field was stacked, this time with a collection of fresh-faced American’s. The days when Pudzianowski use to run away with the competition were no more as his closet rivals stayed glued to him. Gradually the muscle-bound Derek Poundstone began to create some distance between himself and Mariusz. On the Atlas stones he maintained his slight advantage, until that last stone. Hitting the edge of the platform it spun then fell. Tough break, but then Mariusz knew his pain. Coming second in 2009 didn’t lessen the significance of those five titles. They remain the holy grail of achievements in strongman.
Withdrawing back to his fighting roots, Mariusz became a Mixed Martial Artist. Victim of a growing trend, or did he just want to scratch that itch? Either way, there is no confusion over what sport defines him.
Applauding his career, Bill Kazmaier still made the distinction about his superiority in raw power to Mariusz; a point of pride for any strongman. He took on a different tone when speaking of the ever-growing Lithuanian. Pride had to take a backseat to reality.