Bill Kazmaier and the Birth of the Modern Strongman

A true legend in the sport of powerlifting and modern day strongman!

You know, in those times when you’re in the trenches and your back’s against the wall and you are that wounded animal, at that point when things look their worst, how do you react and what energies do you call upon at that moment? 

For me, the most phenomenal thing I did was to realize where my power comes from and what it is. And if I could channel it and use it for the right things, then I’ll have infinite power… — Bill Kazmaier, 1997 (1).

If anyone else claimed to know the source of infinite power, they’d be a laughing stock. For William ‘Kaz’ Kazmaier, it’s something of an understatement. As a powerlifter and strongman, Kazmaier’s ability was the stuff of legend. He broke numerous powerlifting records, regularly hitting totals over 2,000lbs. while also setting world records in the bench press. For powerlifters, Kazmaier was a figure to be respected and, if you competed against him, feared.

It was as a strongman, however, that Kaz’s fame grew throughout the lifting community. Kaz competed in some of the earliest World’s Strongest Man (WSM) competitions and, with characteristic intensity, dominated the then growing sport. His strongman rivalries, first with Geoff Capes and then with Jón Páll Sigmarsson gave the WSM a much needed sense of excitement and competition. Furthermore, Kaz’s all round lifting ability seemed to promise excitement at every turn.

Pushing himself, and his rivals, to new and greater heights, Kazmaier helped kickstart the strongman sport as it was his unmatched focus and repeated successes which brought people to watch.

There are many strongmen but there really was only one Kaz. Seeking to do justice to his contributions, today’s post begins with a brief biography of his life before delving into his powerlifting career and some of his unforgettable strongman moments. 

Bill Kazmaier: A Life

Born in Burlington, Wisconsin in 1953, William ‘Bill’ Kazmaier was the youngest of four siblings (2). Unsurprisingly, given his later athletic endeavours, Kazmaier was a strong athlete growing up and was quickly marked out as one to watch by his coaches. Proficient in football, the hundred metre dash and shot-put, Kaz appears to have had that enviable quality of being a great athlete regardless of the sport.

Reflecting on his early ability in 2007, Kazmaier recalled that by the time he ‘was 10 years old I could press my own body weight over my head. I was bigger, faster, stronger’ than anyone he competed against (3). He was, in other words, any football coach’s dream. This was certainly the case in high school where Kazmaier was an all-state fullback who briefly ran riot in his division. 

Despite struggling academically in school, Kazmaier’s grades were enough to get him admitted to the University of Wisconsin on a football scholarship where John Jardine, the head coach, switched him to defensive tackle (4). Uncomfortable in his new position, Kazmaier was still part of the Wisconsin Badgers squad for two full seasons.

Kaz had the natural physical abilities for football — by the ‘70s he was six foot two and well over two hundred pounds — but his love of the sport was waning. At the end of his second season, he walked away from the football team and dropped out of university so that he could concentrate fully on his powerlifting interest (5). Like many other young men, the allure of the gym was simply too much.

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Билл Казмайер (@kazmanaught) – один из сильнейших пауэрлифтеров мира в супертяжелой весовой категории. В 1981 году, в возрасте 28 лет он первым на планете собрал 1100 кг в сумме троеборья, присев 420 кг, выжав 300 кг и потянув 380 кг. В этом же году он снял мировой рекорд в тяге Дона Рейнхоудта, вытянув на чемпионате Атланты 402 кг, став первым спортсменом в истории пауэрлифтинга, который поднимал в жиме 300 кг и в тяге за 400 кг без использования экипировки. . Спустя более чем 30 лет его достижение повторил Кирилл Сарычев (@sarychevkirill), который в рамках соревнований по троеборью пожал без экипировки 320 кг и потянул 402,5 кг. . . . . . #powerlifter #power #powerliftingmotivation #powerlifting #deadlift #lift #squat #benchpress #strongman #пауэрлифтинг #жимлежа #становаятяга #приседания #ялюблюпауэрлифтинг #ilovepowerlifting #ipf #worldrecord #billkazmaier #legend #легендыпауэрлифтинга #wsm #arnoldclassic

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Training at a YMCA in Madison, Wisconsin, Kazmaier continued to increase his strength and his bodyweight in equal measure. Once he was bitten by the lifting bug, he never looked back. Not for long anyway. Dividing his time between training and a variety of jobs ranging from bouncing to lumberjacking, Kazmaier quickly became the talk of the gym (6).

As Kazmaeir loaded plate after plate onto the bar, it was hard not to stop and watch. Important during this time was Kazmaier’s own self-reported ‘spiritual awakening’ when he came across a series of Psalm verses in the Bible. Kaz later claimed that his passion, drive and focus all stemmed from his strong religious faith. Indeed, the quote given at the beginning of the article hints at Kaz’s deep spiritual beliefs, which gave an an inner drive and confidence. 

Training, praying and working seems to have largely characterized Kaz’s life in these years and the fruits of his labor soon began to pay dividends. In 1978, Kazmaier entered his first national powerlifting championship, held under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union in Los Angeles, California. Still relatively unknown, at least outside of Wisoncsin, Kazmaier competed in the 275 lb weight class, where he benched 534 lbs, deadlifted 804 lbs and squatted 782 lbs. If people didn’t know about Kazmaier prior to the competition, they certainly did after it (7)!

Writing for a bodybuilding magazine in 1979, David Webster, considered by many to be one of the finest chroniclers of the history of physical culture, described Kazmaier as,

I could hardly believe my eyes. I had seen the world’s greatest physiques as a Mr. Universe judge, and the world’s top lifters for four decades, but there before my eyes was a human being who could out bulk the hulk, outmuscle Mr. Universe’s and out lift world champions. The vast majority of readers will not have heard of Bill Kazmaier, but mark my words, before long his name will become famous … (8) 

Never a man to give false praise, Webster was almost entirely correct.

In 1979, Kazmaier won the 1979 World Powerlifting Championship in Dayton, Ohio with a 2,293 lbs. total. As part of his showing, Kazmaier set a new world record in the bench press with a 622 lb press. If it hasn’t become clear yet, there was a reason Webster defined Kazmaier as ‘the greatest American strength athlete’ ever known (9). Unfortunately for Kazmaier, powerlifting was still a relatively new sport, a point previously covered by BarBend. Sanctioned competitions had only really emerged in the 1960s which meant that the prize money was low and sponsorship opportunities scarce. 

As was the case with many of his fellow competitors, Kaz found himself in the strange situation of being one of the sport’s finest athletes and being grossly underpaid for it.

So desperate was Kaz’s situation that in 1978 he ate 1,000 goldfish at a novelty goldfish eating competition for a pet store in order to fulfill his protein requirements for the day and win $300 along the way.

His opponents that day? Two, presumably very bemused teenage boys who, if Kaz is to be believed, didn’t stand a chance. Although Kazmaeir now tells the story as a funny anecdote, the underlying truth is that he simply wasn’t earning enough at that time to sustain his goals.

Living in southern California, Kazmaier struggled to find a regular income and, if later reports are to believed, even suffered brief stints of homelessness while there. It was only through the help of a good friend that Kazmaier was finally able to find the stability and support he needed to progress as an athlete (10).

In 1979, Kazmaier was contacted by Dr. Terry Todd, then a professor in kinesiology at Auburn University in Alabama. The late Dr. Todd, whose own powerlifting career was legendary. For example, he was the first man to squat 700 pounds, and he had been impressed with Kazmaier’s potential, having seen him compete at the 1978 national powerlifting championships. Under Terry’s coaching and tutelage, Kazmaier was brought to Auburn to help at the National Strength Research Center created by Todd and other faculty members like Mike Stone, John Garhammer, and Tom McLaughlin (11).

It was, by all accounts an act of kindness from a man fascinated by strength in all its forms. 

In a much better position, both financially and competitively, Kazmaier was able to give his full attention to powerlifting, much to the detriment of everyone else (12). Still in his twenties, Kazmaier set world records in the bench press, competed in highland game competitions in Scotland and largely tried his hand, successfully I might add, to any and every form of event.

At the Braemar Gathering in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Kaz tossed a 560 lbs weight 16 feet 2 inches. At other games, he became the first man to lift all five MacGlashen Stones (now called the Atlas Stones) (13).

Frighteningly, Kaz was still focusing on powerlifting during this time, making these feats something of a lifting holiday for him!

His crowning powerlifting achievement came in 1981 when Kaz totalled over 2420 lbs. in the squat, bench and deadlift, thereby setting new IPF and USPF records (14). His reputation was now beyond reproach in powerlifting. Where others may have sat on their laurels, Kaz ventured into pastures new. 

A Strongman for the Ages

Today, in 2019, strongman and strongwoman contests are thankfully much more common. We have international contests like the World’s Strongest Man or Woman and the Arnold Strength Classics. People train solely as strength athletes while many of the top athletes, Brian Shaw being one example, can make substantial money from their lifting fame. This was simply not the case in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Kazmaier took to World’s Strongest Man (WSM) contests. The Arnold Strongman Classic had yet to appear, it only emerged in 2002, which meant that the WSM was then the only real game in town when it came to strongman events. 

This did not mean, however, that the WSM was itself a hugely recognizable event.

Begun in 1977, the WSM was then a competition struggling to find its feat. The inaugural show had featured bodybuilders, football players and, thankfully, some world renowned lifters. It was successful to an extent, but the idea of a professional strongman still seemed a long way off. Simply put, people had yet to train exclusively for strongmen competitions. The 1978 show had gone some way to improving the general public’s opinion of WSM but the sport was still very much in limbo. The major issue? People didn’t know what to expect, either from the strongmen competitors or the lifts.

Enter Kaz. In 1979, the WSM was introduced to Bill Kazmaier and, immediately, people took notice.

Buoyed by his powerlifting success, Kaz took to the competition with an incredible zeal and enthusiasm. Soft spoken in interviews, Kaz’s intensity and demeanor when competing proved a revelation for the sport. The WSM, Kaz’s demeanor seemed to indicate, was now a serious business.

In his inaugural showing, he finished a respectable third behind Lars Hedlund and eventual winner Don Reinhoudt (15). Rewatching Kaz’s performance, there is a striking disparity between his strength and technique. As was highlighted several times by the commentators, Kazmaier struggled to press and pull the WSM’s unusual objects because he was unfamiliar with them. While he often powered through with raw strength, his then poor technique undoubtedly affected his performance.

Technique letting Kazmaier down did not happen again. The following year in 1980, he dominated the contest. Of the ten events, he won six. His superiority was reflected in the final points tally. In first place was Kaz was 102.4 points, well ahead of second placed Lars Hedlund at 74 points (16).

During the event Kazmaier pressed a 346 lbs log overhead, deadlifted 946 lbs in the silver dollar deadlift, and even won a tug of war competition.

His most impressive lift came during the Girl Squat lift in which Kaz squatted 934 lbs. Eyes bulging and breathing heavy, Kaz seemed unconcerned with his surroundings as he completed the lift. For fans of the sport, they were left with little doubt that Kaz was the new face of strongman.

Unsurprisingly given the margin of his victory in 1980, Kaz went on to win the 1981 and 1982 WSM competitions. Where a pectoral tear in 1981 threatened to stop him in his tracks, he still powered on to yet another victory. Both events also proved that Kazmaeir improved with age.

Where he log pressed 346 lbs in 1980, he pressed 360 lbs in 1981, and 370 lbs. By 1982. Likewise his silver dollar deadlift was now at 1,055 lbs. At the end of the 1982 contest Kaz proudly labelled himself, ‘the strongest man alive.’ Few would dare have disagreed (17). 

It was at the 1981 contest that Kazmaier and British strongman Geoff Capes began to really face off. Capes, who won the WSM in 1983, later admitted that Kaz was stronger than him but the two nevertheless engaged in a rivalry in 1981 and 1982. At the 1981 contest, the producers even included a short segment on the Capes/Kaz rivalry.

For fans at home, it added a greater level of interest and excitement watching these two men face off. Without laboring the importance of rivalry in sport, the Capes/Kazmaier events took on a new and fascinating narrative. Heck, they even faced off in a fierce tug of war contest which was very much a battle of wills.

Exile and Return

While Kaz’s victory in the sumo wrestling contest in 1982 made for great viewing — yes it happened and yes it is on YouTube! — he wasn’t invited back to the WSM competition in 1983, the first WSM show held outside the United States. Still an invitation only contest, the WSM reserved the right to not invite Kazmaier.

A number of theories exist as to why Kaz wasn’t invited back, everything from wanting to open up the competition to internal disputes (18). Whatever the reason, Kazmaier did not compete again in the WSM until the 1988 contest, when the sport had changed irrevocably. In the interim, he competed in various other strongman and powerlifting contests.

At the 1983 IPF World Championship, and, in the 125kg weight class, he totalled 2149 lbs, proving to everyone once more that his strength was not confined to the WSM (19).

He also briefly flirted with Professional Football, having expressed a desire to go back to the sport. There was also a series of appearances at WSM alternatives like the Strongbow Strongman challenge and even, a brief stint in professional wrestling. This latter career served him well in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Kaz appeared with a series of wrestling federations. As a big Kazmaier and Mick Foley fan, I was delighted to find footage of the two wrestling with WCW in 1991.

Wrestling career aside, Kazmaier was eventually welcomed back into the WSM fold in 1988. Gone were his previous rivals like Geoff Capes. In their place were individuals like Jón Páll Sigmarsson. The Capes/Kazmaier duo had been the first major rivalry in WSM history. While a great deal of respect was exhibited between the two, the Kaz/Sigmarsson rivalry which unfolded in 1988 and 1989 was equal parts scary and hilarious.

Sigmarsson, whose personality was as loud as he was strong, was the perfect foil for Kaz.

The two competed against one another in 1987 at a Pure Strength contest, where Sigmarsson beat Kazmaier, but had yet to meet at the WSM (20). Both were intense, prone to a fantastic quote, and pushed each other to bigger and better heights. Sigmarsson finished first in 1988, and Kaz came second but for fans of the sport, including this author, 1988 was defined by Kaz versus Sigmarsson.  

Kaz returned the following year in 1989 but could only muster a fourth place finish at the WSM. During the contest he injured his ankle and struggled to compete with an already ripped bicep muscle. His time at WSM had ended, permanently and his strongman career was winding down.

Where some may have exited with a whimper, Kazmaier went breaking records. The very next year in 1990, Kazmaier became the first man in history to press the ‘unliftable’ Thomas Inch dumbbell over head (21). Whatever the challenge, Kaz rose to meet it.

Kaz in Perspective  

Since retirement, Kaz has continued to be a mainstay at the WSM as a commentator. Furthermore his continual articles, interviews and musings on the sport of strongman ensure his voice is well known. For younger generations, it is often difficult to stress Kaz’s impact and influence over the sport. He burst onto the scene in the early 1980s and seemed absolutely unstoppable.

His all round athleticism and tenacity went a great deal toward the development of the modern strongman athlete.

Before Kaz, few trained exclusively for strongman competitions. After his initial flurry of victories, people became aware of the need to train using the strongman lifts. This was the beginning of the modern strongman athlete. 

Nowadays the Atlas Stones, although challenging, are rarely seen as insurmountable. So common have the stones become in 2019 that competitions regularly increase the weight of the stones to match the athletes’ strength. Before Kaz however, the Atlas Stones were seen as a true test that none could or would pass.

None but Bill Kazmaier. Likewise for the Inch Dumbbell. Kaz pressed it overhead. Before that, people could only raise it from the ground. There are many strongmen, but there is only one Bill Kazmaier. Rightly deemed to be one of the strongest men to have ever walked the earth, Kazmaier’s legacy is found in the annual WSM competitions where his strength shone brightest. 

Bill Kazmaier Facts

Who is Bill Kazmaier?

William Kazmaier is a multi-strength athlete that has played a heavy role in the development of modern day strongman, and has left his mark on the sport of powerlifting as well.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Kazmaier won world championships in powerlifting, strongman, and was even a professional wrestler. In addition to his world championships, Kazmaier also set multiple world records in the sports of powerlifting and strongman.

When was Bill Kazmaier born?

Bill Kazmaier was born on December 30th in 1953.

How many IPF World Championships did Bill Kazmaier win?

Bill Kazmaier won two IPF World Championships. He won one in 1979 and another in 1983.

How many World's Strongest Man competition did Bill Kazmaier win?

Bill Kazmaier won three World’s Strongest Man competitions the following years:

  1. 1980
  2. 1981
  3. 1982

References

  1. ‘Interview with Bill Kazmaier, 1997.’ Strongest Man – Bill Henderson. http://strongestman.billhenderson.org/int/int2.html 
  2. ‘American Strength Legends.’ Samson Power. http://samson-power.com/ASL/kaz.html
  3. ‘Q and A: Bill Kazmaier, Former World’s Strongest Man.’ 14 May 2007. Los Vegas Sun. https://lasvegassun.com/news/2007/may/14/qa-bill-kazmaier-former-worlds-strongest-man/.
  4. ‘Biography,’ Bill Kazmaier. https://www.billkazmaier.org/bill-kazmaier-biography/ 
  5. Ibid.
  6. ‘Watch: Interview with Powerlifting and Strongman Legend Bill Kazmaier,’ EliteFts. https://www.elitefts.com/education/watch-interview-with-powerlifting-and-strongman-legend-bill-kazmaier/ 
  7. John D. Fair, ‘Bill Kazmaier’, Alabama Encyclopaedia. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-3256
  8. David Webster, Sons of Samson 2 (Ironmind, 1998), 87. 
  9. Ibid., 89. 
  10. Fair, ‘Bill Kazmaier.’
  11. Jason Shurley, Jan Todd and Terry Todd, Strength Coaching in America (University of Texas, 2019), 187-190.
  12. Webster, Sons of Samson 2, 86-90.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. ‘Legends of WSM: Bill Kazmaier’, Strongman. https://strongman.org/features/legends-wsm-bill-kazmaier/
  16. ‘Biography,’ Bill Kazmaier.
  17. ‘Bill Kazmaier becomes the fourth hall of fame member.’ The World’s Strongest Man. http://theworldsstrongestman.com/bill-kazmaier-becomes-the-4th-hall-of-fame-member/
  18. ‘Biography,’ Bill Kazmaier.
  19. ‘1983 IPF World Championships Revisited!’, Powerlifting Watch. https://www.powerliftingwatch.com/node/23295
  20. ‘1987 Pure Strength Contest,’ YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9STaNL7FzUQ
  21. ‘American Strength Legends.’ Samson Power.
Conor Heffernan

Conor Heffernan

Conor Heffernan is Assistant Professor of Physical Culture and Sport Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. When not in the gym or in the library he likes to try his hand at writing, often with mixed results. He divides his time between his research and his website, which is dedicated to the history of fitness and exercise — read all about it at Physical Culture Study.

4 thoughts on “Bill Kazmaier and the Birth of the Modern Strongman”

  1. For all the hullabaloo this article makes about Kazmeier, Sigmarsson was stronger than Kazmaier. This article should rather have been about Sigmarsson.

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