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Opinion

Mark Henry Tells How He Won the First Arnold Strongman Classic

The ASC used creativity to redefine strength and a professional wrestler to put it on the map.

For fans of muscle, strength and power, no event is as eagerly awaited as the Arnold Strongman Classic (ASC). Created in 2002, the ASC is, alongside the World’s Strongest Man, the Super Bowl of the strength calendar.

Featuring athletes from across the world, and a series of ingenious challenges, the ASC is truly a test of physical and mental fortitude. What is striking about the ASC is its relative newness. Unlike the WSM, which featured its first event in 1977, the ASC was only created in 2002. Other strength competitions existed during this time, but the ASC is one of the few to stand the test of time. In a short period, the ASC has arguably become  the most important event of the year.

When people think today about the ASC, they think of Hafthor Bjornsson’s recent dominance, Rogue’s ‘Wheel of Pain,’ and acts of inhuman strength like Eddie Hall’s 1,025 lbs/465kg deadlift.

How we got to this point is the purpose of this article.

More specifically, this article looks at the inaugural ASC competition in 2002: its premise, organization and ultimate outcome. The winner of the event, Mark Henry, gives his account below.

What Is Strength?

What is strength? It’s a simple question but one without a clear answer. Is strength the ability to squat, deadlift and press? Or does strength entail picking up heavy loads and carrying them for distance? What about max reps? Or endurance events? Once we begin to descend into the nitty gritty of this issue, there are no obvious solutions. It was this question, and its response which birthed the ASC. 

In early 2001, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his business partner Jim Lorimer sat down with Jan and Terry Todd to get to the heart of this issue.(1) Since his retirement from bodybuilding, Arnold and Lorimer had spent several decades producing the Arnold Classic, a multi-sporting event whose main event every year was its bodybuilding show.(2) Seeking to expand even further, Arnold and Lorimer began toying with the idea of creating a strength competition to rival the WSM.

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Some of the strongest men from around the world hoisted massive granite stones weighing hundreds of pounds at this year’s @arnoldstrongmanclassic @roguefitness in a “Trial By Stone” medley that pitted the strongmen against the strongest stone in the world. The five round lifting stones, weighing between 275 and 420 pounds, were fabricated by Swenson Granite Works from Bethel White granite, of which four were used in the annual competition held in Columbus, Ohio and featuring strength athletes from all over the world. Read more in our latest blog post. Link to blog in profile. #arnoldstrongman #arnoldstrongmanclassic #trialbystone #liftingstones #roguefitness #lifters #strongestman #granite #swensongranite #doitoncewithstone

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It was a bold strategy. The WSM had, by that point, been operating for nearly thirty years. Strength competitions had come and gone but the WSM had endured.(3) When people debated the strongest man alive, they referenced the WSM and its litany of champions across the ages. Challenging the WSM was a big task and one not for the faint-hearted. This explains why Arnold and Jim turned to Jan and Terry Todd.  

By that time, Jan and Terry Todd were key figures in all things strength. Accomplished strength athletes during the 1960s and 1970s, the Todds were pivotal in the development of powerlifting during the 1960s, in helping organise WSM events and even coaching strongmen like. If anyone was qualified to define strength, it was the Todds. 

Later relaying the course of their conversation, Terry Todd explained his understanding of strength and how it differed from the WSM. Over the course of the meeting, Terry told Arnold that although he respected the WSM, he felt that because:

“…so many of the events had time limits of ninety seconds or even longer, the winner was often not the man who was the strongest but the man who had the best combination of strength and endurance.(4)”

Inadvertently, the WSM had become a test of strength and endurance, rather than strength. The Todds began pushing for a test of strength alone. Arnold and Jim agreed.

Excited by the prospect of creating an entirely new test of strength, plans were put in motion for a new strength extravaganza. Unlike the WSM, the ‘Arnold Strongman Classic’, as it became known, would focus on raw acts of strength. Time limits would rarely exceed 90 seconds, if even. Further distinguishing the ASC from the WSM, Arnold’s event would use four or five tests rather than the eight to ten found in the WSM.(5) This decision was motivated by the realization that short bursts of strength, and monstrously heavy weights, were likely to tire competitors out and take away from their strength.

Owing to the Todds’ own interest in the history of strength more generally, the ASC would also feature tests of strength from yesteryear. It was for this reason that the first ASC featured the Apollon Wheels and, in a featured event, the Inch Dumbbell. With these goals in mind, the Todds, Schwarzenegger, Lorimer and a host of other Iron Game luminaries, including strength historians David Webster, John Fair and the legendary strongman Bill Kazmaier, set to work.

Creating the Arnold Strongman Classic

Imagination is simultaneously the most entertaining and difficult part of any creation. This is something the organizers of the ASC encountered very early on. As ideas began flowing back and forth about what lifts would be chosen, the harsh realities about what was possible threw up unforeseen challenges. How could the ASC use lifts different from the WSM? One of the reasons why the WSM had proven so dominant was that when other strength competitions arose, they tended to model themselves on the WSM.(6)

Working on a stage, with very definitive restrictions, the ASC was forced to choose lifts that could be done in a relatively small space, which also wouldn’t overload the stage — although admittedly, seeing a strongman smash through a stage would make for great television.(7) Additionally, and likely the result of the Arnold Classic’s multiple events, a time limit was put on each event. Taken together, these restrictions made the use of traditional strongman events like truck pulls or long farmers’ walks, impossible.(8) 

Faced with creating a new competition from scratch, one which differed sufficiently from the WSM, was no easy task. It was here where a little history saved the day, a sentence that, as a historian, I assure you is rarely said.

Owing to the considerable knowledge possessed by the Todds, David Webster and John Fair, a decision was made to include some of the lifts from yesteryear into the first Arnold Classic. This simultaneously solved the spacing and marketing problems. Old feats of strength, with a few notable exceptions, rarely needed much floor space and were undoubtedly things that people held an interest in.

To that end, the first event chosen for the inaugural ASC was the ‘Apollon Wheels.’ The Wheels, which are by now common at the Arnold, were named after the late nineteenth and early twentieth century French strongman, Louis Uni, or Apollon.(9) Apollon’s fame had been made in the French circus where, alongside grip strength and barbell lifting, Apollon dazzled spectators with his ‘Apollon Wheels.’ 

Thicker in diameter than any regular barbell, the Wheels weighed over 300lbs and, crucially, didn’t rotate when they were lifted.(10) To appreciate the difficulty of this, think about the last time you cleaned and jerked a weight overhead. As you pulled the bar up and snapped underneath it, the barbell rotated with your wrists and, hopefully, landed safely on your breastplate. Now imagine a barbell with no give whatsoever, which doesn’t turn and, for the fun of it, isn’t easy to hold in the first place. That is the ‘Apollon Wheels.’

Made from a set of railway car wheels that Apollon purchased in 1892, the Wheels, prior to the first ASC, had only been lifted by four men in history. Apollon himself, the French weightlifter Charles Rigoulot and American legends John Davis and Norbert Schemansky.(11) To reiterate how impressive a feat lifting the Wheels were, when John Davis cleaned them in 1949, he was offered French citizenship!(12) A replica of the 4” diameter, 366 lbs bar would be making an appearance at the ASC.

But what else? According to Terry Todd, the next lift chosen was a farmers’ walk, with a twist. In the WSM, competitors were tasked with walking a relatively long distance in the farmer’s walk. Owing to those space restrictions previously discussed, it was decided that the farmer’s walk at the ASC would include a ramp and a huge 360 wooden frame. Competitors would be given thirty seconds to walk an 800lbs timber frame up the ramp.(13)

Originally the decision was made to include a car or truck deadlift next but, owing to a series of unforeseen logistical problems, this event was changed at the last minute. Instead a regular deadlift competition, which allowed for the use of weightlifting straps was chosen. Proving that God laughs when you make plans, the car deadlift would have been aesthetically spectacular but, who knows, the regular deadlift may be the reason why the ASC still includes a deadlift component today — one which has made for some pretty spectacular moments.(14

Last, but certainly not least, was a Hummer push. Hummer, the iconic, but now defunct SUV brand, had donated a car to the ASC as part of its sponsorship. The idea was to include a pushing event in which competitors would push a Hummer across the stage.(15) To ensure maximum difficulty, a decision was made to deflate the tires, meaning that any form of forward momentum was near impossible. 

Finding the Lifters

Returning to our original question of what is strength leads us into our next issue – who is strong? Is the Olympic weightlifter as strong as the powerlifter? What about the professional strongman? The goal of the 2002 ASC was to find the strongest man. That required a broad net, which explains the diversity of athletes chosen.

For obvious reasons, several strongmen were chosen like Svend Karlsen, Phil Pfister, Mark Philippi, Raimonds Bergmanis, and Brian Schoonveld. Powerlifters Andy Bolton and Brad Gillingham were also chosen. Completing the mix was Mark Henry, a man by then synonymous with professional wrestling. What many outside of wrestling failed to realize was that Mark Henry’s wrestling moniker of the ‘World’s Strongest Man,’ was not a gimmick. Before entering the ring, Mark was an accomplished powerlifting and Olympic weightlifter.(16

It was an interesting mixture of strength, power and size. Few knew who the champion would be. We had Svend Karlsen, the man who won that year’s WSM, Andy Bolton, the powerlifter capable of pulling 1,000lbs in his prime, and everyone in between. All that was guaranteed was strength and strain in good measure.

A Show is Born

The night before the show, the competitors drew lots to determine the lifting order for the first event, the Apollon Wheels. Svend Karlsen had the honors and the next morning pushed and heaved with all his might to little avail. The 6’3” 320 lbs. strongman could not lock the weight overhead. His struggle was common among his fellow competitors. Honorable mentions went to Brad Gillingham, who became the third man in history to clean the Wheels using traditional form — John Davis used an underhand grip — but Gillingham failed to finish the lift.(17

Next up was Mark Henry who, weighing between 390 and 400 lbs, was the heaviest of the athletes at that year’s event. Between Mark’s strength, weight, and lifting experience, many believed he could make history. They were right.

Approaching the Wheels with a remarkable intensity, Mark cleaned and pressed them overhead for one rep before the Wheels came crashing to the ground. He then did it again and, with the crowd roaring him on, again. In just a couple of minutes, Henry entered the record books as the fifth man to lift the wheels and, arguably, as the first man to dominate them. 

David Webster’s description in Muscle Mob magazine did justice to Henry’s feat:

Sensational. There is no other word for it. He was like a raging bull. He stalked the stage, then tore the bar to the shoulders easier than either Davis or Schemansky did. He celebrated exultantly with the crowd, then did another clean and jerk. Storming around like a man possessed, he psyched himself up for a third and final lift within the two minutes allocated for the attempts. 

The huge crowd, vocally supporting him in every lift, then showed their appreciation in no uncertain fashion. I have been organizing strongman competitions since the 1940s and can honestly say that the atmosphere created at Columbus Convention Center has never been surpassed. This should give television producers food for thought.(18)

Buoyed by Henry’s efforts and with something of his own to prove, the next competitor, Mark Philippi managed to press the Wheels overhead for one rep thereby ensuring his own place in the record books. No other lifter managed to match Henry and Philippi’s strength.(19

The Wheels took place on Friday morning and a decision was made to hold the ill-fated car lift immediately afterward. Unfortunately, the room in which the lift was meant to take place was being used for a martial arts contest. Compounding matters was the fact that the car chosen, a small Chevrolet pickup, was thought to be too heavy for the competitors. During the warm up, several athletes had struggled to lift a Ford Ranger pick up without a great deal of strain.(20

Seeking to avoid a situation in which no competitor could actually compete, a quick scramble was made for a barbell and a lot of plates. In the end a combination of 45lb plates alongside larger oilfield pulley-weights which were larger in diameter than traditional Olympic plates, were used. The use of the oilfield weights was significant. Taller than traditional plates, it was hoped that they would translate into higher deadlift numbers.(21) They did. In the end, Andy Bolton won the event by pulling a 885lb deadlift for three reps.

The final two events, scheduled for the next day, were equally difficult for athletes and organizers alike. Previous WSM events had provided iconic moments in truck, tractor and plane pulling events. ASC had a ‘Hummer Push’, albeit with a difference. Returning to Terry Todd’s recollections gives an insight into the thinking of the organizers:

“We realized, of course, that to push a “mere” Hummer would look somewhat unimpressive when compared with the things that have been pushed via a harness in TransWorld International’s World’s Strongest Man contests … But we were limited to an indoors format … But we thought that if we took the air pressure down to almost zero even the strongest men would find it difficult not only to start the vehicle rolling but to keep it rolling.(22)” 

Their theory proved to be correct but not entirely so. The pressure in the Hummer’s tires was set to six pounds, which made the push a much harder prospect. It was not, however, enough to overcome the athletes — seven of the eight athletes completed the event in less than thirty seconds.(23

At the end of the round the results stood as follows:

  1. Mark Henry 19 points
  2. Mark Philippi 17 points
  3. Svend Karlsen 15.5 points
  4. Raimonds Bergmanis 14 points
  5. Phil Pfister 13.5 points
  6. Andy Bolton 12 points
  7. Brad Gillingham 12 points
  8. Brian Schoonveld 5 points

Moving into the final event and the winner was far from decided. Mark Henry had proven strong across the board but had yet to open an unassailable lead. This made the final event, the Farmer’s Walk, all the more important.

Unlike the WSM, which often used lighter implements over longer distances, the ASC used the heaviest weight possible for a short carry up a ramp.

Here both the ramp, and the sheer weight involved — just over 800lb — furthered the competition’s emphasis on raw strength above all else. Packing over 800lb on to any frame was not an easy feat, hence the organizer’s decision to create a square wooden frame that entirely surrounded the athlete. Athletes would step inside, grab the handles, and go. 

Each athlete performed admirably showing strength and strain in equal measure. The ramp rocked underneath the great weight and at several points a huge, thundering sounds reverberated throughout the arena as the log was dropped at the top of the ramp.(24) In the end Mark Henry did enough to win the ASC, his 25 final points besting Svend Karlsen’s second place finish of 22.5. For wrestling fans it meant that Mark Henry’s claim to strength was well founded. For strength fans, it meant that a new competition was well and truly born. 

A Final Surprise

The inaugural ASC had been, by all accounts, a great success. Yes, there was room for improvement, but the contest had set a marker for a new kind of strength show that, ultimately, would rival the WSM. Furthermore, it ended with a surprise that few had expected.

At the closing ceremony, a replica of the famous thick gripped Inch Dumbbell was brought out. Named after the British physical culturist Thomas Inch, the Dumbbell was, much like the Apollon Wheels, one of the iconic pieces of lifting history.(25) Jim Lorimer announced that any man capable of cleaning and pressing the 172 lbs. dumbbell — which was about as thick as a Coke can — with one hand would win an additional $1,000 prize. 

Many tried, including a spirited effort by Phil Pfister, but none could do it. Mark Henry managed a high pull to the chest but the Inch Dumbbell had proven too much. For fans of the sport, it meant that there were future strength barriers to overcome. Mark, incidentally, had his revenge a year later.

Conclusion

Reflecting on the ASC’s creation, it is remarkable to think how quickly the contest has gained a place in the strength calendar. Still young compared to the WSM, the ASC has become an outlet for those interested in highlighting strength in its purest form. It has become a place for the history of strength to come alive and a place where ingenuity truly reigns supreme. 

Where else could you find a Wheel of Pain, Husafell Stone, and elephant bar all in one place? It has provided us with some of the most iconic strongman moments of the past decade and is a testament to the efforts, dreams, and ambitions of those who first started to piece together a contest from nothing all those years ago. 

References

  1. Terry Todd, ‘The Arnold Strength Summit’, Iron Game History, 7, 2&3 (2002): 4-5. 
  2. John Hansen, ‘It Started with a Handshake,’ Digital Muscle, January 5 (2018). Available at: https://www.digitalmuscle.com/arnold/it-started-with-a-handshake-arnold-classic-history-101/
  3. Conor Heffernan, ‘The Rise and Fall of the World Muscle Power League,’ Physical Culture Study, November 27 (2017). Available at: https://physicalculturestudy.com/2017/11/27/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-world-muscle-power-classic/
  4. Todd, ‘The Arnold Strength Summit.’
  5. Ibid.
  6. Heffernan, ‘The Rise and Fall of the World Muscle Power League.’
  7. Todd, ‘The Arnold Strength Summit.’
  8. ‘History.’ World’s Strongest Man. Available at: http://theworldsstrongestman.com/history/
  9. David P. Willoughby,  The Super-Athletes (AS Barnes, Incorporated, 1970), 174.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid. 
  12. Jason Shurley, ‘Unequaled Yet Never Equal: The Portrayal of John Davis in Strength & Health Magazine, 1938-1957,’ Iron Game History, 13, 4 (2016), 38-53.
  13. Todd, ‘The Arnold Strength Summit.’
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Fair, John D. “The iron game and capitalist culture: a century of American weightlifting in the Olympics, 1896–1996.” The International Journal of the History of Sport 15, no. 3 (1998): 18-35.
  17. Todd, ‘The Arnold Strength Summit.’
  18. Radley, Alan Stuart. The illustrated history of physical culture: The muscular ideal. Vol. 1. (Alan Radley, 2001), 69-70. 
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Radley, Alan Stuart. The illustrated history of physical culture: The muscular ideal. Vol. 1. (Alan Radley, 2001), 69-70.

Feature image from ArnoldSportsFestival’s Youtube Channel.

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