Strongman and strongwoman competitions have always been as much about entertainment as they are sport. Since the first World’s Strongest Man in 1977, there’s been a clear need to entertain fans while simultaneously testing athletes — which remains embedded in the sports fabric.
Strength contests revolve around a few primary movements — pushing, pulling, carrying, and pressing. Typically, strongman shows feature deadlifts, truck pulls, yoke carries, and Atlas stone medleys. And promoters will challenge athletes by slightly tweaking the rules and objects (think max deadlift vs. deadlift for reps vs. a partial deadlift vs. an axle bar deadlift ladder).
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Of course, it’s not uncommon to still see something incredible. At the 2019 World’s Strongest Man in Bradenton, FL, competitors pulled a 25,000-pound neon green monster truck. Yoke walks with motorcycles, anchor drags, and athlete’s pulling airplanes are also real feats that have occurred in competition.
In the past, the need to entertain fans has led to some very questionable events being used at the World Strongest Man (WSM). These events have gone down in strongman folklore for their novelty and uniqueness. Today we look at them in great detail, from the Murderball to the Sausage Hold.
Without further ado, below is a list of the strangest events ever seen in the World’s Strongest Man competition.
Franco and the Refrigerator
The first WSM contest in 1977 was a strange combination of bodybuilders, powerlifters, and even a martial artist. Strongman was not yet a sport, so the inaugural show was a testing ground for new ideas and challenges. Thus contestants were forced to push press kegs, bend iron bars over their heads, and, as many people are aware, race against one another with a refrigerator strapped onto their backs.
What seemed like a good idea quickly turned into a disaster. Competing in that year’s contest was Franco Columbu. Better known for his bodybuilding successes, Columbu was an incredibly strong man in his own right, but that did little to save him during the event. Roughly 10 seconds into his race against Bob Young, Franco’s knees buckled underneath him. Franco broke his leg in one of the worst strongman injuries ever caught on film. It was an early warning that spectacle needed to be combined with safety.
Disclaimer: The following video contains graphic footage and may be considered disturbing to some viewers.
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Kaz and the Girl Squat
The refrigerator race seemed like a good idea on paper, but it proved problematic in real-time. The Girl Squat, which debuted at the 1980 WSM, was just plain odd. Seeking to bring some glamour to the event, organizers brought in Playboy Girls to act as the weights during that year’s squat lift.
This strange marketing idea then collided with Bill Kazmier. Kazmier, a three-time World’s Strongest Man winner, logged his first-ever win at that year’s contest. More than that, Kazmier dominated it, scoring 102.5 points to his runner-up Lars Hedlund’s 74. Known for his intensity in competition — which will come up again in this article — Kazmier’s concentration and seriousness during the Girl Squat lift was a strange contrast to what was meant to be a light-hearted event.
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Often included in well-known WSM events is the sumo wrestling challenge between contestants. Included in the 1982 WSM competition, this year marked Kaz’s last victory in the tournament before he was exiled for several years. He later returned in 1988 but, by then, he was no longer the strongest man in the world (although he did get close).
Physical challenges between contestants are not unknown at the WSM, and, truthfully, it often makes for great television. In other years, the WSM has included arm-wrestling, tug-of-war, and, as we’ll discuss later, “Murderball.” Where many fans, and athletes, drew the line is sumo wrestling.
As an aside, sumo wrestling is an incredibly specialized event that takes decades to truly master. On the basis that they were strong enough to make it interesting, having rank amateurs competing was ill-thought out. Many of the contestants struggled to balance the athleticism and strength needed to excel. The only shining light was the seriousness with which Kaz took an admittedly comical event.
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The Cheddar Cheese Deadlift
Part of what makes the WSM enjoyable, especially during the quirkier challenges, is the athlete’s reactions. 1983 was the first contest to feature the iconic Icelandic strongman, Jón Páll Sigmarsson (who won in 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990). Brimming with charisma and continually butting heads with that year’s winner Geoff Capes, Sigmarsson used every event to remind fans of his Viking blood and right to that year’s title.
Sigmarsson’s confidence even extended to the cheese deadlift — which was a partial deadlift loaded with blocks of cheese. Weighing in at 525 kilograms (or 1,157 pounds), this event was equal parts challenging and delicious. Sigmarsson finished second in the cheese deadlift to Canadian strongman Tom Magee who pulled 1,180 pounds.
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The Strongman Sledge Ride
Held in Sweden and won by Sigmarsson, the 1984 WSM contest sought to make use of local customs and the local weather to test athletes. This was Sigmarsson’s first WSM title victory and one of the most remarkable contests on record.
1984 saw athletes pulling trucks in the snow, lifting heavy blocks of Irish, and hoisting heavy stones in cozy wooden cabins. It was arguably the most atmospheric WSM of all time. Certainly, it was up there as the coldest show on record.
Out matching all of the events was the sledge push. Athletes pushed heavy sledges, loaded with passengers, in the snow for time. Two things mark this event as just wonderful. First is Ab Wolders fall right at the finish line, and second is the fact that none of the athletes tried to slow the sledges down. Instead, the strongmen absolutely launched the sledges (and the passengers) into the snowbanks.
Attempting to win his second WSM title, British strongman Geoff Capes won the event with a time of 16.9 seconds. Even better, he managed to do it without injuring a single person.
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The Strongman Sausage Hold
The 1988 WSM was a contest that featured the return of Kazmier to the WSM, an intense rivalry between athletes (Kazmier and Sigmarsson), and enough silliness to make the entire contest entertaining. To the credit of WSM organizers, they attempt to integrate local customs into their shows. This explains why a Hungarian sausage hold was incorporated into the 1988 Budapest Games.
Athletes were required to hold a bar — weighed down by 56 pounds of local salami — at shoulder height with straight arms. This entire contest revolved around Kazmier versus Sigmarsson. Throughout the show, the two traded barbs, and many have cited it as Kaz’s most intense showing ever.
This was shown in the sausage hold event when referee David Webster disqualified Kaz for not keeping his arms straight. Much like the Playgirl squat, Kazmier approached even the strangest situations with an air of solemnity. British strongman Jamie Reeves won the forward hold event, and Sigmarsson finished as that year’s champion.
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Power & Pole Pushing
Much like the sumo wrestling event held in 1982, the 1994 WSM Pole Push was an odd combination of sport, strength, and skill. The contest itself is best remembered for the close competition between Iceland’s Magnús Ver Magnússon and Austrian strongman Manfred Hoeberl. Magnús had finished second in the two previous WSM competitions but managed to do enough to secure his second of four total titles (1991, 1994-96).
Magnús beat Manfred by a single point in a nail-biting finish to the contest. What also made the contest notable was the Pole Push. In Sun City, South Africa, contestants both took hold of the same large wooden pole and, through force alone, pushed their opponents out of the competition arena. Unlike the sumo event, this was a far more competitive event. The only surprise, given the athlete’s intensity, was that there weren’t more injuries.
Full credit must be given to Finland’s Riku Kiri, who managed to defeat the competition in a grueling knockout format.
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Of Muscles and Murderball
Pole pushing at the 1994 WSM showcased just how entertaining feats of strength and physicality could be when strongmen faced off against one another. Hopes were high then that the 1995 contest would have an equally entertaining contest. This year was also all about Magnús, who managed to secure his second consecutive and third overall WSM title.
The 1995 WSM saw the first and only event featuring the “Murderball.” Filled with 100 gallons of water, the Murderball was a large globe that WSM contestants were forced to push against in the hope of forcing the ball into their opponent’s half. Done on the sand, the event could legitimately be one of the most tiring events athletes have ever faced.
That Murderball never returned makes Flemming Rasmussen, the Danish strongman, the undisputed champion.
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In the past two decades, the professionalization of strength sports has meant that circus-style strength events have become rarer and rarer. While this is perhaps a better thing for the athlete’s welfare, it means that we need to cherish the early WSM contests.
In these contests, the sport was forged, and within these contests, some of the strongest men in the world were forced to cast aside their egos and dive headfirst into the weird and wonderful.
Featured image: @theworldsstrongestman on Instagram