Who is the most underrated strongman of all time? It’s a tricky question to answer — and it’s one of taste and personal preference. Viable contenders range from World’s Strongest Man (WSM) winners like Jouko Ahola to icons like Mikhail Koklyaev, who came close but never took the title.
Well, here’s an answer: Mariusz Pudzianowski is the most underrated strongman of all time. Some may read this statement as controversial, but Pudzianowski — a five-time World Strongest Man winner who competed in the era of legendary athlete Žydrūnas Savickas — tends to have an understated reputation compared to his achievements.
Pudzianowski is a man who won:
- 5 World’s Strongest Man Titles
- 16 Strongman Grand Prix Titles
- 6 Europe’s Strongest Man Titles
- 7 Poland’s Strongest Man Titles
- 3 World’s Strongest Team Titles
- 2 World Strongman Cup Titles
- 1 World Strongman Challenge
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Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Pudzianowski’s athletic resume also includes a career in mixed martial arts — his record is 16-7 in the KSM (Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki) league — but that’s a story for a different day. While he’s not the strongest man to ever compete in WSM, Pudzianowski’s achievements in the sport are downright staggering. What follows is a look at the man behind the records and, more importantly, why his reputation, to some, carries less esteem than it deserves.
Early Life and Career
Pudzianowski was born in 1977 — the same year as the inaugural WSM contest — in Biala Rawska, Poland. He entered into a family with many athletic achievements. His father, Wojciech, was an avid weightlifter who became a strength coach. (1)
From a young age, sports and encouragement from his family offered Pudzianowski a space for discipline and focus. (2)
Pudzianowski began entering strength contests at the age of 16. Specifically, he took part in a Polish Bench Press Championship, which he won by pressing 160 kilograms (353 pounds). While Pudzianowski was still interested in other sports like karate, his victory in a strength event did herald things to come. (3)
He did not return to the bench press championship for another two years. At his second appearance, Pudzianowski pressed 205 kilograms (452 pounds), which is all the more incredible given that he was still training in combat sports. However, it was not until he turned 21 that Pudzianowski formally set aside martial arts to focus on strength. (4)
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Entering a local strongman competition, in his words, “got the adventure going.” (5) That was 1999. He won Poland’s Strongest Man and debuted at the 2000 World’s Strongest Man contest. The result was a fourth-place finish behind Magnus Samuelsson, Svend Karlsen, and eventual winner Janne Virtanen.
Things were going well until they weren’t. In 2000 Pudzianowski was sentenced to 19 months in Łowicz prison for assault. He rapidly went from strongman’s rising star to the sport’s forgotten man. He missed both the 2001 WSM and, after spending 19 months incarcerated, few believed he could return as a serious contender.
The Legend Begins
For those who have not seen it, the 2017 documentary Born Strong does a wonderful job of showing what it takes to be a professional strongman. Centered on the Arnold Strongman Classic, the documentary follows the rivalries of Brian Shaw, Eddie Hall, Hafthor Björnsson, and Žydrūnas Savickas. In it, viewers gain insight into how time-consuming the sport of strongman is. It demands total dedication in eating, training, sleeping, and recovery.
Pudzianowski’s first contest after being released from prison was the 2002 Europe’s Strongest Man in Gdynia, Poland. Despite his hampered preparation, he finished first ahead of fellow countryman Jarek Dymek and Norwegian athlete Svend Karlsen. It proved to be a wonderful homecoming for Pudzianowski.
At the 2002 WSM, Pudzianowski finished second behind Hugo Girard in his qualifying heat before blitzing the competition outright. In a competition that featured future legend Žydrūnas “Big Z” Savickas, Pudzianowski was untouchable. He finished first overall, winning the contest eight points ahead of Savickas.
The contest showcased Pudzianowski’s strengths and weaknesses to full effect. He was unbeatable in explosive movements like the tire flip or farmer’s carry, which demand great athleticism. His weaknesses were the static events like the squat for reps and the car deadlift, where he often finished in the middle of the pack. As an all-around athlete, Pudzianowski was sound and 2002 was the beginning of his legend.
The following year in 2003, Pudzianowski continued to dominate. Remarkably, he won the WSM contest a full twenty points ahead of his nearest competitor, Savickas. The WSM was coming under increased scrutiny regarding athletes’ health following the death of American strongmen Johnny Perry and Rick ‘Grizzly’ Brown. (7)
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Specifically, outsiders began to question the sport’s stance on performance-enhancing drugs. In 2004, Pudzianowski finished third at the WSM but was disqualified shortly thereafter for failing to adhere to the organization’s drug policies. (8) He returned the following year, but by that time, the sport had changed.
The Drama of Strength
In 2004, the International Federation of Strength Athletes (IFSA) officially split from the WSM. The two organizations had worked together for nearly a decade, but the IFSA acquired new benefactors and began hosting its own World Championships.
The split was devastating for fans of the sport as it fractured the talent pool. Athletes aligned with the IFSA did not compete in the WSM and vice versa. Where Pudzianowski chose to remain with the WSM, Savickas stayed with the IFSA. This split continued until 2009, when the WSM once more welcomed all athletes back into the fold. (9)
Due to the split, fans will often raise question marks over Pudzianowski’s career. From 2005 to 2009, Pudzianowski won three WSM titles (2005, 2007, 2008) and finished second in two (2006, 2009).
To Pudzianowski’s credit, he did compete in the Arnold Strongman Classic three times (2003, 2004, 2006) but never finished higher than fourth. The Arnold Strongman Classic (ASC) was designed differently than the WSM. Where the WSM prioritized aerobic and muscular strength, the ASC events focused more on raw strength and facilitating enormous feats of strength.
Pudzianowski’s advantage as a competitor lay more in his athleticism, and his mid-card performances at the ASC reflect this. Savickas won the Arnold from 2003 to 2008 and the IFSA Strongman Worlds in 2005 and 2006, which encourage arguments against Pudzianowski’s claim as the world’s strongest man.
The Best in the World?
The “lost years” of WSM nevertheless brought some fantastic moments. Pudzianowski won the 2005 contest with ease. In 2006, however, he had an incredible rivalry with American strongman Phil Pfister. Pudzianowski was initially in first following strong performances in the deadlift and the power stairs.
In one of the most memorable comebacks in all of strongman, Pfister began to rise the rankings through some incredible performances in the overhead stones and the Fingal Fingers. The two men were neck and neck — Pfister even finished 12 centimeters ahead of Pudzianowski in the truck pull.
In the final event, the Atlas Stones, Pfister finished a fraction ahead of Pudzianowski to become the first American to win the WSM since 1982 and the first American to win the contest outside of the United States. Pudzianowski walked away in disgust as Pfister celebrated.
The following year, Pudzianowski won his fourth WSM title. This time there was no doubting his ability. He finished five points ahead of runner-up Sebastian Wenta. While the contest did not feature the excitement of the previous year, it was a strong indication of Pudzianowski’s prowess.
2008, Pudzianowski’s final WSM victory, was likely his most impressive victory. It was here that Pudzianowski came from behind to win dramatically. After three events, American strongman Derek Poundstone was in the lead. Pudzianowski tied in the deadlift event first and then won the plane pull to close in on Poundstone’s lead. In the final event, the Atlas Stones, the two men were neck and neck. Poundstone dropped the final stone, Pudzianowski capitalized and clinched his final WSM title.
In many ways, it was fitting that Pudzianowski won his final WSM title in 2008. That was the same year that the WSM began its Hall of Fame — Pudzianowski’s later inclusion in the Hall of Fame was a foregone conclusion. (10)
Pudzianowski competed once more in 2009 when the split between WSM and IFSA was finally resolved. Promising to invite every strongman, regardless of affiliation, the 2009 WSM finally saw the return of Savickas to the contest. In the interim, Big Z had won several IFSA and Arnold titles. 2009 pitted Savickas against Pudzianowski, and it was Pudzianowski who emerged second best.
Having finished runner-up, Pudzianowski announced his retirement from the sport to focus on his mixed martial arts career, which he remains active in to this day. Pudzianowski has competed in 24 fights with a record of 16 wins, seven losses, and one no contest, a testament to his extraordinary athleticism. (11)
A Strongman in Summary
Is Mariusz Pudzianowski the greatest strongman of all time? He may not be the strongest athlete ever to compete, but he is the most dominant in the context of the World’s Strongest Man competition. While Savickas is likely the most impressive athlete in the sport’s history, Pudzianowski deserves a place in the pantheon of strength greats.
What he may have lacked in raw strength or endurance (relatively speaking), Pudzianowski made up for by being well-rounded. He was explosive, athletic, determined, and strong as hell throughout his career.
The sport of strongman has experienced tremendous growth in both popularity and performances over the last decade, thanks in no small part to athletes like Savickas, Hall, and the Stoltman brothers. More prominent competition has somewhat allayed Pudzianowski in the conversation of strength greats. Still, in the sport of strongman, you can only beat what’s in front of you — and in Pudzianowski’s case, he did that five times. The only man to do so in WSM history.
- ‘Mariusz Pudzianowski, POL: Strongman,’ Irish Strength Association. https://irishstrongman.com/mariusz-pudzianowski/
- Karim Zidan, ‘Fighting in the Shadows of the World’s Strongest Man,’ Bloody Elbow. https://www.bloodyelbow.com/2015/11/23/9768576/pudzianowski-mma-worlds-strongest-man
- ‘Strongest Man Deaths Place BBC Under Fire,’ The Scotsman, https://www.scotsman.com/sport/strongest-man-deaths-place-bbc-under-fire-2477296
- Randall Strossen, ‘Mariusz Pudzianowski Disqualified from 2004 World’s Strongest Man Contest,’ Iron Mind. https://ironmind.com/news/mariusz-pudzianowski-disqualified-from-2004-worlds-strongest-man-contest
- M. Andrew Holowchak, ‘Testing for the World’s Strongest Man,’ Iron Game History, 11.2 (2010): 4-13.
- ‘Mariusz Pudzianowski,’ The World Strongest Man, https://www.theworldsstrongestman.com/hall-of-fame/
- ‘Mariusz Pudzianowski,’ Sherdog. https://www.sherdog.com/fighter/Mariusz-Pudzianowski-57308
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