1977 and the birth of the World’s Strongest Man

Who is the strongest man in the World? Ever since man began to lift heavy objects for fun, there has been an insatiable desire to know who is the strongest.

It was this desire that led to the creation of the World’s Strongest Man (WSM) Competition in 1977, a yearly event that has since become an industry in it’s own right.

Today we look at the creation and execution of the first ever WSM event, a competition that saw bodybuilders carry fridges, Olympic Weightlifters out lift power lifters and the four finalists battle it out in a tug of war competition.

Humble Beginnings

The concept behind the 1977 WSM or World’s Strongest Men, as it was originally known, can be traced to David Webster and Douglas Edmunds. Both Scottish, the two men were well known within the sporting world. Webster had made a name for himself as an enthusiastic and able organizer through his involvement in the Scottish Highland Games whilst Edmunds had been a formidable athlete in the shot put, discus and caber.

Together the two men managed to convince CBS, the American TV Network that a competition pitting strong men against one another would not only be entertaining, but profitable.

There was just one problem. Back in the 1970s, the concept of a Strongman competitor was an alien idea. Sure powerlifting had been around for decades but an athlete solely specialized in strongmen events had not yet come.

Thus, the 1977 event would not feature professional strongmen but rather a hodegpodge combination of Football Players, Track Athletes, Bodybuilders and Olympic Weightlifters decking it out for the prize at Universal Studios in California.

That’s not to say the competition wasn’t intense.

The Competitors Invited:

1. Bruce Wilhelm

Bio

Born in 1945, by 1977 Wilhelm was renowned for his athleticism. The 6’3″, 326 pound behemoth had been a wrestler (not the WWE kind!) of some repute before embarking on a highly successful shot put and Olympic Weightlifting.

By 1977 Wilhelm had been the US AAU Superheavyweight Weightlifting Champion twice, come 5th in Weightlifting at the 1976 Olympics and had consistently ranked in the top ten of the US Men’s Shot Put rankings. He was known to Back Squat over 700 pounds for reps. Needless to say, he was one of the favorites.

2. Bob Young

Bio

Older brother of renowned powerlifting champion Doug Young, Bob forged an athletic career in his own right, spending the majority of his time as a Guard with the Cardinals. Bob and his fellow offensive linesman are credited with introducing modern weight training into the training regimes for NFL Teams. Unsurprisingly given the strength of his younger brother, it’s said that Bob could comfortable squat over 500 pounds and deadlift over 800.

In 1977, Bob was 35 years old and had amassed a serious bulk of 280pounds on his 6’1″ frame.

3. Ken Patera

Bio

By 1977 Ken Patera was known to the American public for his exploits in both professional wrestling and as an Olympic Weightlifter. He was the first American to clean and jerk over 500 pounds and was a 4 time US National Weightlifting Champion.

For wrestling fans he was a heel in the WWF whose Bear Hug was damn near impossible to escape from. For weightlifting afficionados he was the man who could press 400 pounds behind his neck and deadlift over 800 pounds with ease.

He lined out for the WSM, aged 34 and weighing over 280 pounds.

4. Lou Ferrigno

Bio

Don’t make him angry…you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry!!!

Although by 1977 Lou Ferrigno was better known as the Incredible Hulk to the majority of US audiences, for bodybuilding fans he was the prodigy from Pumping Iron, seeking to take Arnold’s crown. Only 25 when he competed in WSM, Ferrigno boasted an impressive physique with strength to boot.

5. Franco Columbu

Bio

Where to begin?

Franco was a highly decorated bodybuilder and former Italian boxer. More than a chiseled physique, Franco was known for performing impressive feats of strength up as blowing up hot water bottles, lifting up cars up their bumpers and bending half-inch iron bars in his mouth. Sadly the 1977 WSM would mark the beginning of the end for the 5’5″ bodybuilder, something we’ll go into later.

6. Jon Cole

Bio
By 1977 Jon Cole had been AAU National Powerlifting Champion three times, been AAU Discus Champion and had squatted over 900 pounds raw.

A marvellous powerlifter, the 5’11” strongman was highly tipped for the WSM.

7. Mike Dayton

Bio
Dayton was the wildcard for the 1977 WSM. A former Hollywood stuntman turned Kung Fu Master, the 1976. Mr. America could tear a nickel in half, bend pennies and break handcuffs with ease. He was the closest thing to the early 1900s vaudeville strongman out of the 1977 crop.

8. George Frenn

Bio
For nearly twenty years, Frenn competed in the hammer throw, even turning out for the US at the 1972 Olympics. He was a six times US Champion and as a powerlifter had squatted over 800 pounds and benched over 500. The man from San Fernando was strong.

The Events:
Given that nowadays the WSM is decided through a series of seemingly bizarre events such as pressing platforms for reps, picking up stones etc., it is little surprise to learn that the 1977 WSM was no different.

1. The Barrel Lift

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Fairly straightforward.

Strictly Clean and Press and barrel filled with water and led shot to arms length. The man who lifts the heaviest wins.

Results?

1st Bruce Wilhelm with 250 lbs; 2nd Franco Columbu, George Frenn, Ken Patera, Bob Young with 200 lbs; everybody lifted the first 150 lbs.

2. The Steel Bar Bend

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Grab a bar and bend it by any means necessary. In the case of the 1977 WSM competitors chose to bend the bar using their head and neck. Not the safest of techniques but it got the job done.

Results?

1st Lou Ferrigno (bend 24.5″ of each other); 2nd Franco Columbu; 3rd John Cole; 4th Bruce Wilhelm

3. The Wrist Roller

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A hugely entertaining event (IMHO), the wrist roller saw competitors attempt to roll a stack of plates up for a height in the quickest time possible.

Result?

1st Mike Dayton; 2nd Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu; 4th Ken Patera

4. The Wheelbarrow Race

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The first hiccup of the tournament occurred during the Wheelbarrow Race when Bob Young collided with Ken Patera (pictured above) hence costing him second place. But he regained it after Ferrigno was disqualified. Bruce Wilhelm was the winner again.

Few could blame Young however as the event had required competitors to run 40 yards as fast as possible with a wheelbarrow weighing over 700 pounds. Doesn’t exactly scream controlled does it?

Results?

1st Bruce Wilhelm; 2nd Ken Patera; 3rd John Cole;  Franco Columbu

5. The Tyre Toss

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Similar to the discus, competitors were required to throw the tire as far as possible, a hugely technical, albeit difficult thing to do.

Results?

1st Bruce Wilhelm; 2nd Ken Patera; 3rd John Cole;  Franco Columbu

The Tram Pull

The tram pull appears after 1 min 15 secs in the above video.

Strapped to a train weighing over 6000 pounds, competitors were required to run, or is it crawl (?), to the finish line in the quickest time possible.

Results?

1st Bruce Wilhelm; 2nd Bob Young; 3rd Ken Patera; 4th Mike Dayton

Deadlift

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Competitors were required to deadlift a car by the bumper. Weight would progressively be added until there was a winner. Despite Franco’s strong performance, Ferrigno eventually emerged the winner with a 2684lbs deadlift.

Results?

1st Lou Ferrigno 2684 lbs; 2nd John Cole; 3rd Bob Young, Bruce Wilhelm, Mike Dayton, Franco Columbu
**George Frenn got injured at the beginning of the event got to withdraw from the entire competition.

The Girls Squat Lift.

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Competitors would squat it out on a bar holding a female in a cage at each end. An odd albeit entertaining take on your traditional squat.

Results?

1st Bob Young; 2nd Franco Columbu, John Cole; 4th Bruce Wilhelm
**Mike Dayton passed on competing in the event.

Fridge Race

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This event has gained notoriety amongst WSM fans for the fact that during the Fridge Race, Franco Columbu broke his leg trying to complete the 40 yard race whilst carrying a fridge weighing over 400 pounds.

Results?

1st Bruce Wilhelm 17,2 seconds; 2nd Mike Dayton; 3rd Bob Young; 4th Ken Patera
**Franco Columbu dislocated his leg during the event and withdrew from the competition

Tug-of-War

What could be a greater test of strength than a good old fashion tug of war?

In the final event of the 1977 WSM, the four finalists (Bruce Wilhelm, Bob Young, Ken Patera and Lou Ferrigno) battled it out. The event has since become a must for Strongman events all around the World.

Results?

1st Bruce Wilhelm; 2rd Bob Young, Ken Patera; 4th Lou Ferrigno

And the winner is…

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Bruce Wilhelm by a significant amount!

# Name Nationality Pts
1 Bruce Wilhelm United States USA 63.25
2 Bob Young United States USA 43.25
3 Ken Patera United States USA 34
4 Lou Ferrigno United States USA 27.5
5 Franco Columbu Italy Italy 22.25
6 Jon Cole United States USA 21.5
7 Mike Dayton United States USA 19.25
8 George Frenn United States USA 10

It was a grueling event for all involved, and indeed some went through more than others. But at the end of the day, there were few complaints when Bruce Wilhelm was crowned World’s Strongest Man…

Well apart from maybe Wilhelm. Because Bruce was still competing as an amateur athlete at that time, the decision was taken not to award the winner the $20,000 purse until the end of his amateur career, lest his status be revoked. Needless to say when Bruce retired a few years later the Prize money was greatly appreciated.

Summing up

Compared to today’s WSM with highly specialized Strongmen, the 1977 games may come across as amateurish but such criticism is completely besides the point.

The ’77 games were the first time something like this had been done, and although the irony of holding a World’s Strongest Men competition and only inviting US based competitors wasn’t lost on those outside the US, the games helped kick start the worldwide phenomena that is watched by millions of fans today. Injuries aside, the ’77 games can only be viewed as a success.

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